November 2009

Rethinking Genius

November 17, 2009 13:51

 Last week I posted a blog questioning why it is that we classify Bach as a musical genius.  The subsequent discussion began to touch on what the word "genius" really means.  I would like to expand on that discussion.

I am the type of person who learns best through debate.  I like to present theories to have holes poked in them.  With this in mind, I would like to present the following theory:  in American culture, the concept of "genius" has been blown out of proportion to the point where it is now used as an excuse for failure rather than a description for merit.

My arguments for this theory are as follows:

The purest definition of genius is synonymous with idiot-savant.  An idiot-savant is someone who excels in one particular area to the point that they are dysfunctional in all other areas.  For example, an idiot-savant in math can do incredibly complex math calculations in their head.  But, in these cases, math calculations are usually all they can do.  They will have no social skills to speak of, may not be able to write very well, etc.

Obviously, these extreme cases are rare.  The term "genius" has been loosened to incorporate anyone who is particularly skillful in a field but not necessarily an idiot-savant.  They are functional members of society.  Einstein is a good example of this.  His work in math and physics is nothing short of brilliant.  However, he was still at least capable of pursuing other interests such as playing the violin.

Now enter the word "smart."  This is a term usually dubbed in school to certain students.  You have the "regular" kids and the "smart" kids.  In order to be smart, a student must test well enough to receive high grades.  The skills of a smart student lie not in the actual material itself, but rather in his ability to take a test on it.

Americans are obsessed with tests.  We test for IQ, we test for schools, we test for jobs, we test for driving.... we love the fact that we are trying to quantify skill and put a number on it.  Because of this, we see a rising number of parents putting their kids in schools for the gifted (aka genius) simply because their child scored well on the entrance exam.

Now this is not to say that smart kids do not retain any of the material they are tested on and that children in gifted schools are unintelligent.  My point is that we are starting to lose the concept that is the single-mindedness of genius.  Mozart, for example, would spend hours obsessively folding napkins while he composed.  Going back to Einstein, the man may have had other interests, but he was completely oblivious as to his appearance or level of hygiene.  A genius is not a well-rounded individual.

The fact that the line between smart and genius is fuzzy for Americans has led to a shift in educational attitudes.  More and more you see students (of any age) have the attitude that they failed at something simply because they were not smart enough (aka a genius).  I see this a lot with beginning adult violin students.  They play a wrong note and will immediately berate themselves for being stupid or not talented enough to play.  

What they are lacking is not talent, it's the ability to separate the mistake from the process.  I will ask them to look at their violin and tell me why they played a wrong note.  Sometimes they will stare at the violin for a full 30 seconds before finally saying "oh! I was on the wrong string!"  The ability to make a mistake, figure out why you made the mistake, and then correct it is an acquired brain process.  It takes patience and practice to be able to break down a process like that and has absolutely nothing to do with how intelligent you are.

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What Makes Bach a Musical Genius?

November 10, 2009 00:10

 I was sitting in my music appreciation class the other day.  Since we are studying the Baroque period, the teacher showed us a short film on the life of Bach.  The film was one of those typical history documentaries: lots of British narration interspersed with commentary from experts in various fields.

One thing I've noticed is that people (myself included) always assume Bach's genius.  In the film I watched in class, both a neuroscientist and a psychologist spoke in-depth about the brilliance of Bach and how this may be attributed to the musical centers in his brain being slightly larger than average.

At this point I had to pause and think: why do we assume this man is a genius?  I've heard that enlarged brain story and I don't buy it.  Every single musician has enlarged music centers in their brain.  Cat scans and research have proven that (see Oliver Sacks).  Was it his amazing output of music?  Bach came from a musical family.  His composition efforts were encouraged from an early age.  Later on, it was his job to write a certain number of new pieces each week.  Maybe it's the way his music sounds?  There is something universally appealing about Bach's music.  It is pleasing to the ear.  In many ways, Bach is not unlike today's  movie score composers; he wrote to appease his audiences.

Now I'm not trying to take Bach down a peg.  I love his works and there is no doubt as to his skill on the organ.  It's just interesting to me how history treats certain characters.  Unlike Beethoven, Bach never tried to break social norms with his music or raise art music to new levels. Here is this guy who, it could be argued, was just doing his job (which he could do well) and trying to pay the bills in composing while having a little fun on the side.  200 years later we're examining his skull trying to figure out if genetic abnormalities led to his success as a composer.

I guess there's no telling.

16 replies | Archive link


Beginning Improvisation

November 2, 2009 20:08

 I would like to continue with the train of thought from my last blog.  Previously, I had discussed the importance of experimenting with improvisation.  Improvisation teaches a different set of skills that can help to enhance your abilities as both a classical musician and performer.

While it's important to teach these things to students, it is difficult to introduce subjects that you, as the teacher, may be uncomfortable with.  Despite its daunting appearance, learning to improvise is no different from learning a technically complex violin concerto.  It must be systematically broken up into smaller tasks that can be easily managed.

One of the easiest things to do is to start listening to improvisation.  Get all the books you want, but the "jazz swing" is not something you can notate accurately.  Reading music as a jazz violinist rather than a classical violinist is an acquired skill.  Knowing how a particular genre should sound is a huge step in the right direction.

Learning scales is important  but even more important is learning chords.  A simple chord consists of the first (root), third and fifth notes of a scale.  It is unfortunate that the violin is not a chord instrument.  Most of the notes we play are individual.  Guitarists, for example, do not even think about the names of the notes in a C chord.  They learn hand shape and finger patterns.  Since improvisation requires both solo playing and backup playing (something violinists are not usually used to), learning chord shapes is crucial.  A really easy way to do this is to just look up mandolin chords.  The mandolin has the exact same strings as a violin, it is simply plucked instead of bowed.  Familiarizing yourself with chords will make rapid key changes and accompanying easier.

There are a variety of books and backup CDs out there that can help assist you in the learning process.  Two excellent authors are Jamie Aebersold and Martin Norgaard.  But if you are new to improvisation, you must allow yourself to experiment on your instrument.  The more you try improvising, the less frightening it will seem.

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