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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Monday, December 27, 2010

Vulnerability and Connection In Music

I recently watched a TED talk by researcher/novelist/speaker Brene Brown on the subject of "The Power of Vulnerability". I found this talk very inspiring, and immediately thought of how these ideas could be applied in all sorts of situations.  These situations included more than just the area of interpersonal relationships (although I did immediately e-mail the link to my girlfriend Bryn). One really exciting thought was about how these ideas could apply to making music, and art in general.

Maybe I should back up here and tell you the gist of what the video is about.  Dr. Brown is a researcher who has spent over a decade collecting peoples' personal stories about connection, and then analyzing them to understand the reasons why human beings do or do not feel connection.  What she found was that one of the biggest reasons we do not feel connection is shame, which she defined as the fear of disconnection. People who do have a strong sense of connection tend to be those who do not feel shame as intensely because they have an intrinsic belief that they are worthy of love and belonging. Furthermore, she goes on to say that they have three other things: courage (which she defines as the ability to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart), compassion (for themselves and others), and connection as a result of authenticity (that is, they naturally act in a way that reveals their true self, which inspires others to do the same, resulting in the opportunity for connection).

Isn't connection exactly what we as musicians - or as artists - are striving for?  But it is easy to feel shame - the fear of disconnection - in relation to music or art-making.  Unfortunately, this fear leads to exactly what we are afraid of - making bad art.  For example, last week I visited New York City and sat in at the jam session at Smalls. I was very nervous to play in a jam session in New York for the first time, and the host gave me some very intimidating vibes before allowing me to play, so I was feeling a lot of "fear of disconnection" while I was playing - basically the fear that I wouldn't be accepted by the other musicians in the room.  Consequently, when it came time for me to solo, I had virtually no interest in saying anything profound, I just wanted to get through it without anyone thinking that I didn't deserve to be up there. I didn't make any attempt at developing my musical ideas, my hands shook, I think I may have lost the form... it was doubtlessly not a high point in the history of music, and may have even ended up making the other musicians think exactly what I didn't want them to.

I think this sort of thing happens all the time with musicians - fear getting in the way by causing bad musical decisions, difficulty focusing, etc. (I also find this "fear of disconnection" a hurdle while composing.) But the other side is that I think if a musician could come to terms with their fears, they might be able to achieve that "connection through authenticity" that Dr. Brown was talking about, except with their audience.  Not only would they make better musical decisions and be able to focus better, if they were able to convince the audience somehow - perhaps through their music and they way they acted - that they were presenting their real self in an unafraid way, I think that would likely result in some powerful musical experiences. I like this idea because it makes the job of making music seem very meaningful, since it would mean making good music involves developing and sharing skills (energies? vibes?) that are important to all aspects of human activity, not just music.

Anyway, check out the video, and I'd love to hear your comments!

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Friday, November 19, 2010

On Walking and Creativity

Sketches of Beethoven strolling in
the streets of Vienna
In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp describes the roll of walks in Beethoven's creative process: "Although he was not physically fit, Beethoven would start each day with the same ritual: a morning walk during which he would scribble into a pocket sketchbook the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head."

Recently I've discovered walking myself. I mean, I've always walked, but usually only when it was completely unavoidable. Now I'm walking to stimulate my creativity. When I'm stuck for an idea, I'll grab my coat, a pen, and a large notepad, and go for a walk - so far I have always returned with the a few sheets covered in scribbled ideas. Recently I've been composing longer, through-composed works, so composing has become a bit more about planning and conceptualizing, which is work I can do without necessarily having an instrument nearby. However, I think walking could help with any creative endeavor. Rather than sitting in my room for hours while the walls slowly close in on me, walking helps change the scenery and stimulate my mind. Going for walks has come to seem so crucial to my creative process that the fear that I'll accidentally chop my fingers off and be unable to play bass has almost been supplanted by a new fear that I'll somehow destroy my legs and be unable to walk.

As proof of the effectiveness of walks in stimulating creativity, the following is a list in high praise of the virtues of walks, all gleamed from notes jotted down whilst meandering around myneighborhood on foot.

  • Walking reduces the pressure to come up with an idea right away - if you don't have an idea, just enjoy the walk! In fact, even if I didn't come up with a single idea, I think I would be much less upset than if I accomplished the same while sitting in front of a computer. At least while walking I gain fresh air, exercise, enjoyment, and knowledge of my neighbourhood.
  • By the same token, walking encourages one to think critically about the ideas you come up with, and to come up with multiple ideas. I have felt like I had come up with a good enough idea during a walk, only to come up with an even better idea while returning home. Often the first ideas we come up with are not the most creative; it is with the second, tenth, or fiftieth idea that we really begin to explore possibilities. When you're sitting in front of your computer or manuscript paper, there can be a strong temptation to charge ahead with the first idea you come up with.
  • Walking gets the heart and lungs working, which stimulates the flow of oxygen to the brain. I'm starting to feel it is very important to get the body moving if one wants to get ideas flowing.
  • Walking helps me to be present, which I think is vital to creativity. In order to walk safely, I have to take notice of my surroundings and what is happening in present moment. Often in my room I can become burdened with worries and anxieties. Walking is soothing.
  • While walking, you can get inspiration from the things you encounter. Messiaen transcribed bird calls, and Beethoven apparently once took inspiration for a melody from the sound of a stream. Here in Toronto the setting is a bit more urban, but there are still plenty of interesting things.
  • In a way, a walk is itself a metaphor for the creative process - each step is a creative decision, which then leads to the next descision, and so on, until you've created a walk. I already mentioned this quote in a comment on my previous post on composer's block: "improvisation is the courage to put one note in front of the other". When I'm walking, I try to make my walk a creative act - I walk different directions each time, and I try to make adventurous decisions - walking down alleys or down any paths that might look inviting.
In conclusion: huzzah for walks!

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Consistency, Winning Races, Zen, and Seinfeld Calendars

It's a cliche for teachers to emphasize it to their students: practice a bit every day. Fifteen minutes a day is better than two hours once a week. Slow and steady wins the race.  Consistency. 

Despite this, it wasn't until I started keeping track of and analyzing my own practice habits that this idea really hit home for me.  Of course I had already fully accepted the idea that if I wanted to get better, I'd have to spend lots of time practising.  (Perhaps you've heard of the 10 000 hour rule?) In order to motivate myself to practice more, I started keeping a spreadsheet of how many minutes I practiced each day.  This was a useful exercise, both motivationally, and in helping me understand my own habits.  The most glaring thing was that if I completely missed a day, it was very likely that this would start a streak - I would miss several days, in one case an entire month!  If you add to that the advantage of allowing your mind to absorb information gradually over several days, rather than in one intense session, it became obvious that focusing on practising at least little bit everyday was the best use of my energy.  Consistency was the key to increasing both my total practice time and effectiveness.

Soon afterwards, I became a cliche myself and started emphasizing consistent practice with my own students.  My new strategy for getting them to practice was to ask them to just take their instrument out of its case and play one note, everyday. If they wanted to do more, they were welcome to, but that was all that was required. I hoped that if I could instill in them this simple habit, they would begin to actually practice on their own.  I even went so far as to read a passage from "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind", one of my favourite books, to one thirteen-year-old student:
If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult, but it is not difficult if you are full of strength and vitality.
Several months later, I heard about  what has come to be called the "Seinfeld Calendar".  According to legend, the key to Seinfeld's success is that he has a giant wall calendar, and if he spends some time working on material, he marks an X on that day with a big red marker.  The idea is to get a chain going, and then "Don't break the chain."

I was smitten.  I enthusiastically set up not one, but four "Seinfeld calendars" - for practising bass, for composing, for exercising, and for meditating.  There are even more things I would love to have calendars for - practicing guitar, ear training, listening to music with full attention, promotion, reading a novel, etc.  However, I rightly guessed that just these four things would already be a lot for me.

My Seinfeld Calendars worked smashingly; for about two months I hardly missed a day on any of the four things.  Composing was a tricky one - it was hard to be creative when I felt I wasn't in the mood.  But I still found it encouraging, because at least I was dealing with "Oh my God, why can't I write anything?" rather than "Oh my God, I haven't even sat down to compose in weeks!"  I feel that with thoughtful, consistent effort, I'm working through the issues that come up; without my calendars, I might not even be getting to the issues. I set the bar pretty low - if I did even a little bit, I got my X. Eventually I decided to make the system more complicated - a black X if I did even a little bit, a blue X if I did a certain amount - for example, 45 minutes of practising or 20 minutes of meditation.  And a unicorn sticker if I got blue X's in all four things.  I was very into getting my X's.

Then one day, trouble came to my productivity paradise.  I was feeling very stressed - despite working hard everyday, it seemed my to-do list had been growing all week.  I was up late trying to get my "X" for composing, and not getting anywhere.  Finally I decided to give myself a break.  Forget about the "X" for a day.  I immediately felt so much better that I knew it was the right decision.  I took the next day off too.

I felt better, but unfortunately it also meant the start of a streak of not composing/exercising/ practising/meditating! And I chose those things because doing them keeps my life working the way I want it to work.  So, now I've realized the pros (increased productivity) and the cons (increaseed pressure) of the whole Seinfeld Calendar thing, and I've made an informed decision to get back on it. I'm loving it all over again. Also, in writing this blog entry, I've realized how self-obsessed the whole thing is. What a journey. I need to get out more.  Maybe I should make a calendar for that too?

P.S. If you want to try a Seinfeld Calendar of your own, but are low on wall space, this guy made a PDF that fits a whole year on one 8.5x11 sheet.

P.P.S. What is your trick for being productive? Would you give the Seinfeld Calendar a try? Leave a comment!

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Circles & Allison Au Quartet Oct 25th

I've written a new tune (which responds to the police brutality and general lack of democracy during the Toronto G20).  Hear it and other new music at this upcoming gig! It is going to be a great show!

Two great bands! Only 5$! Many great beers! Original music!

** Allison Au Quartet ** 8:30-9:45
Allison Au - saxophone
Todd Pentney - keyboard
Jon Maharaj - bass
Ethan Ardelli - drums

** Circles ** 10-11:15
Alex Tait - vocals
Neil Whitford - guitar
Hayoun Lee - keyboard
Matt Roberts - bass
Mack Longpre - drums

Friday, October 8, 2010

Searching For The Panacea For Composer's Block

In Dave Liebman's article on "The Compositional Process" he relates an anecdote that he once asked Stevie Wonder how he wrote so many masterpieces. Stevie's reply was something to the effect of "I write five tunes a day!!" My mother once related a story about a pottery teacher who asked one class to make one perfect pot, and another class to make as many pots as possible. At the end of the week, the first class had not created any pots: each pot they had started had been destroyed somewhere along the way because it had developed a flaw. The other class had made all sorts of pots; perhaps some of them were very poor, but many of them were wonderful.

I've found this philosophy to make a lot of sense in my own creative process; but it also makes it all the more frustrating when I hit the dreaded "composer's block" and seem unable to create anything.  This is the most common scenario: I come up with an idea; I decide it's not good; I get rid of it; I come up with another idea; I decide it's not good either... and I repeat this cycle over and over again for hours or even weeks, getting more and more frustrated.  In a recent bout of this, I even began to think I had tried virtually every possible solution for the problem I was working with. Which lead me to think, half jokingly, that maybe I could find the solution through a process of elimination; all I had to do was record every possible wrong answer, and then whatever was left over would be the right one. So I started a new compositional practice: when something didn't work, I didn't erase it; I'd somehow record possibility I tried, with written notes as to why I each idea didn't work.

I've been doing this for about two weeks now and I have found it very helpful in overcoming composer's block, although not exactly for the reasons I expected.  It seems it helps primarily in two ways:
  1. It helps point out the solution.  For example, recently I was writing a tune, didn't like it, and decided to scrap everything I had written.  The reason I wrote down was "the chord changes seem too random". This made it obvious that when I started again, I should start with the chord changes, and start with some sort of concept behind their interrelationship.  I did this and the process proceeded much more smoothly.
  2. It makes me less emotional about false starts. I didn't realize it, but I think every time I erased an idea that didn't work and had to retrace my steps, I was making the subconscious assumption that "That idea was terrible, I write terrible ideas, I'm never going to write anything good!!" Unfortunately this can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy! I find that when I actually write down what I didn't like about an idea, it becomes much less dramatic. Now my attitude becomes more like: "It isn't that I'm not a good composer; this composition just needs some chord changes with a logical interrelationship to them. The problem was just that I didn't previously recognize that."
Unfortunately this hasn't been a universal panacea for all cases of composer's block, but it certainly has helped.  I've been studying with Andrew Downing as part of my master's degree at U of T, and he has been giving me a lot of composition exercises. I've found that these seem less intimidating, since I'm encouraged to regard them as exercises, and this has also helped to get my creativity flowing.

So, my question to you, Dear Reader, should you be inclined to post a reply, is this: what is your cure for creative block? Do you think the approach I describe here could work for you?

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Hobson's Choice - As Long As There Are Birds

I've recently started a listening journal.  I felt that I didn't spend enough time to music with my full intention.  Sure I hear a lot of music in my day, but how much do I really listen to? I decided to rectify this by carefully listening to music for at least 5 or 10 minutes a day, and keeping a journal of my responses afterwards.  This resulted in me falling in love with music all over again. Some of the music was just so good I felt I had to tell the world. I'll keep making posts whenever this happens, and try to explain why I like the music so much.

Yesterday I listened to "As Long As There Are Birds" by Toronto band Hobson's Choice.  You can download their latest 4-song recording here - payment is by donation.

Hobson's Choice - 4 Songs (2010?) - As Long As There Are Birds

Felicity Williams - voice
Michael Davidson - vibraphone
Rebecca Hennessy - trumpet
Harley Card - guitar and voice

I think this music is really beautiful.  First of all, I love the unique instrumentation. (No bass? Madness!) Already that is a really refreshing sound. I love the lyrics. They are beautifully put, and contain beautiful imagery. Also, as a Buddhist the lyrics relate to some concepts that I've thought a lot about. For example I have this poem stuck on my wall by the Buddhist monk Ikkyu: "I won't die/I'm not going anywhere/I'll be right here/But don't ask me anything/I won't answer".

I love the sound of harmony that pushes traditional tonality but doesn't totally abandon it. The other tracks on this recording also have some harmonically cool lines. Felicitiy's voice is really beautiful. Everyone is getting a beautiful sound actually. I LOVE IT.

Here is a live video of the same track.

HOBSON'S CHOICE - As Long As There Are Birds from Mitch Fillion ( on Vimeo.

Update: check out this post by Felicity on the Hobson's Choice blog. The post has more about the lyrics and how they were written.

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