Joyful Disciplines

Why are music and poetry such important parts of my life? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied creativity for many years, in one of his TED talks, gives a description of what this flow of creativity feels like: “’flow’ is the period in the creative process when self-consciousness disappears, time vanishes or becomes full, and there is total absorption in the activity. There is an intense clarity about the moment and a sense of clear movement, and there is little or no concern for failure.”

We have enough of that concern elsewhere in our lives. But when I go to the piano each morning or settle down in the afternoon for some (hopefully) uninterrupted writing time, those minutes of reprieve from self-consciousness, sickness, sadness, and time are why. Under their spell I court failure, seek it out, as a way of overcoming obstacles to getting as close as I can to what feels like my most essential self.

I noticed this link on the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s website the other day. It’s yet another TED talk about what playing a musical instrument does to the brain. Apparently, even listening to music exercises the brain’s analytical as well as synthetical skills: taking, for instance, melody and rhythm apart in a piece of music and instantly connecting them again.

According to this new science, playing a musical instrument has similar benefits to listening to music, but on a much grander scale (pun intended), involving nearly every area of the brain at once. Disciplined, regular practice increases the motor skills as well as the linguistic/math and novel/creative aspects of the brain.  Problem-solving in all areas, cognitive and emotional (academic and social) is enhanced by playing an instrument. Memory function is theoretically increased by helping to creative multiple “retrieval tags” for each memory (Note: I find this “discovery” of particular interest. It’s common knowledge that, when memorizing music, one needs at least three cues:  touch—the finger arrangement; sound—what one learns is “correct” in that piece; visual—what the notes look like on the page, as well as how they fit into the larger score).  No other art apparently results in as many benefits to the brain.

While I’ve often disparaged studies that connect the value of the arts to something else more “practical,” this study is pretty impressive.  It may be that in today’s political climate, we do need to provide “hard, scientific” evidence of the importance of the arts. Even though many conservative politicians deny the existence of such things as climate change because, as they say, they “aren’t scientists,” they would probably be more influenced by scientific studies like this one in favor of the arts than they would by all the existing anecdotal evidence (such as one of my ArtWorks for Milwaukee students—I’ll call him LF–telling me a few years ago that the ONLY reason he went to high school was because of his art and music classes).

As we know, creative thinkers of all kinds have a high tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and a tendency to think in opposites.  John Briggs, in the Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, mentioned in yesterday’s posting, notes, “Creators know that a drip of paint on the canvas, a slip with the chisel on marble, even a mistake in an otherwise well-planned experiment can create a bifurcation point, a moment of truth that amplifies and begins to self-organize the work. This is far different from our usual attitude where mistakes are dismissed as wrong answers, we try to plan accidents out of our enterprises, and failure is an occasion for shame.”  It is much closer to what we usually call “play.”

When I think about the difference between the authentic learning this describes and what usually passes for education in many of today’s schools, is it any wonder that the main draw of schools for kids are their art and music classes—if indeed they haven’t yet been cut?

Nevertheless, Dr. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the Early Childhood Music Department at the Peabody Preparatory of The Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a specialized music curriculum for children aged two months to nine years,  warns, “There is a massive benefit from being musical that we don’t understand, but it’s individual. Music is for music’s sake. The benefit of music education for me is about being musical. It gives you have a better understanding of yourself. The horizons are higher when you are involved in music,” he adds. “Your understanding of art and the world, and how you can think and express yourself, are enhanced.”

Thank you, Dr. Rasmussen.  And yes, I practice FOR music and FOR poetry in some strange sense of the words as much as they provide me with respite from the “normal” world.  I am, in that sense, a disciple, a follower. They are joyful disciplines.



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