Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

28 MAY, 2013

The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius

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On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.

[…]

Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.

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22 MAY, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Love of Music

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“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” Susan Sontag exclaimed. Anaïs Nin found in it “the mystery of our secret life.” And though science may have attempted to decode how music tickles our emotions and enchants our brains, its magic remains utterly ineffable to most of us — all but the most poetically perceptive. From The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — the same magnificent out-of-print tome that gave us Millay’s stirring love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison — comes this lyrical meditation on the mesmerism of music, found in a September 11, 1920 letter to her friend and literary comrade, Allan Ross MacDougall, who also edited the anthology of missives. Exquisitely beautiful both in sentiment and in its mastery of language, the passage captures Millay’s unrelenting devotion to beauty in all its forms:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principal of geometry.

Pair with another love letter to Bach, the solar system set to music in perpetual homage to the great composer.

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21 MAY, 2013

Patti Smith’s Lettuce Soup Recipe for Starving Artists

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“We hadn’t much money, but we were happy.”

Reconstructionist Patti Smith is among the most extraordinary and influential artists of the past century, her achievements consistently demolishing the artificial wall between “high” and “low” culture by spanning from Billboard Chart hits to poetry inspired by Rimbaud and Blake, from CBGB to London’s Trolley Gallery, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the National Book Award. Most remarkable, however, is Smith’s self-made journey of creative discovery and fame. When she moved to New York City in her early twenties, she met legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who became her lover and comrade in arms, and they lived the quintessential life of the starving artist — not in the fashionable political-statement sense of creative poverty but in the penurious caloric-deficiency sense.

At the opening of her exhibition The Coral Sea at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, titled after her poetic masterpiece of the same name honoring Mapplethorpe, Smith reads from her 2010 memoir Just Kids (public library), which tells the story of the pair’s early years in New York and which earned her the National Book Award. Here, witty and wry as ever, she shares her famous lettuce soup recipe, one of the strange concoctions, at once endearing and heartbreaking, that sustained the two as they struggled to get by on virtually no money — a wonderful reminder that money is not the object of the creative life and a fine addition to The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook:

Just Kids is absolutely breathtaking in its entirety. Complement it with Smith’s spoken-word homage to Virginia Woolf.

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