Pianist Lang Lang playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" on an iPad, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco CA April 19, 2010.
"I think it has to do with what you discuss in your forthcoming book – Young’s willingness to experiment and fail. This fearlessness (and, in Young’s case, stubbornness) has probably allowed him to roam in a much larger field."
"You gotta keep changing....I'd rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way. If that's the price, I'll pay it. I don't give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million. It doesn't make any difference to me. I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence."
"In person, Neil Young is one of the sweetest and most unpretentious rock legends you'll ever meet. But at work, he is one of the most selfish and uncompromising. He yields to no one else's needs or opinions in the service of his deeply personal muse, which has enabled him to create a timeless oeuvre that goes everywhere from heartbreaking acoustic prayers like 'Pardon My Heart' (Zuma) to feedback meltdowns that are like the Norse God of Electricity given its own voice (his recent cover of 'A Day in the Life.')
"The late drummer of Buffalo Springfield, Dewey Martin, once said, 'Neil would give you a look onstage that said, *I might die during this solo -- and I'm going to take you with me!*" I have listened to life-long collaborators of his express their anguish over his canceling tours after all the deals had been worked out; one of these famous acronyms once said to me, 'Neil has been getting up every morning for 40 years knowing he won't have to do anything but exactly what he feels like doing that day.' Yet these musicians remain his biggest fans, in a world full of fans. Neil has one of the most elusive qualities of genius: inscrutability. And it's saved his art from the million traps that killed off the gifts of lesser musicians."
many difficult questions emerge from the surreal life and sad loss of Michael
Jackson. Here's one: What do you do when your greatest success is almost
certainly behind you? A
lot of people have no patience for a question like this. "Oh, I'd love to have his
problems." (For some reason, this line is best said out loud in a female
Cockney accent.) But
for anyone with creative ambition, the emotional aftermath of success is a very
real part of life. If you're lucky enough to have any sort of audience for your
work, it's overwhelmingly likely that one particular piece of work will be a
popular favorite over the rest of your work. It may or may not be your best as
you see it. But because of the timing and the zeitgeist and other unnameable
factors, it will forever be your "biggest work." Elizabeth
Gilbert, author of the mega-hit Eat, Pray, Love, spoke about this quite eloquently at the most recent TED conference. So:
How to live with the possibility that your best work is behind you, or at least
that the public will forever think that your best work is behind you? It
occurs to me that there are two different responses to this problem. Both are
valid, and they're not nearly as mutually exclusive as they appear at first: 1.
Face it. 2.
Deny it. On
the one hand, any creative person has to accept the reality of creative peaks,
and that one
particular peak will always be the peakiest. As Ricky Gervais once said after
the wildly critical success of "The Office": "Something has to be your best
the other hand, it is the compulsion of any creative mind to constantly strive
for something new and fresh; I don't think it is possible to be truly fertile without the conviction that your best work is ahead of you. ___________
So many difficult questions emerge from the surreal life and sad loss of Michael Jackson. Here's one: What do you do when your greatest success is almost certainly behind you?
A lot of people have no patience for a question like this. "Oh, I'd love to have his problems." (For some reason, this line is best said out loud in a female Cockney accent.)
But for anyone with creative ambition, the emotional aftermath of success is a very real part of life. If you're lucky enough to have any sort of audience for your work, it's overwhelmingly likely that one particular piece of work will be a popular favorite over the rest of your work. It may or may not be your best as you see it. But because of the timing and the zeitgeist and other unnameable factors, it will forever be your "biggest work."
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the mega-hit Eat, Pray, Love, spoke about this quite eloquently at the most recent TED conference.
So: How to live with the possibility that your best work is behind you, or at least that the public will forever think that your best work is behind you?
It occurs to me that there are two different responses to this problem. Both are valid, and they're not nearly as mutually exclusive as they appear at first:
1. Face it.
2. Deny it.
On the one hand, any creative person has to accept the reality of creative peaks, and that one particular peak will always be the peakiest. As Ricky Gervais once said after the wildly critical success of "The Office": "Something has to be your best work."
On the other hand, it is the compulsion of any creative mind to constantly strive for something new and fresh; I don't think it is possible to be truly fertile without the conviction that your best work is ahead of you.
I got a chance to see Springsteen the other night, in New Jersey no less, and it was transcendent as always. As Nate Chinen wrote in the New York Times about the same show, "He gave his usual force-of-nature performance." The man is a whisper away from 60 years old and he still rocks the house like no other human being. His shows are an hour shorter than in the old days, but the intensity is still breathtaking. To my mind, it's more difficult to understand his stage energy now than when he was in his 20s or 30s.
It's also mind-bending how Bruce transforms a giant auditorium into a back patio. An 18,000-seat arena seems tiny when he's on stage. I think it's because you can actually feel him connecting with every person in the room. It's a cathartic experience, a celebration of the struggle and sadness of being alive. I used to run away from the comparison of music to religion; but now I think they are often the same thing.
I could go on and on about Springsteen's virtues, but that would be boring. You've heard it all before. It also wouldn't be completely honest, because the truth is that I've come away from the last several tours feeling quite critical of him too. Being in the presence of greatness can have that paradoxical effect: it can raise a person's standards and expectations to such a level that small disappointments become a part of the experience. Some call it being "picky," but really it's just holding certain things you love to a higher standard. I wouldn't want to waste thirty seconds of my life critiquing the production of a Barney episode. But the sublimity of Springsteen invites a passionate and critical assessment. It's so close to perfection that you can't help but notice what's missing.
What's often missing these days, sadly, is the NOW. In this latest whirlaround with the "legendary" E Street Band, Springsteen is waste deep in his fans' nostalgia. He spends an extraordinary amount of energy trying to live up to the Legend of Bruce -- striking the expected poses, playing the expected tunes, giving the audience not just the spirit of what they came for, but the precise letter of it as well.
I'm not saying the man doesn't care about his music. He does, deeply, and it doesn't suffer in these performances. But in his and the band's preening, Springsteen is moving away from the raw and powerful experience of a *Springsteen show* and replacing it with a pitch-perfect template of The Bruce Springsteen Experience.
This may be inevitable. Though still a vital musician -- he's as original as ever in his recent records -- Springsteen recognizes that he has dug a very deep groove in the American psyche. He's a known and revered quantity, and audiences badly want to hear those old songs; they want to see Springsteen leap on the piano. They want Clarence to lean on Bruce's shoulder. They want Steve to share his mic. It's harder to be Bruce Springsteen now than it was thirty years ago. All he had to do then was worry about creating vital music. Now he has to worry about being vital and meeting very specific demands.
I was lucky enough to see Springsteen many times in his prime (from the mid-'70s to the early '80s). Those shows were all-consuming and exhausting. But they also had an organic pace. They would explode out of the gate with two or three roof-shaking numbers, and then we'd all catch our breath. The musicians would tune. Bruce would tell a little story, or send one out to a local fan he'd met the night before. Then another great song, and then another breath.
Today's shows don't catch a breath. There's no space to talk, or drink, or tune. The pace is relentless, as if taking a few moments here would someone deflate the experience. Even the song requests are incorporated into the show without actually stopping the music -- Springsteen plucks a sign from the audience, shows it to the band, and they storm into it.
This relentlessness strikes me as ironic, because what Springsteen and the fans have come together to relive was actually a very different sort of experience. Back in the day, the band was well-prepped, but each show unrolled in the moment, with plenty of real interaction between the band and the crowd. Bruce was conversational, humble, and willing to let moments of reflection creep into his head and onto the stage.
Taped to the side of my desk is one of my favorite Springsteen remarks: "I cannot promise you everlasting life, but I can promise you life RIGHT NOW." That, to me, is the essence of what Springsteen has been able to deliver all these years. The show I saw the other night was powerful, and spiritual. But it was also staged to the nanosecond. No room for error, no room for reflection, no room for the NOW.
It's easy to be a critic and hard to be an artist. I know Springsteen would be criticized for whatever he does, or doesn't do. I offer these thoughts more out of affection than anything else. Greatness is terribly difficult to achieve, and perhaps even tougher to manage.
 The "legendary" part is now official:
 One nostalgic decision does actually hurt the music: One the giant anthems (about half the show), the band often now features an oppresive melange of five guitars: Bruce, Steve, Nils, Patti, and Soozie. The music usually calls for two, or a carefully arranged three.
 First show: 10/10/1976, Oxford OH.
 Thanks to Dan L. for the ticket and for his thoughts, some of which I've stolen here.
In an earlier post, I referred to evidence from Diana Deutsch and others suggesting that perfect pitch and other extraordinary musical tools are probably available to almost everyone at a very early stage in life. After a while, the window of musical opportunity gradually closes and those who haven't taken advantage have less and less access to a "natural" musicality.
For a compelling listening experience that ends with an emphatic reiteration of this point, listen to the recent "Musical Language" show from public radio's RadioLab. RadioLab is a remarkable program that makes difficult ideas easy to understand and fun to think about.
Glenn Gould had it -- so did Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Horowitz and Sinatra. On the surface, absolute pitch seems like the province of musical geniuses -- the exotic gift that they have and we don't. But the truth about absolute pitch -- and the opposite phenomenon of tone deafness -- is much more interesting, and helps us understand what "musical talent" really is and isn't.
What is Absolute Pitch?
Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to produce and identify a certain musical tone without any reference tone. A person with AP is able to hum middle C or any other note on request, without any prompting from a song or an instrument.
How common is AP?
In strict definitional terms, AP is pretty rare -- somewhere between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 2000 in the general population. But the rare part is the note-naming, not the note reproducing. Many studies have now shown that most people can sing a familiar song in the right key without being given a reference tone, and that virtually everyone who speaks a tonal language such as Mandarin can remember and recall specific pitches. What few people possess is the specific trained ability to link that tone to a named note.
"Our studies tie right in with the idea that we all have this latent absolute pitch ability, but we can't get fully bloomed absolute pitch without early childhood training," says Shepherd College's Laura Bischoff.
"The real puzzle about perfect pitch is not why so few people possess it but rather why most people do not," UC San Diego's Diana Deutsch says. "Everyone has an implicit form of perfect pitch, even though we aren't all able to put a label to notes..They can recognize the note but can't label it. What's learned as a child is the ability to label."
Also, contrary to public assumption, AP is not an all-or-nothing skill. Many have AP in varying degrees, explain Bischoff and University of Rochester's Elizabeth West Marvin.
Is AP a critical ingredient in musical talent?
No. While AP can sometimes be a useful tool for musicians, it is far from essential in helping musicians build the necessary skills or in expressing themselves magnificently. AP is more common among professional musicians than non-musicians, but research shows very clearly that this is not cause-and-effect. Rather, the correlation exists because both are so frequently a product of early (prior to age 6) musical training.
Neither Wagner nor Stravinsky had AP, to name just two. McGill University's Daniel Levitin (author of This Is Your Brain on Music ) does not think AP helps musicians much. What musicians thrive on and must develop to a fine degree, he points out, is relative pitch -- the ability to distinguish between tones. Such relative pitch is available to almost everyone, to be developed to whatever individual degree desired.
"The average person is able to carry a tune almost as proficiently as professional singers. This result is consistent with the idea that singing is a basic skill that develops in the majority of individuals, enabling them to engage in musical activities. In short, singing appears to be as natural as speaking." (Dalla Bella et al, 2007.)
What about "tone deaf" people who can't carry a tune?
So-called "tone deafness" is a little-studied and much misunderstood subject now getting closer attention. Four percent of the general population has tone-deafness (Kalmus and Fry, 1980), which until recently was thought to be mainly a perceptual deficit -- affected individuals supposedly could not hear the difference in tones; they did not have and could not develop relative pitch, and therefore could not appreciate or produce music.
New evidence has forced an entirely new conclusion. Studies now show that virtually everyone can distinguish tonal differences and appreciate music (Dalla Bella et al, 2007). And while a tiny percentage of people truly cannot hear tonal differences due to some specific brain damage, "present findings suggest that tone-deafness may emerge as a pure output disorder....that poor singing may occur in the presence of normal perception. This possibility finds support in a recent study conducted with poor singers who exhibited pitch production deficits but normal pitch discrimination (Bradshaw & McHenry, 2005)."
In other words, the vast majority of people who call themselves tone deaf (or who are mocked as such by friends and spouses) actually hear and perceive music perfectly well, and simply have a problem generating with their vocal chords the tones they hear in their brain.
(Thanks to Jim Berman for asking some great questions and turning me on to some extraordinary music.)
You've probably seen this old anti-abortion canard, popular among "right-to-life" activists:
"How would you advise a mother who is pregnant with her fifth child based on the following facts: Her husband has syphilis. She has tuberculosis. Their first child was born blind. Their second child died. Their third child was born deaf. Their fourth child had tuberculosis. Would you advise the mother for an abortion? Oops! If you said yes, you would have just killed the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven! We cannot know what God has in mind for every individual..."
Aside from hilariously having almost every biographical fact wrong (the writer above is 1 for 7 -- I will give a signed book for the first person to name the single correct fact), this pungent morality tale is riddled with logical and cultural fallacies. But my very favorite thing about the story is its faulty science: it rests on the assumption that geniuses are born pre-destined and self-contained, ready to unfold before our eyes.
The born-genius myth is a common one, easy and fun to write about it. But are we ready to confront the more nuanced truth? In his 2005 biography of Beethoven, Edmund Morris paints a sober portrait of a genius in slow, steady formation. His intensive training started early (before age 5), had dark psychological overtones, and reads almost like a recipe for extraordinary ability. Any modern researcher from today's study of expertise would recognize the elements immediately.
Ludwig's early training was ruthless and exhaustive, driven by his tyrannical father Johann who was disappointed in his own achievements. Starting at age 4 or 5, Johann made his eldest son his special project, forcing him to practice constantly. "Neighbors of the Beethovens," Morris writes, "recall seeing a small boy 'standing on front of the clavier and weeping.' He was so short he had to climb a footstool to reach the keys. If he hesitated, his father beat him. When he was allowed off, it was only to have a violin thrust into his hands, or musical theory drummed into his head. There were few days when he was not flogged, or locked up in the cellar. Johann also deprived him of sleep, waking him at midnight for more hours of practice."
Much like future tennis greats at today's Spartak training camp in Russia, tiny Beethoven was allowed aboslutely no artistic or performance freedom for several years. It was all about technique and discipline -- "the constant suppression of his [improvisational] fantasies by Johann ('More of your fooling around....I'll box your ears')," writes Morris. "Even on the violin, Ludwig's fingers could not help searching out new music. 'Now isn't that beautiful?' he would plead. The response was always, 'You are not to do that yet.'"
"Johann's insistence on his practicing by rote laid the foundations of a formidable technique. Over the next two years...he worked 'prodigiously' to develop [his] facility...Of his own accord, he took extra instruction from organists around town."
Did his god-given talent emerge immediately? Apparently not. More than three years into his training,
at around age 8, a schoolmate later recollected of Beethoven, "Not a sign was to be discovered...of that spark of genius which glowed so brilliantly in him afterwards."
At age 10, he outgrew his father's instruction, and moved up to a more capable mentor. At that point, he was exposed to Bach and taught how to compose variations on a theme. His first attempts were mechanical and uninteresting, later evolving into some awkward attempts at something new. When he was 12, his new mentor bragged in a magazine article that Ludwig had the potential to "become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he begun."
And so it went, steadily, persistently, passionately . . .
From the New York Times, May 28, 1852:
"We remember, in a provincial town, seeing on a temporary stage a tall, lank, wizard-looking being, with long dark hair falling over his shoulders, and an eye and face expressing together the genius and the sensualist, eliciting thunders of applause from a numerous audience for his marvellous performances on the violin, which, in his think transparent, skeleton-like left hand, became at will a one-stringed or a twenty-stringed instrument, rising from its full natural tones to the softness and sweetness of the flageolet, or imitation the tinkling of the harp . . .
"This strange mixture of dross and gold was born at Genoa, the 18th February, 1784. His father, Antonio, and his mother, Teresa, were both dilletanti in music, and were not long in discerning in their youthful son a strong taste for the art they cultivated. To encourage this taste his mother had, or pretended to have, an angelic vision, and in the morning thus spake to him: "My son, thou shalt become a great musician; for an angel, radiant with beauty, appeared to me this night, and has listed to the prayer I made him. I prayed him that thou mayest become the first of violinists, and the angel has promised me it shall be so." From this time the study of the violin became his sole object, and it was not many years before he surprised and delighted the most eminent masters of that instrument with his compositions and performances."
How can we explain the vast differences in musical ability? How can one species produce Paul Simon and William Hung? Are we born with musical talent, or do we develop it? Let's sort through the research:
* Primitive musicality is, without question, built into our DNA
- Two-day old infants show a preference for some music over others (N. Masataka, 1999).
- Nearly all infants babble with melody and intonation (Gardner, 1997, p. 251).
- At 1, children can often match pitch (Kessen, Levine & Peindich, 1978).
- At 1 1/2, children engage in spontaneous song (Kessen, Levine & Peindich, 1978)
- At 2 1/2, children show extended awareness of songs by others (Davidson, 1994, in R. Aiello)
While these early developments can be influenced by outside events, they clearly unfold according to a genetic blueprint.
We cannot say the same for the next phase of development:
* Beyond primitive ability, even basic musical development requires some modicum of encouragement and teaching.
- "Musical development continues beyond the age of 7 or so only in an environment that provides some sort of tutelage." (Gardner, 1997, p. 253; Gardner, 1973; Winner, 1982)
- Absolute ("perfect") pitch is not a genetic accident or random occurrence, but is developed in young childhood under specific external conditions (D. Deutsch, 2004; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993).
Then, to take it to the next level, aspiring musicians need true instruction and a work ethic:
* Advanced musicianship requires methodical training and "deliberate practice"
- "Talent proves of no avail in the absence of thousands of hours of practice distributed over a decade or more, as the youngster gains facility in various first- and second-order musical symbol systems. (Gardner, 1997, p. 256).
- The very best professional musicians practice the most and the smartest compared to the next best group of professional musicians, who in turn practice more and better than the third-best group (Ericsson et al, 1993). Top musicians consistently require about ten years and 10,000 hours of practice to achieve the height of their virtuoso skill-level.
- Among student musicians, the best ones also practice more than the next-best, who practice more and better than the ones who eventually drop out (Sloboda, Davidson, Howe, and Moore, 1996).
- "Deliberate practice" is qualitatively different from ordinary experience. In ordinary experience, an individual is exposed to certain task demands, spends time attaining proficiency at that task and then plateaus, more or less satisfied with his/her level of competence. Under these passive circumstances, more time spent with the same task after the plateau will not significantly increase skill-level. The skill level becomes autonomous and stable. In contrast, under a regime of deliberate practice, the individual is never quite satisfied and is always pushing a little bit beyond his/her capability, actively and incrementally expanding that capability. (Ericsson, 2006, chapter 38).
- Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and theories of innate talent, suggested that individuals pursuing a skill naturally rise to an innate limit of their capability. The work of Ericsson and others suggests that this is nonsense -- that in many if not most cases these limits are not innate but connected to the quantity and quality of training, and to an individual's level of ambition/determination.
* Musical training physically alters the brain. Accomplished musicians have key differences in their brains -- not from birth but as a direct result of training.
- Right-handers not trained in music show typical right-hemisphere processing, while right-handers trained in music show left-hemisphered dominance (Bever & Chiarello, 1974)
- Cortical representations of fingers of the left hands of string players get significantly enlarged compared to non-musicians -- and moreso for those who train earlier in life. (Elbert et al, 1995)
None of this, of course, rules out the possibility of innate talent. What it does do, though, is paint a rich, descriptive picture of musicianship being largely in the realm of development. After a thorough review of the research, Lehmann & Gruber state: "Taken together, it is difficult to obtain clear evidence on the role of innate abilities, despite the fact that giftedness features prominently in everyday discourse. On the other hand, much evidence exists that practice and other environmental factors have a large impact on changes in many variables related to musical performance." (p. 458.)
Can anyone be a great musician? No -- there are all sorts of limitations. Some are severely physically disabled, others intellectually disabled. Others don't have the childhood resources of encouragement and training. Others never develop the intense desire, for whatever reason. There are lots of obstacles out there. The point that I think shines through in all this research is that we need to sweep aside this old notion that most people simply don't have IT. The IT -- the greatness -- is something you acquire, not something you are given or are not given. Some may face too many obstacles to acquire IT but few are born with limitations so severe that the acquisition is inherently impossible.