Dance to the Music!

Sound is movement: steady, pulsing, repeated.
Waves stacked
              on waves
washing across your body, pushing you from side to side.

I see my foot tap,
I feel my head nod,
the orchestration of your music in my body.

I love to dance. I sway to good music, I walk in time to any beat, I love music that grooves and gives a reason to move my feet. Its creative and cathartic, sexual but publicly permissible, secular but still spiritual.

At least for me.

But I know, trust me I know, that not everyone feels this way.
Some folks gum up, tongue up, tasting a cotton mouth.
Anxiety is always thirsty, but “Cold Beer Always on Tap!”
And so later that night that, with oxygen levels sufficiently depleted, the last to join the dance floor is always the best to lead it.

“Dance is music made visible.”
George Balanchine (famous Russian born Ballet choreographer, who I’d never heard of)

Maybe it doesn’t need the modifier. Maybe dancing is equivalent to making music: dance is music. Do you need to have sound in order for there to be music? I don’t think so and the deaf and hard of hearing community would agree, check out this article. Here’s an experiment you can do right now at your computer to prove it:

Read this aloud at a steady pace, saying the bolded letters louder: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Now squeeze the rhythm in your fist, a harder squeeze for the bolded numbers but only one contraction per number.

Okay, so if you were able to do that you just “played” my piece with your fist. If you did it right it didn’t make any noise at all but you still felt the rhythm in your body and maybe even heard yourself saying the numbers inside your head. Now try it where you don’t say the numbers in your head (or aloud) and just “feel” the pattern in your fist. BAM! Silent music. If you want to take this a step further you can orchestrate the same rhythm onto any muscle of your body. You could even split it so that the bold numbers are played by your fist and the unbolded numbers by doing a kegel squeeze, GET CREATIVE PEOPLE!

Think I’m crazy? Well I think you’re close minded. Here’s the thing, music consists of pitch and rhythm but it doesn’t have to have both of these at once. Some 20th and 21st century art pieces intentionally avoid any discernible rhythms, and there are plenty of works for non-pitched percussion that don’t use melody in the traditional sense. We all know of John Cage’s infamous 4’33,” a piece of continuous silence that draws your attention to the ambient sounds around you (here is a performance by the composer). Now none of these examples are exactly what I had you do; they are all still heard rather than felt. But what they do demonstrate is that the boundaries of what we consider to be music have been pushed to the extremes and I think physical rhythms (what I’m calling things like the fist rhythm) are a lot closer to traditional music than some experiments in the classical world.

Furthermore, I could argue (if I were the arguing type, seeing as I’m not I’ll just tell you) that hearing is really just a heightened version of feeling. After all, the same vibrations that are perceived by our inner ear are hitting our entire body, our mind and our skin are simply not sensitive enough to make anything of it. But when pitches get low enough we do feel it. That’s why that half time dub-step beat drop is so freaking amazing, I mean like omg, amirite? #bass4life. Plus, even when you do hear something, that sound is only happening inside your head; outside it’s just plain old vibrations, fluctuations of pressure in the air around your ears. So you can see that you really don’t ever hear anything, you just feel things in a specific and intense way that is interpreted by your brain. Hearing is just a nickname for that process.

So how does dance fit in? Well, dancing is basically the art form of my fist exercise. When a drummer plays a beat on their set, they are orchestrating a rhythm over the various instruments in the drum set. Likewise, a dancer is orchestrating onto their body. The various muscles and parts of the body become the different instruments. Or you could consider the body in its entirety to be one instrument and the various parts to be the “pitches” of that instrument. Do you see what I’m getting at? The visual beauty of dancing is the bi-product of playing music through the body. It’s a silent music that only the dancer can feel, but it is music none the less.

When you think about music in this way, as rhythm orchestrated through the body, the limits of what can and can’t be dissolve. Practicing yoga, giving a massage, digging in the garden, walking to work, and even doing the dishes are all music making processes. I listed these examples because they tend to naturally occur with a certain rhythm, but really any activity has this potential. After all, the rhythm of our heart beat and of our breath are always present. Being aware of them and executing our lives according to them is only a matter of attention. We are all composers of silent symphonies, we are all dancing to the rhythm of our breath. There is power in that. There is beauty in that. If you can become aware of this music in your body you will surely benefit.

So perk up, you’re improvising the composition of your life right now every time you take a breath, you might as well become aware and enjoy the performance! Thanks for thinking in purple, see you on the dance floor *dancing girl emoji*



Talent: nurture, nature, and beyond


In 2008 Malcolm Gladwell came out with a novel titled Outliers. In it, he added another perspective to the discussion of talent, expertise, and success; namely that hard work and unique opportunities allowed people from Bill Gates to The Beatles to 19th century railroad tycoons to jump ahead of the pack. The novel seems best remembered and relevant in the music world for its chapter on the “10,000-Hour-Rule.” The idea stems from a 1993 study by Ericsson and colleagues where young expert musicians were found to have practiced at least 10,000 hours to achieve their success; Gladwell shows how all of these outliers had the time and opportunity to accumulate this number in a variety of ways (turns out The Beatles played at a ridiculous amount of morally questionable German bars in their early days). Gladwell adds some serious weight to the idea that taking advantage of opportunities and hard work led the greats in our world to success and that they can for you too.

I remember being at the Fruhling Posaunen Convention (about 500 trombone players getting together to complain about how hard it is to play the thing) in Pennsylvania when I first heard about the idea and it’s stayed with me ever since. In college, I would obsessively record the number of hours I practiced each day, dreaming about the time when my total would reach 10,000. Of course, things aren’t so black and white but if it inspired me to practice, I was ok with it. I finally got around to actually reading Gladwell’s book and it was as motivational as I had hoped, stimulating contemplation of the opportunities that were already available to me and whether or not I was taking advantage of them (I don’t think I’ll start up the practice hours log again though).

But there were things that I was skeptical about. Gladwell seems to downplay the attributes an individual brings to the equation, implying that with an initial interest in computer science and a lot of hard work, the next Bill Gates could be anyone. But what if our interests, and whether we are even capable of working at them, is influenced by more than our environment? What if something inside us determines not just our appearance but even our likes and our aptitudes? I’m talking about the power of genetics. I had my questions, so like any good citizen of the 21st century I turned to the internet.

As it happens, the “nature vs nurture” argument of talent and musical success is in full swing within the genetics community with studies being released as recently as 2014. The same Ericsson who authored the 10,000 hour study is also the most prolific researcher arguing in favor of the expert-performance framework, the concept that talent matters at first but the more you practice the less impact it has. A tuba professor at Ithaca College had a cartoon which summarized the idea in its caption, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” It seems like the perfect way to motivate young musicians studying at a university.

But a large 2014 twins study suggests otherwise, at least when it comes to the basic building blocks of musical aptitude. Miriam A. Mosing, from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, looked at over 1000 pairs of identical twins and over 1000 pairs of fraternal twins to evaluate practicing’s effect on the ability to discern pitch differences, distinguish melodies, and recognize rhythms. What Mosey found was incredibly surprising: “the twin who trained more did not possess better musical ability.” Hours of practicing had little to no effect on the aptitude tests. In one case a subject practiced for an estimated 20,228 hours more than his twin and still scored no better.

It doesn’t end their either. The study produced evidence that even the desire to practice for large amounts of time was also significantly influenced by genetics. Mosing summarizes by saying “different individuals choose different leisure activities rather than…music practice makes individuals different.” The idea is that a genetic talent makes one more likely to continue in an activity. Early success leads to positive external reactions which lead to additional practice, new skills, and more positive reactions. You can see how it would snowball.

This study is only the latest adding to a growing body of work describing the role of genes in specific musical abilities. A research review by Yi Tang Tan and colleagues for Frontiers in Psychology summarizes what has been found regarding the role of genetics in perfect pitch, musical memory, music listening, singing, and even musical creativity. In truth, there isn’t a single thing about ourselves that isn’t in some way influenced by our genes. It begins to paint of a very bleak picture of determinism doesn’t it?

But being able to “blame it on your genes” is far from being a reasonable excuse or even a fully honest accolade for that matter. The reality is that environment and personal decisions play a huge role in all but the most fundamental skills. Having excellent pitch discrimination doesn’t make you a virtuoso violinist, it only opens up the possibility for it. Likewise, being naturally talented doesn’t guarantee enormous dedication or practicing and being less talented doesn’t always lead to the opposite. Mosing herself states that external forces could stimulate dedicated practice where there originally wasn’t the motivation for it.

So what’s the take-away? What does it mean in the context of performing or in the field of education?

To musicians wondering if they are even genetically capable of success, a category I consider myself to be in, I think a change in perspective is necessary. During a college masterclass, a professional orchestra player said that you must practice your weaknesses diligently, but you must never forget to practice your strengths because that is where you will stand out. To me this means we must practice at being ourselves, because this is the only musician we can ever be. In Outliers, Gladwell makes the point that having talent is necessary to being successful in a field, but having the most talent is not. One need not be the best piano player alive to have a deep and meaningful impact on people. Certainly, most collegiate musicians have enough genetic ability to do that. I’m not saying that we don’t need to practice or learn to control our instrument, that will always be true no matter one’s genes. But what is also true is that at every step along the path to our own personal vision of perfection, our music is valid and true to ourselves at that moment, capable of conveying emotion and connecting with an audience because of its imperfections not in spite of them. When we set our sights on these authentic individual goals the relevance of genetics falls to the wayside and lifelong motivation and purpose emerge.

To the music educator these findings provide reasons to reflect. However, what these studies don’t focus on, but has been proven, is that all humans have the capacity to be musical on some level. I believe this also means all humans have the capacity to enjoy the act of participating in music. All humans are endowed with differing sensory motor skills that make learning to walk more or less difficult, yet all physically capable humans do learn to walk. Likewise when it comes to speaking a language. This is because these acts are integral to being a fully realized adult. The initial talent at the activity is irrelevant when it comes to deciding to practice and pursue it or not, and everyone benefits from acquiring these skills. Music can be thought of in the same way; some are gifted and should be given the opportunity to realize their talents fully but all are capable of participation and more importantly enjoyment.

The science seems to suggest that talent breeds interest which is likely true on many occasions, but I can’t buy it completely. After all, talent is often a matter of perspective. For example, in my experience children are likely to be rewarded and praised for simply trying an activity regardless of the results. They would then feel successful and talented because of a lack of comparisons. Adults on the other hand are painfully knowledgable of the many experts who are far more skilled at the activity being tried. Even if they had a talent, frustration and expectation would be more likely erode their motivation.

In our world we are taught to feel internal validation only when we achieve external success. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others; excellent musicians feel no pleasure from their work because it is “not as good” as the recording to which they listened. We shelve our passions and loves because we aren’t genetically gifted enough to stand out and be deemed successful at them. While fascinating, studies on genetics only reinforce this sad standard. But the truth is that once you let go of the need to be the best, hugely successful, or the most talented, creative and expressive endeavors bring pleasure inherently, no matter your ability. Any musician that plays in this state of freedom will connect with their audience without fail because they are speaking from the deep intelligence of their soul, their body, their heart, rather than the self-doubting and self-critical mind. To make people feel, this is what it means to be successful. For now, genetics cannot predict our ability to do that.


Further reading:

Innate Talents: Reality or Myth

Is Musical Talent Rooted in Genes

Practice Does Not Make Perfect