Adventures in Chiptunes (Part 3) – Finding Flow – a Case AGAINST Live Music


Recap: For over a year, I’ve been investigating chiptune music.  I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about myself, my music, my creative process and more.  I hope some of this is relevant to you.  Thanks for reading.

Here’s an excerpt of one of my own chiptunes.  It’s my chiptune remake of my Myriad3 arrangement of Oscar Peterson’s version of Duke Ellington’s tune C Jam Blues 😉

In my previous post, I mentioned that unlocking the connecting potential in a variety of instruments, in a variety of contexts, is a skill in itself.  In this sense, a piano isn’t “good,” “bad,” or even “out-of-tune.  It’s an instrument with potential to connect – with audiences, circumstances and yourself.

This implies a different approach to making music.

Suppose there’s a perfectly in-tune piano, except for middle C, which is significantly out of tune.  For some musicians and pianists, this becomes a point of complaint.  The piano tuner is inept, the club owner is neglecting the piano, there’s no budget for piano maintenance, this piano is shit etc. etc.

More interesting I think, is finding a way to adapt to the circumstances and incorporate that out-of-tune C into the performance.  Maybe the pianist has to avoid that note at all costs, or the band has to perform its repertoire in different keys.  Maybe the note can be used to support some emotional effect.  Or maybe it can be used ironically.  Another solution is for pianists to bring their own tuning key.  All are methods of adapting to the circumstances.

Consider other scenarios, where you’re given a certain instrument, and placed in a certain context requiring you to make music.  Suppose I give you a pair of spoons, or a set of cow’s ribs.  Suppose I give you a laptop with sequencing software (i.e. Garageband, or Pro Tools).  Suppose I give you a programmable sound generator and an assembly language, as in early chiptune music.  How would you use these things to make music?  Could you make music, and connect with say, teenagers?

Chiptunes has taught me to appreciate these things as instruments and means to making music.  They’re instruments with a potential to connect.  In a way, labeling them as ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘superior’ misses this point.

From an extreme viewpoint, I guess a plastic bag could be a musical instrument too.  A little silly, I know.  But hey, why not?

Finding Flow

Extreme viewpoints aside, my point concerns our tendency to favour certain instruments and contexts over others.  For example, some jazz pianists favour perfectly in-tune pianos, listening audiences and a humidex reading of 25.  Anything different causes discomfort, rotting and presumably, an interruption of creative flow.

(My use of the term “flow” comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  Read about it here.)

Here’s a way to look at it: It’s not the out-of-tune piano that impedes creative flow; it’s our biases and habits to prefer in-tune pianos.  It’s important to understand what our biases are.  In some cases they can work against us.  I’ll give you an example:

When I transcribe music, I always write it out by hand.  I can transcribe much more quickly this way.  Using notation software slows me down.  When I write by hand, I have a good system of listening and writing that is efficient and inspires flow.

When composing music, I used to sit at the piano and write it out by hand too.  I never felt this setup inspired flow.  I think one reason was because of a preoccupation with playing the piano rather than composing music – It’s difficult for me to separate the two.  Regardless, for a long time, I insisted on composing this way because I thought it was more natural and that this is how serious composers worked.  It also never occurred to me that I could use other tools or instruments to help me with this process.

It wasn’t until I started experimenting with chiptunes that I realized that this setup could be hindering my creative flow.  Writing chiptunes required a computer and software.  This gave me a brand new set of capabilities for composing (I’ll discuss those in a later post).

With these new tools, composing is more playful.  I enjoy it much more.  There’s something about a computer’s interface that I find fascinating.  I enjoy manipulating and experimenting with it, just as I enjoy manipulating and experimenting with music.  This new setup makes a lot of sense.

Teaching Flow – A Case AGAINST Live Music

Circumstances are always changing.  Realigning our skills, however slightly, is important to optimize creative flow.  This requires us to constantly challenge our habits and biases.

This applies to our habits and biases as teachers too.  I’m reminded of Gillian Lynne’s story about how she discovered her talent.  Told by Ken Robinson:

“People who had to move to think.”

While I’m teaching private lessons, I fight hard against the assumption that my student already knows “how to think.”  Similarly, I try not to assume that my students discover their creative flow through the piano, jazz or music in general.  But they probably hold these assumptions more strongly than I do.

We’re in this together – to challenge each other’s assumptions, biases and habits.

A few examples come to mind.  One is the issue of students pursuing a performance degree and NOT attending live performances.   I wrote about this in my response to Cory Weeds’ open letter regarding the issue of students skipping live jazz shows (Link).

I can think of three of my own assumptions:

  • Performance students are training to become performers.
  • In order to be a good jazz player, students should attend live jazz shows.
  • There’s some magic in a live performance that can’t be captured on an MP3 or YouTube video.

I imagine having stage frightened, socially anxious and technologically talented piano students.  The teacher in me wants to challenge their comfort zones and biases.  I want to encourage them to be more comfortable performing on stage and attending live jazz shows.

But there’s another part of me that realizes this challenge could be detrimental.  I shouldn’t assume that performing on stage and attending live jazz shows will help them find creative flow.  A student’s development requires more diverse, organic and mutable teaching strategies that shouldn’t be limited to biases and habits.

Maybe my students are more suited to the recording studio.  Maybe their skills are best developed though their favourite jazz records.  If they’re comfortable with computers and technology, maybe they should be experimenting with music and sequencing software.  If there was a student who developed his jazz skills exclusively through listening, watching and studying YouTube videos, wouldn’t that be interesting?

Helping students find flow requires teachers to realign their skills and adapt to circumstances.  Keeping with the theme of my previous post, a keyboard isn’t a piano; it’s a keyboard.  Similarly, a YouTube video of a live performance isn’t a live performance; it’s a YouTube video.  It has capabilities and limitations with potential to connect, just like any other teaching tool or instrument.

Unlocking that potential as a teacher, artist or individual is a skill in itself.

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