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Strong Artists Have Strong Perspectives

Socrates famously declared “An unexamined life is not worth living”.

A tad melodramatic? Perhaps. Yet, his admonition to “Know thyself” is beneficial to our daily lives, and, more to the point of this article, our artistry. Developing your toolkit for analysis and critique will make you a better musician.

When we judge art, we are doing so subjectively, using our own perception to analyze the quality and value of a work. There is no universal objective way to do so. In fact, subjectivity is often a lever people use to devalue others’ beliefs:

“I actually loved that movie,” you say.

“Well, that’s your opinion,” that prat at work replies.

What is fundamental for a developing artist to understand is that subjectivity is the most concrete ground we will ever have to stand on. Do you think it took conviction for Jackson Pollack to splatter paint on canvas in the fine art world, or for Andrew Lloyd Webber to write a musical entirely about cats? Whether you enjoy them or not, to deny their impact on their respective art communities is objectively insane.

I’ve heard and read many great jazz musicians swearing that the only way to get good at jazz is to ear transcribe as part of your regular practice. I tried it for many years, but never particularly enjoyed it. I avoided the practice, which made me feel guilty and like I was a lazy musician. A few years ago, I was attending a clinic with Julian Lage and someone in the audience asked him about transposing, and he very casually stated he didn’t do it much, just didn’t have the inclination to. I was shocked, listening to this brilliant and successful musician tell an auditorium full of people that he didn’t do the one thing that you HAD to do. He later demonstrated that he liked to improvise along with records he enjoyed, that way he was achieving an approximation of other musicians’ sound and feel even though he wasn’t learning their ideas note for note. Did that mean that anyone’s opinion was wrong or right in this scenario? I think not, only that different artists were able to use their unique perspective and practices to create a similar outcome. Lage’s lack of interest in transcribing didn’t cause him to stop practice, or to internalize negative feelings towards himself and his musicianship. Instead, he found a different method that worked for him, and that he enjoyed, and continued working.

This is the crux of my point; the strength of your conviction is what will motivate you to action. And what will give you conviction? Developing a strong perspective. Weak opinions will not move you to practice or create music, and what practice and music you do craft will suffer for lack of viewpoint.

It’s telling that there exists a stereotype of the over-the-top artist flinging out controversial opinions haphazardly. Of course, this is far from every artist, but they certainly do exist. Watch an old Bob Dylan interview, read Salvador Dali’s book “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”, or read Miles Davis’s autobiography. Here are some people with things to say. I’m not saying I agree with all of their sentiments, but I think it no coincidence that many of these giants of their genres are extremely opinionated people.

A quick caveat to this is that I don’t encourage you to start flippantly firing off controversial opinions to everyone in earshot. I won’t be responsible for any damage to your social life. It’s important that you respect other people’s opinions on art even when you disagree with them. Friendly discourse on artistic disagreements is an excellent method for sharpening your perspective, whether you use it to strengthen your own reasoning for your decisions or whether you hear a counter perspective that puts things in a different light.

So what are some ways you can strengthen your perspective? Investing time into better understanding the arts you enjoy. This doesn’t have to be made into a herculean task, a simple article or youtube video on what makes great movies, or how to identify themes in books. Take the genres you are already consuming for entertainment and learn how a critic might analyze them. These sort of ideas and concepts won’t only help you get more enjoyment out of the things you are already doing, many of these ideas can be implemented into your own art. An anecdotal example for me is the movie The Godfather. I’ve always loved the film but it wasn’t until I saw a film critic discussing how powerful the pacing was in one of the scenes that I was able to apply this concept to other films I loved and realized that pacing was a huge part of what made me enjoy a film or not. I was much more capable of recognizing pacing in music then, and, in turn, was able to implement pacing into the music I wrote in ways that built intensity or created a sense of longing in my music.

A great way to build on this idea is to keep a small journal where you can take quick notes after you interact with a piece of art that has an impact on you. If you liked it, take some quick notes on what you thought the strong points were, if you hated it then figure out what elements drove you nuts. Was it a collection of many small things that moved you, or one big glaring idea that hammered you over the head. The better you get at this process the more multi-dimensional approach you will be able to apply to your own music.

One of the strongest ways to build perspective is to collaborate with others on art projects. Getting insight into others’ methodology and beliefs can expand your creativity exponentially. It is also the only way you will truly learn how comfortable you are compromising in certain areas, and where those lines are for you. Not being precious and taking feedback from others’ opinions that you respect can have a massive impact on the quality of your output. It can be a total blast as well, which is one of the greatest motivators.

Some other things that you can do that are helpful; find some critics you enjoy and consume their content. Ask yourself whether you agree or disagree with their assessment, ask yourself why either is the case. Learn another art form, or sport for fun. Constantly ask yourself how the training processes, or ideas from one can be applied to the other. I am among the least athletic people, but I’ve read sports training books and have found many useful ideas for guitar practice in their corpus. It’s good to remember that something like sports has millions of dollars being spent annually to optimize through coordinated research and implementation, something that isn’t necessarily true for learning musical instruments. Investigating philosophy is another great way to gain perspective, essentially gaining insight on how great thinkers learn to look at things can offer you new perspectives on how to view your art.

All this said, I believe it’s self-evident that a person that has a multi-dimensional understanding and strong opinions on art will ultimately end up with a more potent product in the act of creation. Just like a seasoned builder who understands how to construct a home that will positively affect its inhabitants’ lives, a considerate musician will know how to implement harmony, melody, dissonance, dynamics, and all the other considerations of music to craft pieces with intention and effect. You, as a person, are the strongest tool you will ever have when it comes to creative music making. By improving yourself, your understanding of art, expanding your perspective, building new perspective, and strengthening your convictions you will create better art.

So please, by all means, feel free to treat your subjective opinions as axiomatic truths. Do not doubt your beliefs and intuitions when it comes to making art. Even if your favorite musicians don’t agree with your approach, don’t back down. They’ve done their part, this is your story. The best trick to all of this? You are completely allowed to change your mind as you see fit. Yesterday Ionian being the best sounding scale over the I chord was fundamental truth of the universe, today Lydian sounds better. No apology necessary. No one is going to hold your feet to the fire over this, and even if they tried it will be fun to leave them scratching their head.

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