Learn to Improvise the Way You Learned to Talk


by Keith Hill © Manchester 2005


I enjoy hearing improvisations much more than hearing literature. My attitude is that I can hear literature any time I want by turning on my stereo system and inserting a CD. Why should I go to hear literature in concert except to hear a new player or to hear some literature I have never before heard? When I hear improvisation, I know I am hearing music that has never been heard before that moment and may never be heard again. An important question arises: am I alone in this way of thinking, or am I just one of many, some of whom, perhaps, are unable to articulate their feelings? If I am not alone, then improvisation may be an answer to reinvigorating concert audiences. Of one thing I am very sure: prior to the twentieth century, most concerts were part literature and part improvisation. To some extent, this tradition lives on in the popular music culture today. Do they know something we don't?

I am the first to grant that what one hears in improvisations is usually not the highest quality of music. For that one must hear the literature. But this makes no difference in how I feel about hearing improvisation. I always prefer to hear a mediocre improvisation to a well-heeled performance of a piece of great literature that I have heard many times before, just as I am always more interested in eating food prepared by a good cook who improvises with each meal than eating the same meal repeatedly, no matter how delicious. Eating the occasional blunder is a small price to pay for the opportunity to eat those supremely delicious meals that only the improvising cook produces.

Just as performance practice has improved greatly over the last twenty years, I expect that should improvising in public become the rule, twenty years hence the quality of improvisations will be astonishing -- far better than we might now imagine. The point is this: practice of anything makes it perfect. The more that performers improvise in public, the better they will become and the higher the quality of their work will be. I can only guess that the reason harpsichordists do not improvise in public is that they are afraid of the comparisons people are bound to make. Comparing infant efforts in improvisation to mature literature performances will happen, but only by those of little kindness and less vision. Audiences will love it. If performers will trust this they may be able to overcome their timidity about improvising in public.

The question then is this: how does one begin? The answer: begin wherever you like. You begin with whatever style, idiom, method of approach, or device is most comfortable for you. There are as many styles of improvisation as there are people who improvise. It is much like learning to talk all over again. However, there are several distinct schools or approaches to solving the problem of where to begin. Each approach has both advantages and disadvantages.


The Schools of Improvisation


There is the "noodling" school. Players from this school sit and noodle around on the keyboard making this sound and that, without any specific aim. As they noodle around, they discover interesting ways of doing things which they remember and add to their collection of things that work. Noodling is a "seat of the pants" approach. 

Noodling is an important way to begin learning to improvise--often the only way to learn. It is a way of looking for ideas. In my opinion, noodling is best done only in private. Yet one often hears noodling when one hears improvisation. This is because noodling is what you must do when you run out of ideas.

Then there is the procedural school. Here, players learn a set of rules which, like a road map, tell them what to play with each note in a given melody. Learning from figured bass is improvisation by procedure. One gradually builds up a facility at harmonizing bass and treble lines after having done it often enough. This school forms improvisers who have solid harmonic foundations to their improvisations but are largely tied to a printed or supplied line of music. When this approach is coupled with the noodling approach very good things can result--better than when each school is practiced separately.

Thirdly, the "lick" school. Players from this school memorize "licks" or passages from the literature. They have fun improvising by stringing the different passages together in various combinations forming a stream of unrelated but fun-to-listen-to passages. This creates an enormously impressive effect for anyone who is unfamiliar with early music. The licks can be sequences, figurations, scales, or even whole bravura sections of a piece of music. Licks are great for cultivating facility at filling up time. Those who learn by the lick method are well on their way to success at improvising. But the very facility cultivated with this method often leads to barrenness of ideas.

Next, the cliche school. These players learn the stylistic cliches of the period and style they are studying. Cliches differ from lick in that cliches are not passage work or figurations, what I call licks, cliches are short musical ideas that convey a strong feeling of affect. For instance, the appogiatura is a cliche. Each style has a characteristic cadence which is a cliche. Cliches usually form the foundation for licks and similar passage work. As with the lick method, cliche improvisers form their ideas based on a series of cliches, which they string one after the other. The cliche approach is not as impressive as the lick approach but has the advantage of sounding more deliberate and moving. Cliche improvisation usually sounds the most convincing in terms of style and content; by the same token it sounds the most original and authentic.

The "snatch" school improvisers, like those of the lick school, memorize whole snatches of pieces and cast them out in a variety of ways, creating the effect of a new piece using other composers' ideas. Because they needn't concern themselves with the ideas they use, these improvisers often cultivate a high level of skill at development. The main drawback of this approach is that overreliance on other people's ideas produces personal musical sterility. To develop a fertile mind, you must force yourself to generate your own musical ideas and materials. Improvising predicated on the memory tends to induce musical mimicry rather than invention.

Sixth, the modern or "self-expression" school. These improvisers play anything they feel like playing without any obvious point of reference. To the listener, ideas seem to come and go without any special connection. Although the improviser may have something specific to convey, the music appears to wander aimlessly. The results can be astonishing if the improviser happens to be inspired that day; more often the results are tedious. This manner of improvising is different from the noodling school mainly because it uses an atonal language--it is hard to tell if one is noodling when hearing music improvised in an atonal language.

Last is the "divisions" school. This school was the most popular in the earlier periods. Simpson and Quantz were advocates of the divisions school. Basically, this approach involves adding notes between the existing notes of a given line of music. The tradition of melisma or embellishment is very old. Although it is not in common practice today in the field of classical or serious music, it is alive and thriving in the popular music of today. Blues, Soul, and Jazz, as well as other genres of popular music are all based on this school of improvisation.

There are other schools than those I have listed, but these seven methods are the more obvious ones around today.

I use none of these as my own approach. Although I use and borrow aspects from all of them, my own method is one which works best for me. It is designed to overcome my own set of personal performing problems. The most important of these problems is a basic lack of adequate technique for moving my fingers in a controlled way. Because of poor reading and memorizing abilities, I make little use of the lick and snatch approaches. This is not to say that I wouldn't like to do so; only that I am not a competent enough player to do those things well--now.

When I began improvising I used the noodling method. I quickly tired of that approach because I managed to bore myself by going nowhere in my improvisations. This is a danger of the noodling method.

What I finally devised I call an "intentional" method. This method differs from all other methods in that it requires only one active ingredient -- the mind. With virtually no skill at the keyboard one can learn to improvise with this method. The reason is simple. There are only four rules to follow.


Rule one: Never play what you do not first intend in your mind to play.


In other words, you must first hear a note in your head, and intend or need to have that note before you ever play it. The purpose of this rule is to instill from the beginning the habit of thinking music before playing it. When you let your fingers do the walking, mindlessness is sure to result. Because inventing music requires you to think music, you must train yourself from the outset to think music before playing it. This will guarantee your ability to invent music at a later time, when you have acquired sufficient technical facility to be able to execute what you invent. The rule is simple. If you don't first hear it inside, don't play it.


Rule two: Never play more than you can actually control. 


If you can't control more than one line of music, don't play more than one line. When you can control one line and intend every note before you play it then go to two lines. And so on. 


Often we are tempted to play in four parts before we can intend anything. The reason for this is simple: four part harmony is very gratifying to play. The problem is that, without intent, it leads nowhere. If you follow this little rule, your ability to control what you are doing will advance much more quickly than otherwise. It is called pacing. As with any exercise you need to pace yourself in order to build up stamina. That is the reason behind this rule.


Rule three: Strive to break rules one and two as often as possible. 


In other words, push yourself past your intentional and control comfort levels all the time. If you only do what you can do easily, you can not grow. Therefore, be willing to take risks in order to learn faster and acquire more skill. To follow the exercise metaphor further, no pain no gain.


Rule four: Mistakes do not exist in improvisation. 


When you say something you didn't intend to say, it can be a stroke of inspiration, a Freudian slip, or something which might be termed awkward. Mistakes, on the other hand, are possible only when playing the intentions of someone else. At the time you are improvising, you are the only one who knows what you are going to say. How is it possible to make a mistake? Searching for just the right expression or just the right gesture is a behavior which everyone expects as normal in human conversation, and so it should be in improvisation.


You may ask why I state as a rule that mistakes do not exist in improvisation. If it were just a nice thought and not a rule, then you might fall into the trap of fear that paralyzes most players who might enjoy improvising, but fail to make anything out of it. Having it as a rule, acknowledges mistakes as an essential ingredient in the creative process. The word for this is serendipity.

With these four rules, anyone who puts his/her mind to it can learn to improvise. 

There is a fifth rule which is just as important as the first four but can cause the most problems for those who wish to improvise.


Rule five: As soon as possible, take every opportunity to improvise in front of others.


You cannot build your confidence by talking to yourself. Confidence comes from learning to manage yourself in the presence of others. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The easier it becomes, the more what you intend works. This is a cycle that you enter. If you intend to say something and you don't say it, you exist apart from the cycle. If you intend to say something and you say it in public, others begin to hold you accountable for what you say. If what you say interests others you can proceed to elaborate on what you said. If others take issue with what you said you can explain yourself further. If you cannot explain yourself further you excuse yourself to think about it further before trying again to explain. The more you use the opportunities to discuss your ideas, the better you will become at explaining them. The better you are at explaining them, the more others will want to hear what you have to say. And so on. 

It is, however, best to choose as a time to improvise in front of others a moment when only those who enjoy encouraging your development are listening. You can hurt yourself by choosing the wrong time. So be careful.


Remember what Bach said: "Anyone who works as hard [as I] can do the same" and

"Everything must be possible".



Continue Improvising

Learn to Improvise the Way You Learned to Talk


by Keith Hill © Nashville 2016


To master improvisation, it is important to have a strong foundation in the basics. This is as true for improvising using language as it is for music. The assumption that you can side step the basics in any art leads to a dead end or a barrenness of idea. Building a fertile groundwork for musical thinking means that at some point you need to build the habits and confidence of experience that can only be acquired by such a basis. The beauty of the basics is that practically anyone can learn them. They are even more easily learned by an experienced practicing musician. Because of this I find it odd that more musicians don't improvise. What I share with you is how I solved the problem of learning to improvise. Although other solutions to the problem might work as well. To begin, establish the following habits and ways of thinking needed to secure those habits. They will lead to convincing results.


1. Begin by improvising only one line of music.


There are 3 reasons for beginning with one line. 

First, learning to intend music means learning to “talk” music. Learning to talk music is best accomplished by keeping the three elements of music: melody, harmony and rhythm all under intentional control. This is most easily accomplished with one simple line. However, don't be fooled by the mistaken notion that what appears simple is simple. Creating a complete musical experience with one line is extremely challenging. The best models for the study of music that involves one line are the suites and partitas of Bach for solo violin, cello and flute and the solo instrumental works of Telemann and Biber. Being restricted to a grand total of one note at a time forces you to be resourceful to invent music that is both interesting and meaningful. 

The advantage of starting with one line is that it offers few real challenges to your technical ability. This gives you full freedom to develop intentional accuracy, speed, and memory. As you become more accurate in playing the note that you intend, gradually increase your speed until you can play what you intend at any speed suitable for the ideas you have in mind. Also, as you gain facility in these two skills, you can begin to memorize the ideas you have, that are especially interesting, for use later during the improvisation. Memorizing your own music as it happens lets you keep the formal construction of your “oration” more succinct.

Second, the process of learning to talk music is the same as learning to talk in a language. As such, learning to talk music needs to be systematically approached in the exactly same manner as a baby learns to speak. First, a child learns to make the sounds. This is called babbling. Next comes combining sounds, followed by making sound combinations in short series, and ending by making sound combinations in prolonged series. During this process, the infant is learning which sounds elicit what responses. From this, meaning is deduced. The entire process of learning to communicate begins with crying and ends with complete sentences. The important point to remember is that the sounds generated are uttered to express intention. Meaning is obscured when the sounds fail to accurately communicate the intention.

Learning to improvise by the intentional method needs to follow this process because it cultivates expression of intent and along with it discrimination and taste for what works and communicates best. Without intention and taste behind it, little in music is interesting because meaning is missing. If you sidestep learning to intend one line of music, be aware that the most important aspect of babbling--that of making enormous quantities of errors, fearlessly, is what you give up. Should you run into difficulties because of expressive infertility later on, you need only to return to this stage again and start over to build it right. 

Whenever I get a new idea about how to improve my improvising, I automatically return to this stage in order to incorporate the idea without a struggle. After starting over more than seven times, I have gotten used to starting over and have come to enjoy the cleanliness and speed of learning that results from it.

Three, music is so complicated that to attempt mastery of its complexities all at once is an unreasonable goal. The desire to begin at a complex level comes from the preconception that one should be able to improvise “pieces” which in turn comes from a culture of only playing pre- composed pieces. Playing notated music and improvising are two different skills. Performing from scores supposedly develops the skill of interpreting and communicating the composers' intentions. Whereas improvising develops your skill as both a composer and an interpreter of your own intentions. It is common in today's culture to think that just being able to play a Bach Fugue or a Chopin Etude accurately is a sign of musical sophistication--a somewhat naive delusion. At best, it is a sign of technical sophistication not musical. In my judgment, a person is musically sophisticated when he or she can extemporaneously invent a fugue or etude of a quality equivalent to the works of Bach or Chopin. But, the notion that improvisation is somehow supposed to compete with thoroughly worked out compositions persists.

In the past, great improvisers probably began improvising before they could even read music. Learning to read music came naturally as a young musician found that more could be learned about improvising and composing by being able to read music. Learning pieces was a stepping stone to composing. In the realm of language, it takes years to master the art of oratory so that an improvised delivery assumes the natural quality of a carefully crafted argument. Why should things be different in music? Being able to improvise music so that it sounds like a prepared piece is a laudable GOAL. Nevertheless, this goal should never be allowed to cloud our judgment about developing mastery of the basics.

So, begin learning to improvise with one line of music and stick with it until you have mastered it. Build more and more complexity into that line until no more can be made of it. Then go to two. Have it as your aim to make one line of music at least as interesting as Bach.


2. Express what you intend not merely what occurs to you.


The purpose of the intentional method is to develop musical intention. Although doing what occurs to you may be how you end up improvising, from the beginning it is essential to learn to play what you have in your mind to play. Mastering this early will give you the skill and power to realize more complex ideas later on. The principle behind this instruction is that your musical intuition can only provide you with inspiration based on the kind, quality, and character of the foundation you build for it. A foundation that is shallow, weak, and poorly formed will support almost nothing. It is to your advantage to build as deep, as strong, and as beautifully constructed a foundation as you possibly can. This translates into: train yourself to turn your musical thought into sound as accurately as possible. Never mind that your initial thoughts might seem boring. They should be. Strive for accuracy first, speed second, and memory third.

Bear in mind, however, that intending does not always mean having specific sounds in mind. Sometimes you may intend aesthetic principles. Intending aesthetic principles means deciding to use aesthetic principles (Principles of Contrast, Proportion, Harmony, Intensity etc.) to govern what you will do next. For instance, beginning with four notes rising, you might intend to contrast them with motion downwards, playing anything that comes to mind that moves downwards. Or you may begin with four notes rising and create a proportional “tail” that complements the effect of the four rising notes. The principles of contrast and proportion guide the general flow of thought but do not determine the exact outcome. 

Whatever you can imagine as an intention should be experimented with. Intend an Affect; like sorrow, or joy, or majesty. Intend an Effect; like the sounds of war, or wind blowing, or water rushing, or a hummingbird flying. Intend a condition; like limping, or being followed, or nervousness. Intend a state of mind; like wondering, or listening, or intending. Intend ornaments on a set of notes. And so on. The more varied your repertoire the more variety your improvisations will have. If you ask others to give you suggestions, you are drawing on them for ideas but you are also getting them to act as correspondents in the improvisation. When others give you an idea, they will then be able to determine if you played something that expressed that particular intention. If you play something which you thought expressed caressing, and your audience thought it was nonsense that you were expressing, you need to figure out what you were doing wrong that caused them to “read” nonsense instead of caressing. 


3. Don't try to be creative or original and don't worry about being mediocre.


There are two major problems that afflict artistic people in the twentieth century. First is the desire to be creative and original. And second is the mediocrity that happens in the attempt to be creative and original. These two afflictions cause mostly unintelligible and uninteresting results in the music and art of the twentieth century. Both of these maladies stem from fear.

Fear #1: The fear of not being creative or original is the most easily dispatched. If you understand that no two musical backgrounds are identical, you would realize that everyone is original by definition. So don't bother trying to be creative or original--let it occur naturally. True creativity arises from attending to the needs of your materials and your situation. It never comes from forcing. Therefore, imitate freely the best models of music making. Understand that no matter how hard you may try, you can never perfectly imitate another person's music. Your improvisations may suggest the sound of some composer or other (which should come as a great compliment to you). Eventually, you will sound like yourself even if you are using another person's “language”. So don't get “hung up” on being original. Mozart never worried about being original. He took his language from others. What makes Mozart “Mozart” is that he used the language more effectively than anyone else during his time. Originality isn't worth diddlysquat if it isn't more meaningful and relevant. It is better to be competent using someone else's style of expression than to be incompetent and mediocre using some irrelevant language that is entirely original.

Fear #2: The fear of doing something and have it judged as mediocre or incompetent. If this fear afflicted children while they were busy learning to talk, language would soon die out. The process of learning is based on making errors, noticing, and eventually eliminating them. Errors are important stepping stones to success. No one can avoid them. Learn to notice and eliminate them as quickly as possible. Whatever is judged to be mediocre or incompetent is usually loaded with errors that weren't noticed and eliminated. Anyone who strives to become more and more sensitive to what doesn't work, to what isn't interesting, to what fails to communicate clearly, to what irritates, to what doesn't vivify, to whatever needs refinement, to what effects are being produced, to what wants to be developed, et cetera, can, in time, learn to produce work of great competence. 

The biggest hurdle to overcoming these fears is the ego. Your feelings will be easily hurt if you make the mistake of identifying with your errors. Once you identify with your behavior, any criticism usually results in feeling hurt or angry on your part. The alternative is to treat an error as an error--not a crime or an unforgivable sin. Then compliment anyone who points out your errors as being an astute judge. People who are swift learners, learn quickly because they focus on correcting errors instead of taking criticisms personally. Ultimately, the antidote is wanting errors to happen so that you can objectively and systematically eliminate them. 


4. Choose a style which feels the most comfortable for you.


Selecting a style to begin improvising in is like choosing a recipe book to begin learning how to cook. French, Country, Amish, Italian, German, Chinese, and Hungarian are all different styles of cooking. Everyone who cooks in those individual styles will do things slightly differently. The style merely mirrors the values and ingredients used by cooks who work in the style. Styles in music are much the same. Choose one which most mirrors your own values and tastes and learn to improvise using it.

The late twentieth century is a time of unparalleled freedom of choice. Whatever style you choose for yourself will be a post modern style. The characteristic of the post modern style is that it is wholly synthetic--borrowed from all other styles. This freedom is also a bane because it squelches meaning and encourages nonsense. The reason for this is that whatever sounds disjointed, chaotic, and arbitrary is easily perceived as irrelevant meaningless nonsense. Avoiding the threat of irrelevance requires some discipline in your selection of style. The more structured, flowing, and integrated your style is the better your chances of expressing something that listeners will find worth hearing.


5. Purposely establish modest goals for yourself at the outset.


Don't bite off more than you can chew. Insist on having a realistic goal for each practice session. For instance, at the beginning, a good goal is to merely be able to keep going. Another goal is to figure out what creates interest. Yet another is to introduce only one aesthetic principle into your music and learn how to incorporate it successfully. Having a goal for each practice session makes the work you do during the session much more focused and purposeful.


6. Do not hesitate to use printed music to help you get started. 


This could be a popular tune or a church hymn or a chorale melody or a page of music from one of your favorite composers. I prefer to use tunes from the commercials from the '60's and '70's, nursery rhymes, chorale melodies, and random selections from Bach's music. Bach himself was accustomed to using someone else's music to help his musical juices flow.


7. View improvising as a series of personal challenges not as a daunting obstacle.


When you challenge yourself, there are no losers, only winners, because every tiny bit of knowledge that you gain or every tiny bit of interesting music you produce makes you a winner. You lose only when you give up because your expectations for how you ought to be doing squelch your intuitive self. I call this “shoulding” all over yourself. Improvisation needs to be fun to be worth doing. Unrealistic expectations just dowse the fires of enthusiasm for doing it at all.

Once you have started improvising regularly, and you learn to control your intentions, start to expand your vocabulary of things to say. Enlarging your repertoire of things you can intend and execute is the basis on which this will grow. You will, naturally, be restricted in this endeavor by the spiritual content of what you normally spend your time contemplating. If you spend your time normally absorbed in mundanities, what you have to say will likely express mundanity. If you like to think about frivolities, your music will probably be playful. If you think about questions like: what are the salient features in a stirring piece of music that make it have the property of being stirring? or How is it possible to make what I am doing more interesting? and so on, your improvisations will probably come out sounding more stirring and interesting.

What follows are questions that might help you curb your tendency to do more than you can actually control. 


1. How can I use this idea?


Every idea has it's best form, it's best rhythm, it's best instrumentation, it's best structure, it's most complementary ideas, it's best use. Learning to become sensitive to the possibilities of what an idea has to offer is what becoming a mature improviser means. Ideas that are complicated have the most restricted possibilities. Therefore, stick with ideas that are as simple and straightforward as they can be. Keep your materials as spare as possible so that you have the possibility to ask the next question.


2. What can I do maximize this idea?


The principle of integrity is the key to making the most of any idea. Once you have something in mind for your improvisation, it is important to hold to it until the end. This will make your improvisation sound more like a written out piece of music.

To create integrity in music, start with a simple idea and break it up into its component parts. Then manipulate those parts in every way possible until you get tired or you run out of possibilities. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the first movement, is a classic study in maximization of an idea through integration. Do not be afraid to repeat an idea as long as you show the idea in some new light or as yet unexpressed way. Listeners can easily tolerate repetitions of an idea that are in some way varied. They have real problems following a constant stream of new ideas. The simpler an idea is the easier it is for those listening to follow all that you do to it.


3. How can I make what I am doing more interesting?


This is perhaps the most encompassing question of all concerning improvisation. Answering it would probably fill twenty or more columns. It will suffice for now to say that making your improvisation interesting depends entirely on how easy it is for the audience to follow what you are doing. It is a stressful experience for a listener to endure more than a few moments of music that sounds jumbled, obtuse, and willful. Such music jerks the listeners around and eventually alienates them. Being interesting begins with being predictable. But more than a few moments of going nowhere also frustrates the listener. Creating interest means having a balance between music that is easy to understand and music that demands more attention of the listener. There is no fixed formula for what the best expression of a musical idea is.

Investigate this question yourself by listening to what in music interests you. The more clear you are about why certain music fails to hold your interest, the more interesting your own music will become. The more precise you are at isolating the factors in a piece of music that make it constantly interesting to you, the more compelling your own music will become. In this way, studying improvisation is really just a study of yourself and your attention, and a process of understanding how and why your interest was preserved or lost. 


Improvising Music Intentionally continued


By Keith Hill © Nashville 2016


Improvising from the Soul


Ultimately, the aim of learning to improvise is to figure out a way to engage your Soul in the business of making your music for you.  The Soul has nothing to do with religion and has everything to do with reality.  What do I mean by this?  Isn’t anything relating to the Soul involve what you believe?  No.  Here is where the two forms of thought processing need to be understood.  The most common form of thought processing is called believing.  The much less common form of thought processing is called knowing.  Religion is based entirely on believing.  However, the problem with believing is that you can believe anything you like…there are no limits on what a person believes.  Truth need not be a factor where believing is concerned.  Knowing on the other hand is based entirely on what is real and true.  This is why people on the whole tend to avoid knowing—its much easier to believe than to know.

How does this relate to improvising?  The answer is simple.  The Soul canonly be engaged by knowing.  Therefore it is important when learning to improvise to remain as grounded as possible in reality and avoid indulging in speculation and hope based on a belief in magic.  Pinning your hopes for improvement in improvisation on talent is hope based on a belief in magic or talent.

Bearing this in mind, the following suggestions are what I have learned that works well to encourage or engage your Soul into the act of improvising music.

·   The trick to engaging your Soul, in whatever it is that you are doing, is to understand that only when what you are doing pushes your intellect or conscious mind beyond its limit, of competently controlling everything, does your Soul feel like it can be involved with what you are doing without the interference from your mind.  So if you are improvising only within the limits of what you can consciously and more importantly feel competent to control, your soul will not interfere or become involved in whatever it is that you are doing.

·   The most interesting means of forcing out the mind and replacing it with your soul is to put your mind into overload.  It is pretty well understood that even the most competent minds are capable of managing about 6 things in such close order succession that it seems like it is managing those 6 things simultaneously.  Likewise the mind/memory is normally capable of remembering 7 things with some ease.  In music when you are playing, your mind is managing what notes you are playing-1, the key you are playing in – 2, the harmonies you are playing – 3, keeping the meter consistent and regular – 4, following the melody that has been provided – 5, deciding what expressions to use to make what you are doing more musical – 6, andlooking ahead in the score to know what is coming up soon and preparing to play it.  

The function of practice, it is too often assumed is to study the pieces you are playing so you know before hand the key, the harmonies, the meter, and memorizing what happens in the music so you can place those matters on autopilot, so to speak.  By learning the score and knowing and memorizing how the music proceeds you can then practice things like fingering, where to breathe, and make expressive decisions to further reduce all the things that your mind needs to pay attention to during a performance.  This all has the unfortunate effect of reducing the elements of music to which your mind need pay attention during a performance. 

Bereft of things to pay attention to during the performance of the music your mind is eager to look for other things to do to keep itself occupied while you are busy being on autopilot.  The unfortunate consequence of this method of practice is threefold.  One, the unsuspecting musician, when on autopilot, is rarely aware of when his or her mind has wandered off into fantasyland.  Two, this cultivation of thoughtlessness so rigorously rehearsed in the practice room ends up being the modus operandi during the concert.  The unfortunate consequence of this manner of managing music making and the mind is that the audience can tell that no attention is being paid by the performer and subsequently is alienated by becoming bored or worse angry at the feeling of having wasted one’s time and expense to attend the concert.   Three, a mind on autopilot is very prone to making mistakes, which usually means that the most interesting events happening in autopilot are the mistakes made in performance.  This, ultimately, is the source of performance anxiety.  But the opposite of autopilot is mindfulness, which is usually thought of as a powerful good in life.  In musical performance or improvisations, mindfulness (a full mind) needs to be overwhelmed by overstuffing it with things to pay attention to and decide about so that it yields to that part of us, the soul, which is accustomed to easily managing thousands of decisions per second--something of which the most well trained mind isn't capable.

To counteract this mindless mode of practicing music means either avoiding preparing for concerts altogether which is not a good idea or to practice replacing every mental task that you are putting on mental autopilot with a mental behavior even more demanding than the task that has been put on autopilot.  In other words, try transposing the music into another key altogether, try altering the harmonies to notice the effects caused in the music by having different harmonies, try changing the meter by either making it an altogether different meter or adding notes to accommodate a totally different meter, try creating a completely logical melody to the harmonies already provided, try changing the expression completely so that a feeling produced when playing the piece is completely transformed making the music sound like it was composed by someone else.

·   What you are aiming for is to generate a new approach to the music.  If you can actually succeed at thinking outside of the musical box, what you will be doing is actually learning how to improvise using the written score as a point of departure.  This is an excellent method for teaching yourself how to improvise more interestingly.

·   It also prepares you to create the kind of environment in your mind needed to invite the soul to do your playing or improvising.  There are other methods for making that invitation.  They are:

·   One is to play faster than you can think.  

·   Another is to use more gestures in playing phrases and subphrases

·   Another is to discombobulate the meter by playing melodies or phrases ahead of the beat or behind the beat and mostly never with the beat.

·   Yet another method is to focus intently on how the notes in the melody tend one way or another and resist, milk, exaggerate by stretching or compressing (augmentation or diminution) the note values.

·   Change the articulation or the rhythm…if the music is hymn-like, make the music dance palpably.

·   Experiment with things like loud and soft playing, strong and weak articulations, starting fast then getting gradually softer and softer until you can’t be heard, yet you are still playing the notes—and the like.

·   See if it is possible to divide a melody into two separate lines of music. Try to make one line of music into a dialogue. 

·   See if adding ornaments of all kinds triggers any new ideas about what to do differently. 

·   Create cercare at all the points of emphasis in the music.  A cercare is a musical moment in which a lower or upper leading note is performed both silently and rapidly to the following note…like the human utterance “un-huh”, spoken in recognition or agreement.

If you learn to pile up layer upon layer of these techniques in order to overwhelm your intellect or mind, you will discover that when you are successful in enacting this layering technique your soul will somehow just magically, as if from nowhere, start to take over all that you are trying to do and the quality of your music making or improvising will improve dramatically.  The reason why this happens is that all these above techniques are actually a serious form of play.  Indeed, it is just this kind of play that the soul can’t resist participating in…its got to come out and engage in playing with what is happening. 

More importantly, these techniques are actually what your soul does when it is playing all by itself so it is merely emerging to do what it already does when your mind is turned off.  If you don’t believe this, I suggest that you watch little children when they are by themselves playing with their toys.  They employ these techniques without thinking.  And when you learn to identify each of these techniques you can actually produce a real time analysis of their behavior, blow by blow during their play.  Once you prove to yourself that this is true, you can once again experience for yourself what it feels like to really “play” music.

That we so rarely, if ever, experience a musician’s soul in their act of making music, most of us have come to expect nothing extraordinary when listening to music.  It is for this reason that it is imperative that every musician have it as a goal to perform or improvise music in a way that encourages the soul to play the music.  Music with a big M only happens when the souls of the musicians are playing; otherwise what is heard are mere notes in time.





By Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger © 2003 


We have provided you here with a kick start into the business of thinking about the affects with the following affect analysis of the first six preludes and fugues from JS Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, Book Two. We have also included a possible vignette or scenario because we have found that it is vastly easier to hold an image of a scene and the feelings that go with it than to hold 4 words in your head while trying to perform. The words are just words. The vignette is poetic. That is why inventing your own vignette is extremely important. For your music making to be entirely yours, it must come from you. Our purpose for publishing this analysis is that it is just a model for what to do. Make your own analysis and vignettes and "act" them while playing music and your music will come alive...especially if you are using all the communication techniques.


We have analyzed all 24 preludes and fugues but we are showing only the first six, because, as we have said, to provide you with a model. It is not a replacement for you doing your own thinking.


1. Prelude in C

Spiritual- Curious and Affirming

Mental- Sure 

Emotional- Aroused

Physical- Powerful


Possible Vignette

When informed of the likely and possible dangers of a certain action, you are even more sure that what you are feeling is righteous which give you confidence in your power to prevail.


Fuge in C 

Spiritual- Forthright

Mental- Focused

Emotional- Quibbling

Physical- Surging


Possible Vignette

Once having set out on your quest, your feelings of misgiving argue with the intent of your purpose, and all the while, you are steadily moving forward toward your quest.


2. Prelude in c

Spiritual- Vacillating

Mental- Willful

Emotional- Troubled

Physical- Measured


Possible Vignette

You were totally convinced that what you were doing was the right thing so by the exercise of your will you overcame your misgivings and move ahead determined to pace it out till the end. Like when you were told to take a class but you weren't convinced it was going to be interesting but you decide to stick to it anyway.


Fuge in c 

Spiritual- Resolved

Mental- Explanatory

Emotional- Reluctant

Physical- Inevitable


Possible Vignette

You are about to do an interview for a job which you are not totally sure you want but you need so you rationalize to yourself about the pros and cons knowing that no matter what happens, if you are offered the position, you will be taking it.


3. Prelude in C#

Spiritual- Delighted

Mental- Anticipatory

Emotional- Soaring

Physical- Breathless


Possible Vignette

Turns out the new boss (to continue from the above) is a real sweetheart and likes your work and can't wait to have you join the are pickled tink.


Fuge in C#

Spiritual- Momentous

Mental- Carrying

Emotional- Radical

Physical- Snappy


Possible Vignette

Aware of the importance of your new status, you are already working out powerfully innovative ideas that are popping into your imagination.


4. Prelude in c# Spiritual- Endurance

Mental- Solid Assurance

Emotional- Heaving

Physical- Suffering Pain


Possible Vignette

You imagine how Jesus must have felt on his way to his crucifixion because you can empathize with his feeling of a job well done yet which caused his inevitable dismissal.


Fuge in c#

Spiritual- Free

Mental- Turbulent

Emotional- Release

Physical- Spinning


Possible Vignette

You are out of time and are trying to think quickly and because you know exactly what you are doing you feel you can just let go and it all works.


5. Prelude in D

Spiritual- Elation 

Mental- Reasoned

Emotional- Joy

Physical- Vigor


Possible Vignette

You had every reason to know you were right something and the fact that someone close to you affirmed you feelings and chose to accompany you makes you feel wonderful.


Fuge in D

Spiritual- Emphatic

Mental- Serene

Emotional- Willing to Accept Responsibility

Physical- Insistent


Possible Vignette

You are resolved in your course of action and mentally calm because it was you who decided to solve a given problem, because you know you have the chutzpah to persist to the end.


6. Prelude in d

Spiritual- Encouraging

Mental- Certain

Emotional- Excited

Physical- Running


Possible Vignette

You are swimming or running and are really hyped up about a problem you feel certain you can solve but you are giving yourself a pep talk anyway.


Fuge in d

Spiritual- Cautioning

Mental- Focused

Emotional- Anticipating

Physical- Intense


Possible Vignette

You see an accident up ahead and you realize you need to really pay attention because other people are panicking so you take pains to calm yourself so as not to go into chicken vision.








by  Keith  Hill   ©  2014   Nashville ,  TN


         Here is the conventional "wisdom".  A finger touches the key, the key lifts the jacks, the jacks hold the tongues that contain the quills that release the string, that begins to vibrate sending its energy into the bridge and the soundboard, out into the air, into the ear canals of the listeners, touching their eardrums, causing the nerves in their ears to send impulses to their brains for registration.  Aural perception, according to the conventional understanding, is what occurs when the sound enters the ear canal.  The act of hearing is the act of perceiving sound.  That way of thinking about aural perception works as long as you basically don't care at all about the quality of the sound that you are hearing.

        What happens if you hear a sound and you think it sounds ugly and offensive?  For that matter, what happens if you taste or see or smell or touch something that you think is offensive?  Where does the "being offended" part have its place in the perception process?  Conventional wisdom calls that taste—and you know what they say about taste—de gustibus non disputandem est—there is no disputing taste.  In other words, because people can't agree about what is offensive, what is beautiful, what is interesting, what is ugly, they pass it off into an intellectual nether world for aesthetic philosophers. 

     Personally, I think that perception actually begins where the nerve impulses end.  Everything else up to that point is scientifically measurable but, perceptually speaking, totally uninteresting.  If human beings are to be regarded as mindless, soulless, and irresponsible, then the mechanical reality is all that is required for perception to take place.  You have no need for a mind for your eardrums to send nerve impulses into your brain.  You have no need for a center that processes all that is sublime (your soul) if sublimity is not a part of the sound that sets your eardrums into motion.  And you have no need to respond to anything if you are to be considered an extraneous piece of meat, one that happens to be able to hear, by those who think that perception stops with the nerve impulses.

        Perception begins where nerve impulses end.  So what happens next? Well, sometimes nothing happens, in which case no perception has taken place.   Sometimes we respond to the impulses that enter our brain by wanting to spit them out because we perceive their effect on us as highly offensive.  And sometimes we respond to our perception of the effect of the impulses by wanting more because of the pleasure and beauty that we feel when being exposed to the source of those impulses.  The problem is that we don’t always go further.  We get stopped by our beliefs.

        Too often, what we are told is good is what we think of as pleasurable and what conflicts with what we are told is good causes confusion and eventually pain.  It is because of these suppositions of good and of bad that we learn to feel pain or pleasure by what we experience.  And having learned to feel pleasure by that which is acceptable we allow ourselves to react emotionally in a positive way.  Eventually, with repeated experiences, we learn, like Pavlov's dogs, to react emotionally directly to the sensed experience.  When that happens, we no longer become capable of distinguishing between what we believe to be acceptable and what we know, by direct experience, to be good.  In other words, we are robbed by the opinions of others of our ability to perceive.  How this works can be found in the following examples:  The Nazis taught their followers that exterminating undesirable peoples was a good thing.  Those who ran the Nazi extermination camps derived pleasure from their work.  In the process, they lost the ability to perceive the injustice of their actions.  When they were finally stopped, they couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about.  They were merely carrying out an approved action. In like manner, music students are taught that eliminating undesirable tempo fluctuations in musical performance is a good thing.  Those who run the Music Schools derive satisfaction from turning out musicians that can accurately keep a beat.  In the process, teachers and students alike have lost the ability to perceive that their performances are sterile and lifeless.  These well trained metrognomes are merely doing what they were told to do.  

        To better understand the nature of perception, that is,  that we desire to spit out the impulses or that we desire to experience more of them, we need to realize something about the way the brain works.  Although the ideas I will be discussing are bandied about in the field of psychology and brain research, I have posited my own way of thinking about the ideas.

       We are taught that nerve impulses enter the brain and are processed by the brain in order to give you a "picture" of what it was that you beheld.  This is the "camera model" explanation of the nature of perception. In my way of understanding the whole process, the brain receives the impulses from the senses and distributes the impulse energy throughout the brain for the purpose of being touched, handled, or manipulated (however you prefer to think of it).  In doing this the brain is tasting, so to speak, the impulse energy to extract from it what it can in order to make sense of it.  The process of making sense of the energy involves running the energy through a bunch of scanners, so to speak, on each side of the brain to see what the energy gives off.

        Since it is well understood that the brain has two hemispheres which handle certain tasks, I use this understanding and refine it considerably more than what is normally required. (Had I considered the conventional ways of thinking about brain function to be useful, I would have used them as others do. I don't, for which I hope you will appreciate my reasons as I continue.) Psychologists and brain researchers understand the left side of the brain (in right handed people) as the analytical side.  The right side is considered the intuitive or feeling side.  To me this way of describing the duties of each hemisphere of the brain is like saying that only the left side of the brain is good.  I say this because in our society left brained behavior is encouraged, seriously cultivated, and most rewarded.  (Schools of all levels and kinds do everything in their power to train and perfect left brain processing and at the same time exact stiff penalties on those who do not naturally gravitate to such lopsided ways of functioning.)  It is like saying that the right side is irrelevant because it does this sort of mushy stuff that always gets in the way of analyzing and computing.  Essentially, the terms betray the vested interests of those doing the research.  The terms I prefer are far more useful and clear.  I use the term "structure sensing" to describe what the left side of the brain is designed for.  And I use the term "behavior sensing" to describe the job of the right side of the brain.  One side of the brain handles and tastes the nerve impulses to taste the structural aspects of the impulses while the other side tastes the behavioral aspects of those impulses.

        Crucial to the entire process is an idea which is, I believe, the purpose for this impulse or energy sensing (tasting).  That idea is making sense of experience.  The brain wants everything to make sense.  The brain needs everything to make sense.  The brain feels deprived when it has to struggle to get the feeling that sense has been made of the impulses it takes in.  The feeling in the brain, that which it most urgently seeks, is a feeling of repose or balance which occurs naturally when sense has been made.  This need for balance is as powerful a need for the brain as the need we feel for air when we breathe.  When the brain fails to sense balance in the impulses it takes in, after it has run the impulses past the scanners on each of its sides, it goes into a demand mode, so to speak.  It demands to have balance.  It demands for things to make sense.  This demand or need is so strong that if it does not get the balance it requires, the brain manufactures the balance all by itself.  In other words, the brain can draw on its own resources in order to create a correction it requires when it experiences imbalance.

        If the brain experiences too much structure in the impulses coming from the senses, it will manufacture whatever it needs in the form of behavior to balance against the structure it has sensed. A classic example of this is all the graffiti that one observes on city walls of sterile looking buildings.   The blank empty spaces provided beg for being graffiti-ized and when graffiti artists oblige they cease applying their trade when a balance has been created.  On the contrary, if it senses too much behavior, the brain will manufacture some form of structure to create the feeling of balance it demands.  In music, this behavior is at its most interesting.  When the brain experiences impulses from the ear which are sensed as too behavioral, the kinds of structure the brain manufactures are behavioral in nature.   For example,  a musical instrument which has not been built so that musical proportions sound in all its parts must necessarily be unstructured.  This means that the brain reads the impulses as behavior because it senses no structure from the sound.  Sensing no structure it manufactures a structure to create the balance it demands.  Unfortunately, the kind of structure it manufactures most often is manifested as a void of ideas.  In other words, when you hear out-of-tune something or other, it tastes like behavior to the brain.  In response,  the brain creates a structure to balance the lopsided feeling of behavior.  What it creates is sterility of idea.  Sterility feels like structure to the brain.  Since it has to draw on what behavior it has the most of, i.e. ideas, it is ideas that it sterilizes itself of.  It does this extremely efficiently.  So musical instruments which sound bad or sound unstructured to the brain produce musically sterile playing or playing that is void of musical ideas.  Happily, the brain also does the opposite.  That is, when it registers sounds that are exceedingly structured, it generates copious amounts of musical ideas, i.e. behavior, to balance the sensation of structure it perceives.  The effect, for those that play such structured sounds, is called "being inspired" by the instrument.

        The energy of the sensation of structure, that you can actually feel as it is taking place in the brain, is sent from the structure sensing side over to the behavior sensing side.  It does this, as far as I can tell, to have the behavior sensing side check the energy over for any behavior available for use in balancing.  When the behavior sensing side finds nothing, it sends the energy back to the structure sensing side.  The effect, if you are paying very close attention to the sensation of the energy passing from one side to the other, is almost like swooning.  The energy seems to cross over the visual “screen” of the imagination as it moves through the brain from one side to the other and back.  This effect is the perception in the hearing act.  

       The perception can also be of sense having been made.  When sense has been made, balance occurs.  When balance occurs, then the energy remains central in the brain.  It doesn't move about looking for confirmation or balance.  When perception is due to sense having been made, the feeling in the brain is fulfillment.  Ultimately, this is the feeling that musicians need to be creating in the minds of their listeners. 

         When balance has been created for an audience by a musician playing in a sterile way on an instrument that sounds behavioral, the brains of the audience members will detect the balance in the relationship between the lack of structure in the sound and the absence of behavior in the playing.  But, because a good piece of music is highly structured, it needs to be conveyed in a manner that is highly behavioral.  Since the audience's brains can also sense the imbalance between the sterile playing and the score, their brains create balance by causing their minds to wander, or worse, create the balance by producing a feeling of guilt and shame for not understanding why they are so bored by sterile performances of great music.  Sometimes the lack of behavior on the part of a listener, just sitting there waiting for something interesting to happen, will cause the brain to tune out all the boring input and go into a sleep mode so it can dream.

        As far as I can tell, the only people who genuinely love music that is played in a way that is as sterile as possible are people who have a high intensity emotional life.  I guess the behaviorality of the emotions feels in balance only when listening to music played by a computer or someone posing as a computer. 

    This is the framework which I have created for myself to understand many of the positively strange things that go on in the music world.  I have found that this framework works for understanding most of what goes on in human behavior as well.  When others, with whom I have shared this framework, use it themselves, they report that they find thinking about what they experience easier and the result of their thinking to be clearer.  I hope it does the same for you. 





Keith Hill


"It is not what the ear hears

 but what the mind attends to,

which feeds the soul."


There are many aspects to the act of listening which require our attention in order to bring the act of listening to a degree of sophistication such that it may be properly called an Art. The kind of listening I mean is a very specific way of using the mind to pay attention to the senses when they are sensing. Among these aspects, the three most important are focus, dispassion, and sensing.  Focus is essentially an intellectual act. Dispassion is an emotional disengagement, in this case, from the object of focus.  Sensing, on the other hand, is a spiritual act.


Your ability to pay attention is limited by what you select to focus your attention upon. Each of us is limited in our ability to pay attention by our vested interests—our agendas—consequently, we don't usually focus on the right things. You only take in what you focus on. This is why most people tend to be poor listeners.  However, by letting go of our vested interests and expanding our range and intensity of focus we can all become better listeners.

Besides our vested interests, we bring a load of irrelevant mental baggage to the act of listening. This baggage causes us to focus on certain irrelevancies in favor of others.  The result is that we tend to focus on matters which are largely a waste of time. All too often, knowing what to focus on is not so clear.  This lack of clarity concerning what is and what is not important makes the business of focusing rightly very difficult.  In spite of this problem, choosing what to focus on so that you are rewarded, at the deepest level, for the time spent paying attention can be systematized.  The method for systematically making good choices involves asking the right questions.

Understanding How to Ask the Right Questions

The premise of this method is the truth that everything that we do is the result of a question having been asked.  This is true whether or not the question is consciously asked or unconsciously posed.  Habits are merely established answers to previously posed questions. Let me explain.  

When you picked this article to read, you were doing so because you were interested in its contents.  Your interest was perhaps piqued by the title.  It likely caused you to ask the question to yourself about what was inside.  Exactly how you worded the question in this instance is unimportant.  As soon as you wondered what was in the article, you were asking the question: "what is it about?  or  I wonder what he has to say about this subject that might help me?"  If you read some of the article and put it away because you thought it was nonsense,  you answered to your satisfaction the question about whether or not the time spent reading the material was worthwhile.

Another more practical example occurs when you feel the need to eat.  The sensation of hunger is triggered by internal physical mechanisms and processes which cause you to look for something to eat.  The question you are answering when you search for food is: how do I end this sensation?  You may choose to posit the question differently but the answer remains the same.  Eat!

Generally speaking, this kind of question asking goes on unconsciously.  Philosophers have a term for the unconscious type of question; they call it a covert assumption.  Because covert suggests secretiveness, I prefer the term functioning assumption, the assumption upon which our actions are based.  Since every assumption we have stems from a question about the nature of reality, we can best examine our assumptions by looking at the questions for which they are the answer.  The easiest way to start doing this is to be disciplined in consistently asking yourself questions about why you do this or that.  Where did I pick up this notion? Why did I do that? What am I trying to accomplish? Where is this leading me?

Once you can reliably get to the questions which guide your actions, you need to start asking questions about those questions. Ask questions such as: is this question going to get me to the essence of this situation? Is this question one I need to ask at this time? What is the point? Or: Is there a more appropriate question than that? Could that question be phrased differently and, if so, how might that affect the answer I might arrive at? Questions like these need to be asked. The moment you begin asking yourself such questions is the moment that your thinking and behavior begin to assume the quality of deliberateness.  As soon as your question asking becomes reliably deliberate, you stop behaving in a conditioned manner.  You notice your conditioning.  You ask questions about your conditioning.  As you find answers to these questions, you notice how your attention shifts from the superficial level to deeper levels of concern.  When people behave in a shallow manner, it is due to a failure to engage in this process. Everyone alive is capable of learning to ask these questions and of profiting from doing so.

 The nature of questions

 Questions only generate the answers for which the questions were posed.  The phrase: "Ask a stupid question and you get a stupid answer!" reflects how obvious this truth about the nature of questions really is.  In spite of this obviousness, very few people act like they really understand exactly how significant it is.  Maybe our understanding might be enhanced by saying instead, "Ask the right question, get the right answer." Nevertheless, once you are impressed by the significance of the consequences of the exact wording of your questions, you may begin to treat your question asking with the respect it deserves.  As you treat your question asking with respect, you will naturally wish to think about and weigh the precise use of words as you select them in the formulation of your questions.  And finally, you eventually learn to control your formulations to "force" the answers you wish to have—by an artful posing of the questions you ask.  

Ask a general question; get a general answer.  Ask a specific question; get a specific answer.  Ask a question that anyone could ask; get an answer that anyone could get.  Ask the right question; get the right answer. Knowing how to ask the right question usually comes with practice and with a feeling of urgency about wanting to know what is true.

When your question asking improves, your focus will shift to ever deeper levels of awareness.  Your attention will become more richly rewarded for what you pay.  When you begin to ask questions that request the answers to provide a foundation of relationship about what you are experiencing and learning, your perception will  skyrocket.

Some Tricks to Improve Focus

Focus is also dependent on your interests, so it behooves you to regulate, very carefully, what you choose to be interested in.  This requires some significant mental discipline.  But, there are a few tricks that can help you improve your concentration on important things. 

1.  Practice trying to concentrate with a multitude of distractions while doing those things that you find most interesting.  Concentration is the ability to work, think, be, or do undistracted. In other words, concentration is the trait of undistractability.  Distraction is whatever attracts your interest from the business at hand. Concentration is like a muscle.  If you don't exercise your muscles, you won't become stronger and you might actually experience muscle atrophy—as the saying goes, “use it or lose it.  The same is true for concentration.  (Caution: do not do this exercise on tasks or projects that are of marginal interest.)  Begin this exercise with the most interesting things.  Then, gradually pile up the distractions in order to challenge your concentration.  The more distractions you can deal with and still maintain your concentration, the stronger your concentration "muscle" will become.  You may consider yourself successful when you can concentrate for 2 to 3 hours at a time and accomplish what you intended.  When your concentration has been groomed and strengthened, you can begin to take on jobs that challenge your interest.  The more you challenge your interest, be sure to reduce the numbers of distractions.  When you can do something that totally bores you in a disciplined, mindful manner, you may consider yourself successful at having learned the discipline of concentration.

Focus and concentration are related abilities.  However, it is easily possible to be focused without concentrating and concentrated without focusing.  This is because focus has to do with what you direct your attention to and concentration has only to do with being undistractable.  Since it is easy to be totally unfocused yet thoroughly concentrated (becoming “hypnotized” by watching a numbingly inane TV program so intently that you become unaware of anything at all) or to be totally focused without concentrating (evading creative work by turning the attention on all the distractions—letting anything that might distract have its way) it is essential that focus and concentration be seen as discrete functions.  

2.  Study your boredom. ( I cover this subject in greater detail in an essay which you will find in the next section of this book.) Boredom is actually a very interesting mental state.  It is the absence of interest.  When you have problems focusing, the cause is usually insufficient external stimuli.  When that happens, you feel bored. Each person has a different threshold of sufficiency of stimuli.  The natural reaction to boredom is to mentally shut down and tune out.  Doing this is actually very destructive. The reason it is destructive is that you are, at that point, consciously not paying attention. Therefore, the counteraction to this destructive reaction is to study yourself while you are being bored.  By study, I mean, notice as much as possible about how the state feels and study the causes of that state.  You will find that you can learn much more by studying your boredom than by studying anything else.

3.  Invent or construct conditions in your work under which focused attention naturally occurs.  Generally speaking, there are three different types of conditions that naturally bring about a heightened state of mental focus.  First is the condition of fear,  life endangerment, peril, flight, or confrontation.  These all will cause you to get focused quickly.    If you can invent a way of doing something so that you can easily imagine being imperiled during the doing (even if there is no danger present), you will find that you  can do what you do with a focus that is razor sharp.  Second is the condition of need.  Need is a state of urgency that makes the mind almost frantically focused.  The mind is so focused that it can process information at a rate ten or fifteen times the normal rate.  It is unimportant to the mind that the feeling of need be real.  That is, the feeling of need can be faked.  If you have a powerful enough imagination, you can convince your mind that the fake need is real.  That will result in the mind being more focused in order to meet the need.  Third is the condition of pressure.  Again, faked or real, pressure is treated in a similar way, by the mind, as is fear and need.  The kind of pressures that I have in mind are: accuracy pressures, time pressures, quality pressures, quantity pressures, etc.  By challenging yourself with the pressures to be more precise, more diligent, more rapid, more productive, more ...  , you learn to become more focused while you are doing what is important to you.

Mind Watching

Finally,  focus can be improved and sustained by meditation.  I don't mean transcendental meditation or religious meditation.  Instead, the meditation I mean is what I call: mind watching.  Mind watching is done by sitting in a quiet comfortable place and then letting your mind wander.  Letting the mind wander is an opportunity to study where it goes.  The most important disciplines that you can acquire during mind watching are an absolute acceptance of what the mind comes up with and a judgment about the value of what is produced.  

Often, we have terrible thoughts and thoughts that are very destructive.  Our tendency is to dismiss these thoughts,  to put them out of our conscious mind.  The danger of dismissing them is that you may also be acting out of denial. On the other hand, we can easily get lured into dwelling on thoughts that are either entertaining or pleasurable. These kinds of thoughts become a form of addiction when we can’t let them go. The tendency to either deny thoughts that are painful or become attached to thoughts that are pleasurable is normal but also leads to mental dead ends. 

Mental dead ends can be avoided by  acknowledging thoughts as you have them and accepting them as they are happening while depersonalizing them. This means knowing and feeling that (1) you are you  and (2) your thought are thoughts your brain is having but that they are not you.  You and your thoughts are not one and the same. This means having the attitude about yourself that you are like a driver in a car. Your mind is the car.  Your car is not you but you are in charge of it.  How well it runs is determined by the care you take of it.  If your car starts going down roads that it wants to travel but which you don’t want to go down, who is in charge? If your car goes where it pleases, it is in charge.  It is imperative that you be the one in charge of saying where it goes. During mind watching, if you decide to go down those roads, you do so only to see where your car is taking you.

Once you have acknowledged and accepted the thoughts you are having, it is just as important to classify them, to say that they are disgusting or revolting, brilliant or true, dumb or false, pleasurable or  lustful, etc.  Once you have judged what your thoughts are as they occur, you can learn to develop impatience with reoccurring thoughts that you deem to be pointless or worthless. Then, if you wish to dismiss those thoughts, do so.  You can also learn to catch and hold on to thoughts that never occurred to you before so that you can think about them later.  

The point behind mind watching is to develop a habit of being in charge of your own mind.  The more you watch your mind, the more you get to know about the way it works.  The more you know about how it works, the more control you can exercise over its processes.  The more control you can exercise over its processes, the more focused you will become.  The more focused you become, the more "in charge" of your mental life you will be.  When you are in charge of your thinking processes, you have power.  When you have no control over these processes, you are powerless and inept.  The purpose for mind watching, ultimately, is to empower yourself to accomplish the things you focus your attention upon.

Taken altogether these various techniques, attitudes, and suggestions should be useful to help you improve your ability to focus your mind.  Being able to focus your mind is absolutely essential to being able to listen skillfully. 

In musical instrument making, the plethora of acoustic phenomena that are manifest in the simple act of tapping on a soundboard are so complex that without the skill of focus you will not be able to isolate important or pertinent sounds from irrelevant sounds.  At first you may think that you can succeed in doing what you need to do merely by functioning according to your accustomed habits. However, when those habits begin to get in the way and hamper your ability to listen effectively, you will see the need to abandon those habits and to replace them with the skills I have just discussed. I have found that those who fail to learn the skill of focus in order to listen effectively usually abandon the business of listening altogether. They dismiss their inability to hear what is going on in a complex system by using two different rationalizations. One rationalization is that the system being so complex that no one can really hear anything in it with any real degree of reliability; hence, those who say they can hear reliably are fooling themselves and others.  The other rationalization is that anyone who can hear anything reliably in a system so complex has more talent and therefore no amount of greater effort applied on the part of anyone less talented is going to change their own lack of talent.  

I repeat, listening effectively is a skill that anyone can learn.  It took me the better part of fifteen years to learn how and that is only because I had no one to show me how to do it or what I was supposed to be listening for. Making excuses for not learning this skill is the best way I know to fail to be an effective listener.  It is hard work.  It is painful at times.  It is time consuming.  But it is essential for anyone who wants to build instruments that genuinely sound wonderful.  In the end, it is perhaps the supreme test for one’s spiritual measure.  Those who can pass this test will enter a realm wherein the intricacies and mysteries of sound are revealed.  Character, not talent, is what makes the difference.


As your focus improves by the practice of using it, your perception will grow.  Perception increases in direct proportion to the amount of detail noticed. When you turn your focus on your perceptions, your insight will increase.  Insight expands when two or more perceptions seem to connect in the mind. If you focus on your insights, they will cause your understanding to improve. Generally, understanding is linked to an appreciation of relationships between one insight and another. When your understanding of these relationships improves, your work will reflect it.  That is, quality is a by product of the understanding of relationships.All depends on using your mind to focus on what you are sensing.


Sensing is how you train your attention.  Ultimately, how you train your attention and on what you train your attention will determine the quality of your listening.  As it goes with the quality of your listening so it goes for the quality of your work. The two are inextricably linked.

In a very real way, the depth of your sensing determines the depth of your spirituality. The other way around is also true, that is, your depth of spirituality determines your depth of sensing. When I use the word spirituality I do not refer to anything remotely connected to religion.  The spirituality I speak of is your degree of awareness of your living essence.  For me, this means my degree of aware attention which I pay to nervous energy as it flows throughout my body and mind. I use nervous as it applies to the nervous system.  Sensory nerve impulses of the subtlest intensity are what I use in order to cultivate a sensitivity to the flow of energy as it moves about my brain.  

This is not an esoteric theory. This is instead as precise an explanation as I can give for the process which I refer to as sensing.  Another more long winded way to discuss sensing is to speak of those things which get in the way of sensing and to follow that discussion with another on exactly what sensing means.

Forces that Inhibit Sensing

There are four different yet related forces that inhibit sensing, in the way I mean sensing. These forces are: fear, desire, comfort, and security. The first and most powerful force is fear.  Fear is a mode of mental behavior in which the survival instinct center of the brain takes over and determines every decision and therefore every action.  This function of the brain is designed to save your life.  Every human brain is “wired” with this survival instinct fear mode function mechanism.  However, since most human beings in the world today don’t have to worry about being attacked by man eating tigers, this wiring is a hindrance because it continues to function even when there is no real need for it.  

The primary purpose of that center of the brain, where fear is in control, is to save your life.  To do this, speed is of the utmost importance.  In an emergency, taking time to think about what to do when under attack could cost you your life.  It is the speed of response in this brain area that makes it so efficient for doing its job.  But it is also the speed response of this area of the brain that is a problem.  I will explain.

In order to quickly respond to emergency situations, this area of the brain requires only the minimum amount of information to create a reaction.  This minimum amount of information is called a schema. A schema is a representation ( an idea) or replacement of something (a concept) in which most of the details are missing. In other words,  a stick figure of a man is a schema and as such contains all the information the brain requires in order to know that what is meant is a man.  When speed is of the essence, then, any more information only gets in the way.

The problem is that most human beings begin life using this part of the brain as the primary means of perceiving reality.  Any early experiences that are highly stressful merely reinforce the need for continuing to use this part of the brain.  At an early age, we can’t distinguish between feelings of stress and feelings of real life endangerment. The result is that most learning that humans experience, which is usually acquired under stress, is stored in the brain in a schematic form.  This problem is intensified by the fact that unlearning what is schematically acquired is a very painstaking process of paying attention to details missed the first time around.

Because this “schematic brain” needs very little information to do its job, and because the schematic brain is the area of the brain where fear is located, any experience, in which fear in any form is involved in any way, will be taken in schematically.  And since the details are missing from schemas, most of what might be perceived in such an experience will be missing altogether.  This is the way in which fear inhibits sensing.

Sensing must mean perceiving all the details both internal and external for it to have any real meaning at all.  To fully sense something is to do so only in a fully aware state of mind in which fear of any kind is wholly absent.  If perhaps you haven’t cultivated a fully aware state of mind, your perception will be reduced by the degree of your awareness.  If you have not fully banished every trace of fear from your mental process, your perception will be diminished accordingly.  Obviously, we all have a lot of work ahead of us if we are to accomplish full awareness of what we are sensing.  But I believe that everyone has the capability to master this skill.  The key is desire.


Second in the list of four inhibitors to sensing is desire.  Wait a minute!  The last sentence in the previous paragraph was: the key is desire.  How is it possible for desire to be both a key to mastering the skill of full awareness and an inhibitor to sensing?  The answer to this question is in how you relate to desire.  If you think of desire as possession, then desire is an inhibiting force.  If you think of desire as wishing, then desire is an inhibiting force.  If you think of desire as wanting, then desire is an inhibiting force.  If you think of desire as being drawn towards, then desire is the key.  For if you are drawn towards achieving full awareness and complete perception, you won’t be sucked into thinking of them as objects to be acquired.

The problem we all have with desire is that it is an expression of an attitude of being object oriented.  That is, because we are given toys and other things when we are young, we learn at an early age what having means.  Having means things.  Things are not a part of ourselves. When we see that things mean something to adults, we learn to focus our attention on things.  The objects of our attention become more complex as we age.   For some, the objects are ideas.  For others, the objects are processes.  Objects can also be the usual things but can also include notions, beliefs, habits, projects, relationships, and other such distractions.  I call them distractions because, as objects, they divert us from paying attention to our inner lives. 

When we are successful in reformulating our minds to a right relationship with desire, it is possible to acquire and possess things, to wish for, want, to desire anything without having the sensing experience inhibited by the desire for the object.  Objects in such a relationship become tools for the purpose of building stronger perceptions and more complete awareness.  This happens naturally as the objects are viewed as expressions of principles.

Naturally, reformulating the mind to be in a right relationship with desire is more than a little hard work.  It is extremely hard work.  It means denying the instinct for territory, the pride of ownership, the thrill of acquisition, the pleasure of being envied by others, the joy of having, and all other such vanities.  It is the hard work that is at the core for why sensing eludes most people.  Laziness, indolence, and inertia usually overwhelm the ordinary person when they contemplate doing mental work of this sort.  It is the feeling of comfort of inaction that is the third force which inhibits sensing.


Anything that calls us to do more than what is absolutely required threatens our feelings of comfort. Comfort, in this case, refers to a feeling of pleasure that comes from not sensing, not doing, or not thinking.  For instance, when we think of a bed as comfortable, it is the fact that we notice nothing unpleasant from the experience of lying in it.  If it is too hard, we feel uncomfortable. When it is too lumpy, we feel uncomfortable. When it is too soft, we feel uncomfortable.  When it sags in the middle, we feel uncomfortable.  The same goes for ideas, beliefs, notions, etc.  When they accord perfectly with how we would like the world to be, they feel comfortable to us.  When they don’t, we feel uncomfortable with them. In otherwords, comfort exists when nothing wrong attracts our attention.  

The problem with comfort is that it is a condition that humans tend to want to exist.  Usually, we want a condition of comfort to exist so strongly that we will do almost anything to make it come about—even to the point of purposely not paying attention.  What you don’t notice won’t bother you.  When you assume an attitude of inattention, you are actively cultivating dullness of mind, body and spirit—i.e. the bliss of ignorance.  Unfortunately, the bliss of ignorance can easily become a curse if at some point you need to know.  Lulled into a comfortable mindlessness from practiced inattention, people can find themselves between a rock and a hard place if life’s circumstances force them into needing to pay attention.  Unequipped to use the mind for such hard work, their lives shatter or crumble into a self inflicted misery.

The way to deal with the problem of comfort is to reject it as a goal or ideal.  The better way to deal with it is to treat it as an evil—not a major evil but a tiny evil that  one always needs to be wary of.  Then, when comfort is experienced, it may be enjoyed completely for a moment but it is soon packed up and put away for safe keeping until a time when it is really needed.

Indifference to comfort allows the mind to be ready and alert.  Cultivating indifference to every form of comfort grooms the mind into a state of alertness and readiness.  Listening requires an ever alert mind to be successful.  Anything that detracts from that condition of readiness is destructive of true listening. 

Of all the comforts, security and the feeling of need for security are the most difficult to become indifferent to. This is why security forms an almost impenerable barrier to listening.


Security is a condition most human beings think they need to be happy.  Ironically, some of the most secure individuals are some of the most unhappy people.  Those who know how every day of their lives is going to go, how every expense is going to be covered, how every thought is going to be resolved, or how every action is going to occur, live lives no more rewarding than that of an inmate in a prison.  The converse of security is change not insecurity.  How you relate to change is what makes you secure or insecure.  If you think change is an enemy, you will always feel insecure.  That is, you become a prisoner of your compulsion to eliminate change.  That compulsion is enough to completely stifle sensing.

If, on the other hand, you think of change as your best friend, then you can embrace change as a tonic needed to stay young and vital.  When you are not threatened by change, you can pay attention to how things change.  You can learn to anticipate the changes that are coming by a kind of forward sensing in order to predict how things will go in the future.  

When you function without the stifling effects of these four sensing inhibitors, you become free to notice a host of relationships previously unnoticed and a world of sensory experiences which together constitute the food on which your spirit thrives.

Finally, there is one condition that has as much if not more a paralyizing effect on our ability to listen skillfully.  I call that condition opaqueness of mind.

 Opaqueness of Mind

A mind that is preoccupied by every concern other than paying close attention to sensing is rendered opaque to any significant sensory experience.  Like a brick wall which forms a successful barrier to passage, a preoccupied mind prohibits passage of anything except that which is occupying it.  Opaque to the light of reason  or the illumination of intuition, the proccupied mind is locked in to the objects of its fancy like a rat in a treadwheel.  For this reason, it is imperative to good listening to get off the treadwheel and to focus on sensing. 

What to do about these sensing inhibitors.

Perhaps the most effective means of dealing with these factors that inhibit sensing is to adopt a courageous frame of mind.

The way of courage means being willing to assume full responsibility for your actions and destiny. Being responsible also means careful listening, scrupulous attention paying, and inventing imaginative ways of making a living.  It means devaluing the esteem of others in order to be free of the hold on you which valuing it imposes.  It means never being satisfied that what you have perceived as true is true by subjecting it to incessant criticism and inquiry.  It means understanding as much as possible in order to better explain to others the nature of the reality it is that you perceive.

The way of courage means poking holes in your own thinking to discover all the places where weaknesses may be found.  And, above all, it means eradicating from yourself all traces of preconceived notions, vested interests, mindlessness, idleness, cynicism, bitterness, and all other vestiges of a well groomed ego.  These must be replaced with the qualities of openness, flexibility, selflessness, mindfulness, industry, nobility, sincerity, grace, and humility—and if being courageous makes others think you are arrogant, that is their problem... not yours.

It takes courage to think your own thoughts; not those designed to make you feel secure.  It takes courage, to appear in opposition to others when it is really their opposition to the truth that vexes them.  It takes courage to allow others to defame you without thinking ill of them for doing what comes naturally.  It takes courage to focus on essence when the rest of the world rewards what is shallow.  It takes courage to follow the dictates of your conscience when the criticism of others can make life uneasy.  But, fortunately, courage has its rewards.

Courage offers a clarity and freedom of thought not otherwise achieved.  Courage endows its possessors with fortitude, endurance, perserverance, and tenacity.  Courage engenders esteem and respect from the best members of the human race.  And, it’s more fun than its alternative.

Understanding Sensing

Since the ability to listen hinges on the proper way of sensing, it is crucial to delve into those ways of sensing that are improper, at least from the standpoint of developing the art of listening.

The first way of thinking that is destructive of good listening habits is the notion, long espoused (over 2500 years), that one should not trust the senses.  Even today, philosophers, scientists, thinkers, and otherwise intelligent people hold to the notion that it is best to not trust your senses.  The reasons most often used to buttress this idiotic notion are: one, that reality is an illusion, and two, that the senses are easily deceived.  As long as you are only interested in the surface of things, as most people are, then these reasons are fully justified.  If you buy into the notion that the senses are not to be trusted, then you must by default buy into the conventional notions of what is trustworthy.  Should you choose to invest your attention on those things that you think you can trust because the rest of the world considers them trustworthy, here is what you are investing in.  One: what scientists accept as true.  Forty years ago, back in the 1950’s, people invested great trust in the word of scientists.  Scientists put great trust in themselves.  There was no problem for which science could not provide the solution.  Today, should you ever find all scientists to agree on anything you’re in luck! And if they do, it probably won’t change the outcome of your life all that much.  Add to this the reality that scientists have actually created more problems than they have solved, it is no wonder that science has lost the glow of all that people had come to expect of it. Two: in a similar vein, you could put your trust in what psychologists have found is true.  You are in trouble here because these people don’t know what perception is much less how it actually functions. And, finally, three: what has been handed down to us through the ages by thinkers—religious, philosophical, spiritual, etc.— as true.  It is a circular argument for a thinker who begins with the assumption that the senses are not to be trusted to say that anything is true or not true.  It is circular, in my judgment, because no thought that emanates from a brain that is disconnected from its senses can be taken seriously, especially the thought that the senses cannot be trusted.

My point of view is: Trust your senses, and The mind is easily deceived.  Therefore, put all your trust in your senses but don’t necessarily trust what you at first, or at second or third, for that matter, make of them or how you naturally interpret what they are telling you. For this reason, question everything but don’t doubt your senses. The senses are impossible to deceive.  They have no mind of their own.  How do you deceive a radio receiver?  It is the radio listener who is easily deceived not the object that is the vehicle of the impressions.  The senses are mere receivers of frequency impressions.  Since what you make of those impressions is entirely dependent on how you relate to them, it is your relative act that needs work.  And if you are going to work on  this at all, don’t start with the preconceived notion that your senses are untrustworthy.

As far as reality being an illusion is concerned, that, too, is a feeble minded notion which flows from the tendency that people naturally have to think that whatever they think is worth something merely because they thunk it.  Part of human nature is to not listen or look too carefully.  This tendency causes some people to take the material world too seriously and causes others to treat the whole business as an illusion—designed to deceive us.  Why should we take seriously the notions of those who don’t listen or look all that carefully? We shouldn’t.  Nor should we take the idea that reality is an illusion as truth merely because ancient philosophers, Indian mystics, and modern scientists have invented a reason for thinking it so.  

How would it be if you observed the light from a distant star and the light from that star might be coming from one that exploded one million years ago.  If the light we see is older than one billion years it would not reflect the reality of the more recent death of the star.  What we know or do not know in no way invalidates the sensations we now receive. It is trumped up speculation that triggers this suggestion of illusion.  No person living has witnessed the death of a star and knew what he was seeing, so why should we care about what may or may not be unknowable? What’s the point?  Indeed, it is the construction of such entertaining speculation that makes science fun but one ought never to take the products of this play seriously as a way of thinking.

When you really begin to investigate the nature of reality in its utmost detail, what you find is an incredibly spectacular work of art in its designs, structures, behaviors, and expressions. Let me illustrate this. Most people now understand that magic, the art of illusion, is merely a craft of carefully constructed deceptions.  The art of painting used to be the craft of three dimensional depiction or illusion (until in the 20th century when it became the expression of the deluded).  To me, reality is the Art of God.  We can delude ourselves by fixating on the material aspect of God’s Art, like art scholars discussing the patch of ground on which the flax was grown to make the canvas and linseed oil for a Titan painting or dismissing it altogether like religious fanatics dismissing all forms of art as worthless because it conjures illusions—what a bore!!!  Better is to delight in the intricacies of nature’s workings, imitate its effects in our own efforts, and be grateful that we have the opportunity to be witnesses to it.

Distrusting your senses

The most tragic effect of this attitude is what happens to the brains of those who do not trust their senses.  The brain feeds on attention to sensory impression in the same way that the body feeds on molecules of protien, carbohydrates, minerals, and so on.  Just as the body may be starved of nutrients because the person distrusts the food placed in front of him, the brain, too, may be starved from the absence of attention paid to sublime sensations which are the spiritual nutrients on which the brain relies to thrive.  Starved of adequate nutrition, the brain responds by shutting down the systems within itself that most depend on this sustenance, systems such as the intuition, the imagination, and eventually the nervous system, as the brain, like the bodies of those who are anorexic begin to consume themselves irreversibly, begins the process of consuming its own support system. 

Trusting your senses

 When you trust your senses, your brain is in the business of making sense of all the impressions that flow in.  When sense has been made of some impressions, knowledge occurs.  Thought depends on the clarity of the impressions.  Fuzzy thinking flows from an indifferent attitude about paying attention to the senses.  Clear thinking flows from persistent attention paying to the senses.  The degree of clarity is directly proportional to the degree of intensity of attention paid to the senses and to the degree of sublimity of the impressions noticed.  A genius is merely one who pays the greatest attention to the most sublime sense impressions and knows how to optimize the results of that attention.

Ideally speaking, no interpretation should take place, only observation.  When people who pay attention to their senses fall into error, it is because they bothered to interpret what they took in.  That is, they chose to put a spin on it. To avoid the trap of interpretation you need to have an attitude of dispassion.


By dispassion I mean the absence of emotional reaction. It does not mean the absence of feeling an emotion.  Instead, it means feeling the emotion but choosing not to have a reaction to the feeling.  When we react to a feeling we experience, we do so because we have generated an interpretation for why we feel as we do.  If we feel that the interpretation is justified, we generate an appropriate expression to vent the feelings which the interepretation itself created. Self righteous indignation is a handy example of this process.  When our sense what is right has been violated, we tend to feel hurt because of the violation.  As we brood over why we feel hurt, we might conclude that the violator was wrong to have violated us.  This conclusion itself is enough to create in us the feelings of indignation. 

With dispassion, we may feel an emotion but dispassion is a choice we make not to engage in the remainder of the cycle of passion, that is, interpretation and the feeling in us that the interpretation itself generates.  In this way of thinking, dispassion is more like a habit that one learns.  Over time, as this habit becomes more a part of our modus operandi, it is even possible to develop an absence of the initial feeling itself. 

Excellence in listening requires such a level of dispassion.  But, it is especially the absence of interpretive spin that characterizes dispassion.  By delaying or avoiding interpretive tendencies, you give yourself more time to make sense of inflowing impressions.  Good listening involves this certain delayed response mechanism.  For if you are too quick to respond or react to something you stop listening the moment you respond or react.  The need to put a spin on some impression is a sure sign of weak listening habits.

Further, dispassion is the setting aside of a recognized emotion for the purpose of getting closer to the truth.  It does not mean being cold—although this behavior can often appear cold to others.  It does not mean heartless—although others may interpret the lack of overt reaction as being aloof and arrogant.  It does not mean unable to feel.  Being dispassionate merely means not allowing the emotions to have any influence on decision making and perception.  

People who cultivate a high degree of dispassion are often the most passionate of people.  Because they don’t allow their emotions to influence their decision making, they can express their feelings openly, that is, without editing their behavior.  In these people enthusiasm runs high as does dissatisfaction.  What is felt is allowed by them to be felt very intensely in order to make the feelings easy to register and disallow.

Nothing ruins the purity of listening more than emotion.  Whether or not the emotion is positive or negative is of no account.  Any trace of emotion befouls the experience.  What do I mean by emotion?  The emotions of desire, affection, envy, jealousy, anger, most forms of love, most forms of hate, joy, anxiety, etc. and any degree of these are what I mean.  More specifically, I mean the range of feelings that are centered in the hypothalamus and are related to pleasure and pain.  Though these feelings have their uses in human experience, they are useless and prohibitive in the act of listening.  Dispassion is the systematic recognition of these feelings as they may exist and prevention of them from polluting the business of listening.  It is upon this aspect that good listening depends.  The better you are at cultivating dispassion when listening, the more purely you will perceive.

Dispassion also guarantees listening success in direct proportion to the degree that it is applied.  The more dispassionate you are while listening, the more clear, pure, and illuminated your listening experiences will be.  Contrarily, the more emotion you allow to be insinuated into the process, the more turgid, troubled, and dark it will  be.

However you may agree or disagree with these assertions and how they are expressed don't really matter much in terms of listening.  If you hate what I have said but you listen purely, then you do what I am talking about.  If you totally agree with what I have said but can't listen well, it is because you are not being dispassionate enough.  My reason for expressing this in this way is that it is often hard for us to realize or actualize what we feel and think.  Often, we think that thinking something and being convinced of it is sufficient for us to be assured that we are doing what we intend.  Sadly, this is  just not true.  

Thinking that you are an artist and being convinced of it is no guarantee that you are in fact an artist.  Not even the appellation of others who call you an artist can make you one.  It is the quality of your work that defines you as an artist.  And it is the quality of your listening that determines the quality of your work.  Therefore, it is important to avoid the trap of self deception, into which we all fall at times, by learning to focus on how we are sensing and on what may be inhibiting the purity of that sensing.

The work of becoming dispassionate can't be avoided nor eased.  If you want to become a masterful listener, becoming dispassionate is what you accept as part of that territory.  If being dispassionate were easy, I would tell you it is.  It is very difficult.  But anyone who makes an effort, over time, can become better at it.  The beauty of this is that when you get better at dispassionate listening, the quality of your work improves.  As the quality of your work improves, the easier it is to be dispassionate when you are listening.  By judging your work dispassionately, you can tell if your listening skills are improving.  The two nourish each other.

There is one more attitude that I can share with you that I have learned which may be helpful: how you relate to mistakes—your own as well as those of others.  If you treat mistakes as personal faults, then you will have a hard time learning to listen.  On the other hand, if you love mistakes for what they can teach you and use mistakes as jumping boards to catapult you to higher awareness, then learning to listen will be simplified because the mistakes don't possess the emotional baggage they might otherwise have.  Mistakes and "face" are closely connected.  Mistakes and sensory insult are closely connected.  Mistakes and emotions are closely connected.  By having a loving attitude towards mistakes, you can break those connections.  Mistakes become just mistakes. And they only have the power to make you lose face, insult your senses, or make you feel lousy if and when you allow them to.

 Learning to sense more deeply, or, sensing sensing.

Now comes the problem of learning how to sense more clearly and deeply.  Having clear and deep sensations means training  your attention on what you are sensing as well as on how that is affecting you.  Specifically, that involves focusing your attention on sensing the act of sensing.  It means studying your mind's responses to each sensory observation.  When I speak about this idea with others, they usually draw a big blank. I guess that doing this has become so normal for me that I assume that everyone does the same.  Therefore, I will try to be as precise and as unconfusing as possible.

Were I to touch your arm with my finger and you were aware that I did so, you could have one of a dozen ways of being aware of what happened.  Here they are.  1.  The “legal” reality.  What a judge and jury might decide about whether A touched B.  2.  The moral reality.  Was A supposed to have touched B?  3.  The ethical reality.  Was the touching of B by A the right thing to do?  4.  The intellectual reality.  For what reason did A touch B?  5. The emotional reality. What did A mean by touching B?  6. The sexual reality.  What did A want when he touched B?  7.  The sensory reality - level one. I sensed the pressure, texture, and temperature of a warm smooth object touching me.  8. The sensory reality - level two.  Something touched me. 9.  The sensory reality - level three.  Sensation took place.  10.  The spiritual reality - level one. Attention was paid.  11.  The spiritual reality - level two.  Knowing occurred.  12.  The spiritual reality - level three.  Being.

The “legal” or so-called objectively provable reality may or may not be true and can only be established in a court of law when two or more witnesses agree.  Since it is your word against mine, what we report as the truth is entirely dependent on what we think is in our best interest.  That approach to reality is not the soundest basis for objective consideration. 

The moral reality may or may not be relevant; and if relevant, your interpretation depends on what you happen to believe is moral or immoral behavior.  Since you can believe anything you prefer, it can hardly be construed as objective.  The same goes for the ethical reality, the emotional reality, and the sexual reality. There are other similar realties but they, too, fall into the same category of what is commonly cast as objective reality.  The supposed function of a good lawyer in a courtroom is to ferret out the fluff and end up with as clean a description of legal reality as possible.  In practice, however, “legal” reality is a fiction, nothing more and nothing less. So it’s not objectively real either. But this does not stop people from thinking of these non-realities as being objectively real.

From my point of view, I have a hard time in accepting that the first six of these ways of being aware are anything but subjective. They are highly subject to interpretation and invested manipulation. Hence, they don't have any ultimate significance.  Some of them may have some meaning, but that meaning is irrelevant.  Only the remaining six ways are in the realm of the truly objective.  The problem is that you can't prove them in a court of law—as though this were the be all and end all of true objectivity.  To be truly objective, an experience must be pure of all interpretation and invested manipulation. 

Each of these twelve levels of awareness is accompanied by a certain kind of relationship between a person and his or her emotions.  The more you are aware of your emotional condition while observing reality, the more clear and objective will be your sensing.   People who typically process the world in ways 1 through 6 have a relationship with their emotions such that the person and his or her emotions are one and the same.  To sense in ways 7 through 12 requires you to fully recognize what you are feeling emotionally and be able to dismiss the feelings in order to prevent them from obstructing your clarity of perception.  This relationship is one that recognizes emotions as something that you have but they are not who you are.  Not being who you are, emotions may be clung to or cast away as you see fit to do.  Sensing can only have purity when the emotions are set aside completely.  Those who can do this are the best listeners.  They can then focus their entire attention on the appreciation and awareness of the energy flow involved in the sensory act.  This is sensing as I mean it. 

A Hierarchy for Listening

The business of listening is not an easy undertaking.  What makes it difficult is the fact that though our ears hear, our minds are what do the listening.  It is astonishing how few people actually use their minds in a deliberate disciplined manner.  Listening requires significant discipline to silence the competing attention grabbers.  It requires a methodical deliberate approach to avoid a drain on one's focus.

Every activity, venture, or situation has its appropriate hierarchy of attention.  There is a natural hierarchy for listening that may be useful in order to develop listening skills quickly and effectively.  This hierarchy is structured according to the subtlety of the phenomena.  The person who called this idea to my attention was Marianne Ploger (of the  frequency related timbre, the second acoustic principle, fame).  She developed a hierarchy for her ear training students for them to be able to avoid being deluded, distracted, or deceived by changes that might occur during an ear training exam.  Her hierarchy is based on what the ear naturally grabs on to when hearing sound.  I have adapted her idea and applied it to hearing the sounds of musical instruments. 

First and easiest to hear is what the ear has the greatest context for comparison, that is, volume or loudness.  The ear hears sounds as loud or soft before knowing anything about the sound.  If a sound is loud it may be compared to a clap of thunder or a person yelling at the top of his lungs.  If a sound is soft it can be compared to a whisper or the hum of a mosquito in flight.

Second is timbre or wave form.  In a natural setting, we learn to recognize the differences between the sounds of crickets, katydids, canaries, sparrows, humming birds, cats, dogs, people, and weather by their various sound colors or peculiarities.  The ear has no problems recognizing specific sounds as belonging to a known sound source unless the sound is too soft to hear easily.  However, were a sound, such as that produced by a cricket dropped in pitch by several octaves and made very loud, the ear would not recognize it as belonging to a 16' CRICKET. It would either draw a blank or create in the mind a metaphor about the experience until more was known about the sound.

This makes pitch the third aspect of sound in the hierarchy.  Pitch recognition is merely a way of more specifically recognizing a sounding source.  In musical instrument sounds pitch recognition comes in two forms.  One is called "perfect pitch" recognition and the other is called "relative pitch" recognition.

All the ear really cares about is whether or not one pitch is higher or lower than another.  To the ears of normal people, all pitches are a matter of complete indifference—they are much more interested in timbre as well as other acoustic properties of sound.

First of these other properties of sound, and fourth in the hierarchy of hearing, is what happens to a sound after the sound begins.  This is usually called decay, which is appropriate for most musical instruments that sound dead.  When a sound is dead, it is in the act of rapidly disappearing until it is too soft to hear; other than that nothing of consequence happens.  Sometimes musicians try their best to gussie up these dead sounding pitches by the use of vibrato, sort of like nudging and nudging a dead horse in order to make everyone think that the horse is still alive.  Other times they use techniques to create an illusion of making the sound feel as though it is alive.  Pianists do this by using the damper pedal to bring out as much sympathetic resonance as possible.  This creates a somewhat successful illusion of life.  What these techniques are attempting to reproduce is the effect of inflection in human speech. 

The ear is totally accustomed to hearing inflection in everyday speech.  But it has more trouble to recognize it in the sound of musical instruments.  Once this inflecting behavior is heard for what it is, however, the ear can easily recognize it.  I am referring, of course, to " bloom".  Bloom gives the feeling in us that sound is a living substance.  Without bloom, sound feels to be as dead as doodle dust.  In the hierarchy of listening, bloom is usually more obvious than tone and is usually mistaken for it.

Fifth in the hierarchy is tone.  Generally, most musicians have enough contextual experience to recognize sounds as having good tone or bad tone. The human brain is designed to recognize tone of voice in human speech.  The speech center in the right side of the brain is responsible for making sense out of the tones of voice heard in everyday speech in order to provide a true reading of the  environment of speech utterances.  It does so by noticing the relationship between intensity (when a sound feels like it is straining to the utmost) and inflection (fluctuation of pitch, volume, and timbre).  

Without intensity, inflection sounds fake and insipid, like bad acting.  With intensity, almost any sound takes on the quality of meaning business.  It is this property of meaning business that tone expresses.  It can't be faked and it can't be ignored when it is present.  If you think otherwise, try ignoring a baby that is crying quietly.  Human brains are designed to not ignore tonal intensity. Yet, most musical instruments are made without tone because most people don't have the idea that they are supposed to have tone.  They think that tone is supposed to magically appear in an instrument after a certain number of notes have been played on it. 

This is the "aging notion" that is bandied about by many who like to think they understand the relationship between wine and musical sound. That is, because certain wines are known to improve with age and because the violins from Italy built in the 17th and 18th centuries sound wonderful and both are aged, the reason for the goodness must be age. Other than the usual playing-in period there is no relationship. (There is only a false logic similar to the spontaneous generation nonsense about flies magically being born from rotting flesh that these same people would likely have argued as true had they been born back in the 15th century.  Who knows, maybe flies do come from rot just as violins improve by being seventy five years older.)  If this aging notion were true, that would make the violins of Vuillaume at least as good as the fiddles by Guarneri del Jesu—they already have 150 years under their belts to prove it. So why don't they? 

Babies have tone the second they are born.  Great musical instruments have tone the moment they are first sounding.  Just as people acquire tonal sophistication with experience and the technical control it brings, musical instruments that have tone gradually sound better and better with correct use.  Instruments that have no tone to begin with sound the same or worse with use.  

The ear requires very little extra training to learn to notice tone.  And once noticed, the ear demands the effect and feels deprived when tone is absent.  Tone is usually intuitively recognized when it is recognized by untrained ears. People who naturally gravitate to sounds that have tone and pass over sounds that do not have tone are generally the most musically sensitive individuals in the population.  These people rarely have perfect pitch but always have excellent relative pitch awareness.  Even more, they have outstanding tonal "antennae".  It is my opinion that this aspect of tone recognition should be the only test of musicianship to qualify musicians for entry into music schools.  It is objective and measurable; and it is far more accurate in predicting the musical ability of a human being from the point of view of brain function.

Sixth in the hierarchy is resonance.  Generally speaking, if you can hear tone you can recognize resonance when you hear it.  Trying to appear sophisticated, many well intended musicians refer to loud, boomy, boxy, fundamental sounds as resonant. Loud booming sounds assault the ear.  Resonance fills the ear completely.  Loud booming sound is shallow.  Resonance is deep appearing.  Loud booming sound is tedious to hear.  Resonance energizes the listener.  Loud booming sound makes the listener numb.  Resonance focuses the listener's attention.  Loud booming sound has no clarity.  Resonance is solid, lucid, and transparent.  

Seventh is the property of perceptibility.  Perceptibility is that aspect of a sound that makes a sound capable of stirring the mind.  The cause of perceptibility is the degree of obvious structure in a sound.  The more structure, the more perceivable it is.  Perceivability exists when the brain can grasp the full extent of a sound at one listening.  Mediocre sounds, on the other hand, may be hearable but they are not perceivable.  Sometimes, those who can  sense the perceptibility of a sound say that it is palpable.

It is the degree of palpability that causes the effect of presence in a sound.  The more present a sound is the greater its ability to be perceived at great distances.  In musical instruments, this is called carrying power.  The difference in decibels between great instruments and loud mediocre instruments is not that significant.  What is significantly different is the apparent ease which the palpable sound has to penetrate the atmosphere of air and noise to touch the auditory sense undiminished by the impediments thrown against it.

Though everyone perceives such a sound, not everyone notices their perceptions.  This aspect of perceptibility in a sound is unsubtle enough to apprehend such that it can cause that noticing behavior to take place. When that happens, the person has an "Aha!" experience.  There is a sudden recognition of something finally making sense.

The eighth and most sublime level is that quality of sound which causes it to touch the soul directly.  I had the experience, when visiting Japan, of showing my harpsichords to a group of musicians.  One person in the group, who was the son of a Zen priest, said that, on hearing the sound of the instrument, he could feel his kundalini rising to his crown chakra and beyond.  I was astonished to find someone who was aware enough to be able to get the point of my work.  It is exceedingly gratifying when that happens spontaneously.  

That quality of sound occurs when every aspect that is involved in making a sound as enhanced as possible exists in exactly the right balance.  Nothing is missing. And everything fits as it should to create this effect.  For me, all my instruments are failures that do not possess this quality to some degree. Those that I have made that I like best have this quality in abundance.  The effect in these instruments is "enchanting".




by Keith Hill  ©  2015  Nashville,  TN


        Great work is neat, is quickly done, looks easy, and is right the first time.  These are the four principles of competent craftsmanship.  Whenever a piece of work is judged by anyone of discriminating taste to be less than good, its defects are the result of a failure to observe any or all of these principles.

         By comparison, the customary standards of craftsmanship applaud work that appears flawless no matter how it was done.  This standard requires zero understanding to either execute or appreciate—which is why it prevails today. Everyone should be able to judge everything equally—the democratic principle at work encouraging mindlessness in everyone equally. It is possible for a work to look absolutely flawless and still violate all four of these principles.  This is because neatness, easiness, and being right the first time rarely generate a flawless result.

         To create something which can bear up to the "rigors of mortise" and still give the impression that it is without flaw is a level of mastery to be envied.  It is this level to which I aspire.  But the line which must be tread between the attitude of making things appear as nature herself might grow them and creating the impression of being unflawed is no tightrope—it's a tight dental floss.  There is almost no room for error.  It entails having every detail of the final outcome so clearly in mind and knowing exactly how to get that result that when you work you can focus entirely on paying attention to the doing and the effects of what is being done.  Every detail that is not clearly in mind will result in a flaw.  Every aspect of technique that is missing from your method will create flaws.  Every instant that your attention is allowed to wander invites flaws.  To control yourself to this degree is not impossible, merely improbable.  Human beings don't usually come equipped with the self confidence, self assurance, experience, and discipline required to possess this level of mastery.  If anything, it is this level of mastery that the saying, "striving for perfection", aims at. 

        The essential defect of attempting to overcome these human failures of skill, discipline and self control is that it produces the effect of self consciousness in the work.  That is, if you try to side step these human frailties by working very slowly, meticulously, painfully, and consciously, the work will look like it.  Although self consciousness is a positive attribute in a person who specializes in repair work, it has no place in creative instrument making.  Repair work requires the master craftsman to be fully conscious of what work is original work and what work is his work.  And once conscious of these the master repairman never inflicts his preferences on the original work.  For this reason, I have nothing but the utmost respect for master musical instrument repair persons. Unfortunately, the discipline of self-consciousness that makes them great repairmen is hard for them to drop or let go of when they are faced with making a musical instrument.  I say unfortunate because self consciousness, when it shows up in the sound of an instrument, sounds hideous.  It requires a significant amount of discipline to not be self conscious when being self conscious has been a cultivated attitude.

        To strive for perfection of self in matters of discipline, knowledge, judgment, experience, mental agility, spiritual acuity, taste, attentiveness, wisdom, awareness, and compassion is, in my estimation, the process of fulfilling life's purpose.  Because mastery of this sort entails making mistakes and exposing those annoying personal flaws, such mastery cannot be realized without, at some point, learning the principle of forgiveness and applying it.  This means having a forgiving, not tolerant, attitude towards self generated flaws.  The key is non-tolerance of flaws.  What is the distinction?  To forgive flaws that exist because they already happened is essential because mistakes are all part of the learning process.  But to tolerate the same flaws and allow them to reccur in the future is sloppy and incompetent.  That is, mistakes need to be loved and reviled.  They need to be accepted when they happen but never allowed to occur again.  When this balancing act becomes a functioning part of one's personal technique, improvement follows like clockwork.  In time, mastery, too, follows like clockwork.

        The beauty of art is that the act of creation acts as a measuring stick to tell the artist how well he or she is doing in the pursuit of perfection that leads to mastery.  The work always reveals the true nature of the artist.  You need only know how to look.

Knowing How to Look

        Knowing how to look is the key to being able to "read" what your work is telling you.   I suppose that you could also use the word: sensing.  You might also use the word: perceiving.  Basically, being aware of your assumptions and how they affect your clarity of sensations is the way to look.   You can develop a good working technique for doing this by studying the work of others and asking of yourself this question:  What attitude does the person who did this work have to have in order for the result to appear exactly as it appears?  This question will lead the asker to a way of understanding the relationship between attitude and aesthetic outcome.  When you can read the attitude accurately, you should be able to assume the same attitude and produce an equivalent result with enough time and patience.

        Any success in being able to read attitudes is enough to convince anyone that using one's work to learn about one's own attitudes is useful and productive.  It is useful because you can know your true self more clearly and honestly.  And it is productive because you can begin to take charge of your attitudes, change them, modify them, invert them, turn them inside out, and watch to see if the alterations make a difference in the aesthetic outcome.  Often, I have found, people can make the fastest most enduring changes in their technique by changing not what they are doing but their attitude about what they are doing.  Even a small change in attitude can produce a massive change in technical ability.  Here's an example.

         If you have the attitude that time spent equals quality of outcome,  then you will, more likely than not, spend much time in order to produce a high quality result.  (The mere fact that time does not equate to quality is irrelevant.)  Whenever I encounter this attitude, I maintain that time spent only equals time spent; the quality of the outcome is based instead on the clarity of details in one's conception.  I try to punctuate my point of view by asking whether or not the quality of a performance of a Chopin Polonaise is improved by taking it at exactly half the indicated tempo. My thinking is, if the attitude is reasonable, then logic should dictate that it can be used as a fully functioning work related principle and that it may be applied to all kinds of work.  Since the question regarding the half tempo Polonaise invariably gets a negative response,  I usually do not get further argument and the person whom I am attempting to instruct can begin to change the faulty attitude by replacing it with the attitude about improving the clarity of conception.  The result never fails to produce the effect of higher quality work in less than half the time.  Once awake to the possibilities of rapidity of change through self manipulation of attitude, anyone can guide themselves to accomplish whatever goals they are capable of imagining.

Standards of quality.

        Ultimately, we are all prisoners of our imagination,  that is, we are unless we take charge or our attitudes and assume responsibility for what we feed into our imagination.  And, we can only do reliably what we can imagine clearly in every detail.  This is why I am certain that all real learning takes place in the imagination. Because of this, we have to be exceedingly careful about what we take in or learn.  If we take in an idea without scrutinizing it carefully, that idea has the potential to pollute us and all that we do. 

        The problem, here is the next one, is how do we know what will help and what will hinder. There are three standards by which everything taken in can be measured to know if it will help or hinder.  The first standard is: quick.  The second standard is: easy.  The third standard is: right the first time.  In other words, there are three questions that must be directed towards any incoming idea or concept.  Will the idea or concept increase my speed?  Will the idea or concept make my job easier and more efficient?  And, will the idea or concept improve my ability to "get it right the first time".

        Sometimes the answers to the first two questions will be negative butbe positive to the third question.  Sometimes, the answer will be negative to the third question and positive to the other two.  If an answer is negative to all three questions, it is usually more efficient to set aside the issue until a time when the answer is positive.  I say this because sometime we are not ready for a right answer at the moment we get it.  However, if you are studious about the business of thinking, you will benefit from keeping a notebook in which to keep all answers, information, ideas, and concepts so that you can refer to the notebook on occasion to review the answers just in case you are ready for them.

         By carefully controlling what you take in, you are providing your mind with a very powerful message.  That is, "I am in charge here and nothing gets in unless I let it in."  The alternative is a mind that has no clear pilot and having no clear pilot it usually runs on impulse power.  Which means it runs in a sort of idling mode.  It goes nowhere.  It does nothing.  It repeats thoughts endlessly.  It wanders hither, thither, and yon without any direction, rhyme, or reason.  When you take charge of your mind, it sighs with relief and is allowed to focus on the problems you direct it to solve.  And it helps you assess incoming ideas directly using these three standards by blocking those which ring untrue to the standards.

The backbone of aesthetic mastery

        Quick, easy and right the first time are the backbone of aesthetic mastery. Quickness implies speed, deftness, positiveness, lack of tedium, and directness.  It is easy to overlook the appearance of the lack of quickness in a perfectionistically fabricated product.  When this feature is missing, the appearance is tight, pinched, overworked, and lifeless.  Speed can but does not suggest haste.   Haste has the appearance of things forgotten.  Speed never presents that impression.  Deftness suggests alert relaxation and surefingeredness.  Positiveness suggests the absence of halting, stuttering, or mumbling.  In the case of handwork or musical instrument playing, halting, stuttering, and mumbling is common when the conception is either not clearly in mind or not clearly expressed.  Tedium occurs when a job has taken longer than it was supposed to.  When work moves along at a pace that assures that all aspects have been properly attended to but not overly so, then it appears complete in every detail but none of the details were fussed over.  The energy boost that you get from doing things this way prevents tedium from becoming part of the experience.  Directness relates to the clarity of conception as well.  However, directness refers to the intensity of the intention of the workman as he is doing the work.  

        Perhaps the best examples of quickness in the field of music are the manuscripts of Bach and Mozart.  The degree of directness, speed, deftness, poitiveness, and energy in the manuscripts of these composers is astonishing.  It is a clear indication that they had their musical ideas so clearly in mind before they took pen to paper that they had no need to have their work appear otherwise.  Such clarity of conception is only possible if they were rigorous in applying principles in their work, because principles handle most of the load of decision making which allows the artist to deal with the mundanities of preparation, procedure and construction.  Unburdened by decision making while working, they can buzz along at top speed paying attention to take care at the most crucial moments in the procedure.  Because the principles handle most of the load of decision making, the artist has the freedom to pay attention to the intuition and to follow it.  And the more the artist allows the principles to work, the less time is spent following dead ends.  The habit of principled work causes the mind of the artist to rapidly eliminate all possibilities except the one that works.

        Easy implies relaxation, absence of concern, facility, and effortlessness.  Relaxation suggests lack of tension.  Actually, nothing happens without some tension.  The question is the amount of tension or, more to the point, the excess of tension.  True relaxation is characterized by the absence of excess tension.  The only energy being used is that which is required to do the work.  Any energy that is used beyond that bare amount is excess.  

        When excess tension is exerted while working, the final result appears out of control.  This appearance is scrupulously disguised in perfectionistic work by slow painstaking meticulous control.  The problem with this kind of work is that it looks like it was a slow, painstaking, and compulsive effort.  Absence of concern suggests "sans souci" : without a care.  This phrase was a aesthetic philosophical ideal in the 17th and 18th centuries.  They hated the idea of fastidiousness because it looked oppressive.  It's oppressive because of the feeling that someone is always looking over your shoulder criticizing and judging your work.  I agree that this is a hideous oppression. 

        Facility suggests total easeand self assurance of execution.  But facility is born of its mother, Constant Practice.  When constant practice is missing in one's daily routine, facility is never born.  But constant practice of the wrong kind only leads to work that looks like bad practice habits.  When you practice music in a metrical, machinelike manner, you will play in a metrical machinelike way.  When you develop habits of woodworking that are meticulous and painstakingly precise, it is usually due to the lack of a precise and clear conception.  The habit persists because one can finally come to the end of the work and feel comforted to know that nothing is missing.  

        My experience is that in these cases, nothing is missing except the life of the instrument.  Facility breathes life in your work.  Constantpractice allows you: to eliminate mistakes of the grossest kind early in your development, to eliminate mistakes of the ordinary kind in your middle development, and to eliminate the subtlest mistakes in your mature development.   During the entire time, your work will appear lively, spirited, and facile.  

        Effortless suggests the absence of effort.  This is a wrong notion.  Effort is always a part of doing something.  The question is the nature of the effort and the nature of the feeling which the effort produces.  Effort that appears effortless springsfrom an organic process.  The effect of all things working together towards the same purpose creates this appearance.  When the effort is painstaking, the feelingproduced is painful and oppressive.  When the effort merely requires your presence of body, mind, and action but does not require you to stress yourself, then the work may be characterized as effortless.  You do it but it exacts no toll on you either mentally, emotionally, or psychically.  

        Generally speaking the greater the emotional tollexacted from you, the higher the degree of effort.  A not so subtle example is working for a complaining, demanding patron who exacts a high degree of emotional energy from those they hire. Working for such people is an extreme effort even if the work is physically easy.  Such patrons always get the worst work from those they hire.  ( My wife and I redecorated our farmhouse a few years ago and hired most of the work people ourselves.  The comments we got from those craftsmen and women was that they loved coming out to do our job because we were asking them to do things they had always dreamed of trying but never had the opportunity to do.  They loved to work for us because they always felt more energetic at the end of the day afterspending the day working the way we wanted them to work.  They did a fabulous job.   Our secret was to tell them that we expected them to make mistakes but that it was important to try to catch them as soon as possible so that they didn't follow the mistakes too long.   And we paid them by the hour.  The result was that they were far more conscious of the quality of their work.  They also knew that if they did make a mistake, that we weren't going to take it out on their hides.  We made it clear that mistakes were an opportunity to try something new or they were gifts from God that were intended to challenge our craft and creativity.  We were happy to pay them because they met the challenge of making our house a livable space most splendidly.)  When work is effortless, it gives the doer more energy than it requires.  The person who pays for it always feels like they got more than they paid for.

         When something is right the first time, that implies that and nothing else.  It means right the first time.  Not almost right almost the first time.  It means right the first time.  Not OK or passable.  Not flawless.  Not good enough for government work.  Right the first time means right the first time.  When something is right, it fulfills completely the intention behind it.  When it is right the first time, it means that there exists no hesitation, no uncertainty, or deficit to either the conception or the execution.  Right is less a fact than a sensation.  Although the condition is a fact, the sensation of right far outweighs the fact.  Normally, we call this sensation a feeling of right.  Whatever it is, our emotional reactions to it are fulfillment and gratification.  These are the feelings of happiness.

        Nothing creates true feelings of happiness more efficiently than being right or getting something right or doing something right the first time.  Conversely, nothing creates unhappiness more effectively that being wrong or getting something wrong or doing something wrong repeatedly.  To avoid this unhappiness, human beings tend to do only those things which they can do right without having to think too much about it.  This has led to a culture of talent worship in all aspects of human behavior.  The notion of craft has disappeared in favor of mindless facility.  The fact that the actual numbers of individuals who can function with facility in a mindless way is minuscule doesn't seem to bother anybody.  The amazing things is that all this does is create a society of unhappy people.  Those that are worshipped for their talent are afraid of being exposed as frauds because they have no real idea about what they are doing.  And those that do the worshipping are unhappy because they feel left out and cheated.  One of the reasons why people who work with their hands, wholearn a craft, are some of the happiest people in the world is that they have experiences of getting something right the first time on a regular basis.  When craft and the principles that underlie craft are taught to the young, they grow up to be happy productive people.  The craft provides the activity one needs to earn a living.  And the principles that underlie the craft provide the possibility of doing the work so that it is right the first time.  When this level of mastery is achieved, the happiness that ensues is gratifying beyond most mundane experiences.  If one's craft is mental, the happiness tends to be more intense.  If one's craft is spiritual, the happiness is called ecstasy.   Because "right the first time" involves both quickness and easiness, one could lump them all together.  The word used when they are lumped together is mastery.

        Where the values of quick, easy, and right the first time began to degenerate was when they were applied to money making during the Industrial Revolution.  When men began to figure out that ways of earning vast sums of money quickly and easily coincided with the ability to produce things in large quantity using cheap labor, the spiritual values of work that was masterful became dispensable.  As the craftsman made products began to disappear during the 19th century, being replaced by factory made products, the cheaper more poorly made products satisfied the masses and made craftsmen irrelevant. In the later half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century this decline was furthered by the labor unions. When the craftsmen all but disappeared in the early 20th century, with them went their entire way of thinking and life. 

       The attempts to resurrect that way of thinking since that time have failed to produce the level of quality of workmanship appropriate to each individual craft.  What passes for quality craftsmanship today is meager compared to what the typical craftsman of the 18th century was capable of. Piano builders, for instance, don't exist today who can build instruments that are both functionally competent and musically competent.  The musical half of that equation is missing.  The typical piano builder of the 1820's in Vienna could produce an instrument that was both.  Even if the musical result was not spectacular, as it was in many instruments, it was more competent than the best of the modern piano factories.  In today's culture, in the Western countries, only a handful of craftsmen exist who can match the work of their predecessors.  And most of them are thought of as kooks. 

        In Japan, the government has recognized the value of their craftsmen and have created a class of "national treasures" who preserve the traditional trades and crafts.  These men and women are one of the world's most valuable repositories for the attitudes that make the craftsman what he is.  It is imperative that their attitudes are studied, recorded, and learned before they pass away completely.  

What has Replaced the Attitudes of Mastery?

        The attitudes that result in mastery and high quality work have been replaced in the modern world by what I call "the specter of self-expression".  On the surface, self-expression is an innocuous reason for doing art or music.  Its innocuousness has given it a grip in the minds of most people such that it has completely taken root—like the tentacles of some alien parasite that makes its home in the interspaces of the brains of their human hosts and lives off creative energy.  Self-expression has come to be equated with every fundamental right of man.  Freedom of speech is self-expression.  Freedom of religion is self-expression.  Every freedom we now take for granted can be reduced to self-expression.  Spiritually, this is a disaster that can only be called apocalyptic. 

       The reason self-expression is so spiritually negative is that no principles, no standards, no values, no morals, no aesthetic communication, no purpose, nothing which speaks to the soul is needed for the result to be generally accepted as worthy of being called good.  This condition might not be so bad except that those who buy into the self-expression game consider any word uttered against their way of thinking to be a violation of their right to self-expression. Not unexpectedly, insanity is indulged. Self-indulgence is glorified—childishness worshipped. Irresponsibility is rewarded.  Having no character is seen as a virtue.  All in the cause of self-expression.  The unfortunate outcome of this way of thinking is that almost everything that people do under the influence of this specter will be trashed after they are dead.  The greater evil of self-expression is that those who advocate it also use up the world's resources in the process.  This means that the resources these people consume to waste on what will be trashed after they are dead will be unavailable for those who have to clean up the mess.

        The only good that the specter of self-expression has brought in its path of destruction is the seeds of its own extinction.  Since the attitude of self-expression nullifies the possibility that those who speak the truth will be exterminated, which they would have been as recently as the 19th century, the ideas of truth can be spread about without fear of extermination just as those of the self-expressionists.  When the adherents to the cause of self-expression finally succumb because of their idiocy,  only the truth will remain.  It is merely a matter of time.  

        At the crux of this aesthetic issue of self-expression is the decision each person must make; that is, to be or not to be irrelevant.  The word relevant means: (from the Latin) to raise, lifting; especially regarding the spirit.  The second meaning is: pertinent.  These definitions are very to the point.  Each decision we make has its opposing decision.  When a person decides to place self-expression first, that person is placing the expression of principles last.  Though the work of such a person may receive acclaim when he or she is still alive, its irrelevancy destines it to the obscurity that all mediocrity deserves.  This is because there is nothing of inherently high quality about the self.  

        Should a person choose to put his or her self-expression at the bottom of a priority list and put expression of principles at the top, it is only a matter of time before that person's work will be taken seriously and given the credit it is due. As the saying goes: The first shall be last and the last first...a saying that fits exactly the meaning of this essay.




Yevgeny Chepovetsky is a young violinist of the first order who is concerned about the mechanization of music making today.  His writing is eloquent and very easy to understand given that he is a native of Riga in Latvia.  Here is the link to his website: