Just doing

Lots of contradictory thoughts here, so bear with me.

There comes a time when my focus shifts from doing something towards doing that thing well.  When I started composing, I just wrote what sounded good.  I didn’t worry about good or bad, just if I thought it all worked or not.  Then I started Studying.  Then I started trying to Make My Pieces Better.  The focus shifted from composing to Composing Good Music.  After a rather toxic decade of that sort of behavior I am now right back where I started.  Just composing.  When I try too hard, when I focus on Composing, my music loses whatever it is that makes it truly mine.

I find the same holds true with every activity I do.  My first batch of beer was great.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  Then I started Learning and the quality dipped.  Now I sit back and don’t worry about it so much and the beer turns out better than ever.  My recent sewing escapades are starting to exhibit a similar trend.  I made three simple projects and dove into a whole Wonder Woman costume for my daughter.  I just enjoyed Doing it.  Recently I started seeing flaws, learning how to correct them, then focusing too much on the corrections and not on what I was actually doing.

I’ve blogged about this recently. While I have nothing against improvement and striving towards a better whatever, I find it damaging when I lose focus on the greater good.  When we just focus on the improvements, we lose the joy in creating.  The things we make before we know what we are doing were constructed with a sense of joy that we were simply Doing It.  Then we change gears and try to reach some stupid Platonic ideal and cast away the joy that comes from participating in the activity.

I equate this to the golf tactic of asking your opponent if he/she inhales or exhales on their backswing.  Then the golfer thinks about that minutia and not on the swing.  The golfer forgets the saying of Basho: “A flute with no holes is not a flute.  A doughnut with no holes is a danish.”

Be the ball.

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  1. Posted July 3, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    I generally hate making “black and white” polarities of things, but I’ve encountered two types of artists: product-oriented and process-oriented. Most are neither completely in one category, but I haven’t met anyone who isn’t at least a little more of one than the other — it’s very hard to balance 50/50. For me at least, I’ve had to choose which is more important to me, making a really good product or loving every minute of the process. I couldn’t have it both ways. I almost quit composing once because it was so hard for me. But I decided that it was worth braving the difficult and tedious parts of the process to make a product that I’m truly proud of and think is great.

    But that’s the rub — if one decides that it’s more important to them to make a great product, they have to deal with the fact that being that critical is not always fun. However, if one decides that the process is more important, than they really have to remove their egos and cast away qualitative judgment once the piece is finished. Once the baby is born, that’s it, it’s done.

    Like I said, it’s never really one or the other, but I haven’t found that it’s 50/50 either. The best you can do is 60/40, and you have to choose very carefully where that 60 is.

  2. David D. McIntire
    Posted July 4, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    This explains why I won’t play golf with you.

    I think part of the issue is one of ego, and when we can nudge our ego out of the way, then wonderful things can happen. I’m not sure I identify with Jacob’s “process vs. product” dynamic, because for much of my work, the process and product are the same. But I do take great pleasure in discovering the process for each new piece.

    An interviewer asked Glenn Gould about his singing while he played the
    piano: What function does it serve? Gould replied: “That’s very
    difficult, and it’s one of those centipedal questions–your know,
    Schoenberg once said that he would not willingly be asked by any of
    his composition students exactly why such and such a process served
    him well, because the question made him feel like that centipede who
    was asked in which order it moved its hundred legs and afterwards he
    could move no legs at all–there’s something impotence-making about that
    question. I’m rather afraid of it.”

    I think many of us go through a “centipedal” phase, where we overthink our actions, not trusting our innate musical instincts.

  3. Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    You might like Paula Scher’s TED talk in a similar vein:


  4. Posted July 6, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    One thing that helps me is to draw a definite finish line. It might be a certain number of measures or the completion of a certain series of gestures – but at some point the piece has to be considered complete. I have been trying to write 100 measures per week for posting on ImprovFriday and some weeks it goes very easily and some weeks no matter what I do the piece seems immune to improvement. But the deadline helps me say ‘finis’ and I can move on.

    Not every piece has been a gem – far from it – but I find I have steadily improved and have learned to put greater trust in my instincts and what I hear in the music. I notate everything but I suppose what I really have is a bunch of sketches. At some calm and collected moment I will go back through them, pick out the best, and perhaps expand them into something formal.

    But the idea that every week I will get another chance to hit a home run keeps me from dwelling too much on whatever shortcomings were in my previous work.

    We should, IMHO, try to emulate Bach – in Leipzig he wrote 300 measures a week, made all the parts, rehearsed and then performed the piece. I believe at least part of his brilliance was simply “Just Do It”.

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