Monday, January 28, 2019

Tuning Slide 4.28- On Being a Student

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

You are always a student, never a master. You have to keep moving forward.
— Conrad Hall

Yes, I missed last week’s post. As has been said by a number of people including both John Lennon and myself, “Life is what happens when you are making plans to do other things.” I had a month of that from mid-December to mid-January. I had planned ahead and had a number of posts ready to publish, but I just couldn’t get to that one last one for last week. I will talk more about that next week. But for this week, it’s about being a student.

We are all students of something. Some of us are deeply involved as students in school, studying, reading, going to class. Some of us have left that regimen far behind. All of us are students of what we like and are interested in. Obvious statement, I realize. But it can be so easy to forget until we hit something difficult or hit one of those plateaus where it feels more like we are moving backward than getting better.

Things music students need to learn
Let me start with a slightly tongue-in-cheek list that speaks much truth. There are ten on the original list, but here are the five that I really liked

(Five of the )Top Ten Things You’ll Never Understand About a Musician (which means these are things we need to learn about ourselves):
✓ Music isn’t a dream. It’s a way of life.
✓ Just because you haven’t heard of us doesn’t mean we aren’t successful.
✓ Don’t hate us because we do something we love.
✓ Listening to music means something very different to us.
✓ You can take a musician out of music but you can’t take the music out of a musician.

We do need to get a little more serious about being a student in general.
Society restricts the formal construct of a “student” to mean a person enrolled in some sort of academic program. It is an identity you take on when you’re in school and abandon once you graduate. But the world continues to change at a rapid clip, requiring us to learn new things constantly — this situation requires us to expand the definition of what it means to be a student.
A student is anyone who wants to create new neural pathways by exposing themselves to new information and experiences. You become a student when you feel the desire to do something you can’t and start taking actions to turn that around. To be a student, you have to be a combination of a researcher, a craftsperson, an artist, a manager, and a writer.
He goes on to expand on each of those from his point of view.

◆ Researcher
The path to learning complex skills is nonlinear and ambiguous. The most effective compass to help you navigate this ambiguity is your curiosity. It’s hard to figure out where to go next, but an effective way to determine the right direction is to come up with hypotheses and test them.
◆ Craftsperson
Being good at something means your output consistently exudes a sense of quality and attention to detail. How you get there is by showing up every day and practicing the fundamentals. This can be difficult, particularly if you have a chaotic mind with a short attention span like I do.
The problem is compounded if you consider that the rewards of working on your craft only become obvious months after you’ve put in the effort. This decoupling of effort and reward makes it hard to create powerful feedback loops to keep you coming back. But your success as a craftsperson depends on your ability to show up even if you don’t feel like it.
◆ Artist
Craft is important, but it is only the foundation. Once you have the craft nailed down, you have to figure out what to do with it. “Artistry” is the ability to point your craft in a direction — to expand your audience’s minds by showing them new possibilities, to provide warmth and comfort by letting them know that they’re not alone, or even create a whole new response that we haven’t yet discovered.
You can be the kind of artist that cuts through the bullshit and surfaces fundamental truths about the human experience. Or you can be the kind that creates perfect experiences of escapism. It depends on your personal motivations — what led you to embark on this journey in the first place?
◆ Manager
Good managers don’t just allocate resources and impose schedules. They create conditions in which awesome work can happen. The best manager I’ve worked with describes himself as a “shit umbrella.” Managing is as much about creating positive feedback loops and support systems as it is about staying on schedule and tracking progress.
The trick is to not overdo it. It can be very tempting to draft long project plans and get very granular with scheduling tasks. The first step is to acknowledge that no plan will be followed exactly as intended. The second step is to try and identify all the ways in which things won’t work out. The third step is to create mechanisms that pull you back on track if you ever go off the rails.
◆ Writer
If you don’t take a moment to pause and reflect on where you’re going and what you’re doing, you run the risk of running in circles. Writing is a great way to formalize new knowledge as you acquire it, and also create resources that can help others who are on their own journeys. Writing can be incredibly difficult if you aim for a finished piece on your first attempt. You can make it easier for yourself by working in different levels of fidelity. The first draft should be an outburst. Just sit there and pour out everything that’s in your mind without any regard for sense or structure. That way, you have a collection of ideas you can start curating. In subsequent drafts, you can refine and arrange these ideas in a way that ensures impact.

Next week I will dig a little into each of these areas and look at applying some of them to what we all do as musicians. Until then… think about your goals and directions and how you are a student of what you want to be doing.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever.
— Gandhi

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