Friedrich Nietzsche, the most brOOtal of all philosophers.
In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche examines the German higher education system of that day (circa 1888). He argues that educators should teach students how to do three things: see, think, and read/write.
Of the three terms, it was his notion of what it is to see that struck me as having some immediate musical use.
In Nietzsche’s view, seeing is not merely about the sensations caused when light hits our retinas, stimulates an electrical impulse which is sent to the brain, from which the brain gets ideas about things in the world. As anyone who has played the game I Spy knows, just because a signal reaches the eye does not mean you actually notice it. Nothing is really hidden in an I Spy puzzle, but you don’t notice it without a some patience and brain power.
So what does seeing have to do with music, which is about hearing? Well, I think that anything Nietzsche says about seeing can also be said of hearing. In Nietzsche’s sense, both seeing and hearing, although they certainly have a passive component in which our senses receive raw data, also include a component where we consciously examine sensory inputs and decide how to respond to them. For example, assuming that they have no serious neurological or physiological damage, anyone should be able to hear a sound. However, it would take some more musical sophistication to realize that the sound is called a C-major chord, and yet more sophistication still to figure out how to respond to this information.
Nietzsche thought of seeing as a considered processes. People who can see in this sense have been educated to take the time to “investigate and comprehend” what they have seen before they make any judgments about it. It is taking the time to mindfully consider what the eye perceives rather than act on it impulsively. Or in common parlance, look before you leap.
Nietzsche argues that the first step in developing any sort of spirituality as a person is this:
Not to react immediately to a stimulus, but to have the restraining, stock-taking instincts in one’s control. Learning to see, as I understand it, is almost what is called in unphilosophical language “strong will-power:” the essence of it is precisely not to “will,” the ability to defer decision. All unspirituality, all vulgarity, is due to the incapacity to resist a stimulus–one has to react, one obeys every impulse.
In other words, if a friend voices an uncomfortable political opinion, it is a spiritual practice to listen quietly and respectfully to whatever he or she has to say before you respond to it. At the same time, it is absolutely not tacitly agreeing to everything someone says. It’s that you take a moment and think first. Similarly, if we hear a difficult piece of music that is not to our taste, we at least take the time to listen to it completely, attentively, and quietly before we pass judgment.
I think there is a pretty clear connection between these ideas about seeing in this sense and hearing in musical improvisation. After all, isn’t improvising ultimately about how a musician reacts to aural stimulus? And maybe bad improvising, while sometimes reflecting a lack of theoretical or historical knowledge, is mostly about an inability to control impulses? Isn’t the tendency to overplay really just a psychological tendency to overreact?
I suggest that bad improvising is this: playing before listening.
Of course, the speed at which most music occurs doesn’t really give a lot of extra time for contemplation. A big part of learning how to improvise is absolutely learning how to think about and react to aural stimuli very, very quickly. While a painter can take the time to see a canvas for days before he or she decides whether to add a new color, shape, or texture to it, a musician’s opportunity to hear, consider, and react to music is ending in three bars. There is hardly enough time to play, let alone think about playing.
Slow, deliberate, mindful: Mark Rothko takes time to see his canvas.
But maybe that is the real problem: we see more value in doing something rather than thinking about it. A lot of composers have been critical of musical improvisation for this very reason, and they have a valid point. Jazz musicians, for example, tend to improvise melodies, rhythms, or chords impulsively without listening mindfully. In the above quote, Nietzsche says that “unspirituality, all vulgarity, is due to the incapacity to resist a stimulus.” In musicians’ terms, perhaps insensitive, non-musical improvising is the direct result of the incapacity to resist a stimulus?
It doesn’t help that whenever you improvise music in a live setting, there is no shortage of stimuli, much of it, unfortunately non-musical: the sounds of cash registers, the clinking of glasses, the applause of your fans, or the chatter of people not especially interested in hearing music yet still decided to show up to your gig anyhow.
Adoring fans at the climax of your 32-chorus solo on Giant Steps.
And it is hard not to respond musically to this non-musical stimulus. Are you playing a lot of notes because you have a lot to say, because the tune needs it, or simply to mask the dreadful silence of a big room populated by a distracted and apathetic audience? Of course, it is still possible to make good music that way (a lot of great was made for the chief purpose of getting the artist laid), but I think it would be by accident. Sometimes it can’t be helped: years of musical study and training are not used to create art but to cover the irritating sound of silverware tapping against china.
I think the lesson is this: play as mindfully as possible with the awareness of the speed at which live music happens. We can always add some more judgment to our playing so that whatever we play is something meaningful and important to us and not just merely reactions to sound.
This, of course, really underscores the importance about mindful practice in order to develop the skills of judgment we can use to be better musicians when we’re on the bandstand. Practicing without listening to or thinking about what you’re playing is certain to make you much better at not listening or thinking on the bandstand. Or in proverbial terms: are you driving the car, or is the car driving you?