Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Virtuosity as play
I've thought about "the Matrix of T'sel," the brainchild of science fiction author John Dalmas (to dumb it down a bit, the idea is that when it comes to ability, everyone starts out at the level of "work," but only a very few continue to hone their abilities until they reach the level of "play" where they no longer need to concentrate -- they just have fun). I've read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and considered his concept of the 10,000-hour rule. I've thought about the phenomenon of the runner's high (which I've never personally experienced; like Chris Knight, I only run when chased). I've also read an article by Orson Scott Card on the nature of talent, and just what can be described as talent, which got me thinking about the whole mess again.
Funnily enough, though, the thing that jelled the concept for me was hearing a comment Michael Jackson made in an interview several years ago. Jackson mentioned he'd sometimes visit theme parks in disguise, just so he could people-watch without being mobbed, and he discussed watching other dancers perform:
"You can tell right away when an artist -- 'cause you can read it on her face, when she's dancing, she's counting, 'one and two and three and four and five and six and...' you can see it. But when you -- that's the wrong concept of dance. Dancing is about feeling, not about thinking, so when they count, they're thinking. You should feel: become the bass, become the drums, become the guitar and the strings. You just become [clap] a oneness, you know? That's very important."
I don't know how to dance worth beans. It's not something for which I have any aptitude, not a vocation to which I've devoted years of practice. But I think I know what Jackson is talking about here, because there are a few skills and talents which I have practiced consistently over the years. Reading, for instance. My brothers and I read very early, starting at age two or three, and I literally cannot remember a time when I could not read. Because I read constantly and voraciously in childhood, I got in huge amounts of practice, and over time the mechanics involved in reading the words simply disappeared, and I could let go and be in the book. I don't just read captivating books -- I live in them; I can mentally see the world created by the words on the page, and I'm right there with the protagonist. In fact, when I was younger I would go so deeply into the books I was reading that my mom would have to shake me gently to bring me back into reality. I was unaware of my surroundings or of the passage of time; my mind was at play in another world.
I honestly didn't understand when certain people told me they didn't like to read. I couldn't see why anyone would dislike being immersed in the worlds of fantasy I so loved. But I didn't realize then that some people didn't experience reading the same way I did; they couldn't be completely in the book, because to some extent they were still wrestling with the mechanics of reading it. Jackson might not have been aware of it, since he'd been performing from childhood on, but when he talked about becoming one with the music he was describing a level of proficiency which very few people -- even professional dancers -- ever attain. It's a virtuosity so complete that all the mechanics -- the years of work and practice -- simply melt away, and one is free to play at one's talent.
This level of creative play isn't omnipresent, but it is certainly visible. I've been watching Jon Schmidt perform some of his compositions and arrangements on YouTube, and although a number of his works are very challenging to play, what Schmidt does can hardly be described as work. All you have to do is look at his face while he's performing; his love for what he does comes shining through in every moment of performance. His fingers twirl and spin over the keys, his head and body move with the beat of the composition; he is in a world of his own making. In every sense of the word, he is playing the piano. But when people go to his concerts or listen to his music, they forget that this level of play requires a huge but invisible background of work. They want to be able to play his compositions with all his ease and skill, without having to go through the years of practice required to produce that ease and skill.
We are creative beings, I believe, in large part because we are children of a Creator. It's a family trait passed down to us. But just because we have the innate talent for creation doesn't mean it's acceptable for us to leave it there. In my case, if I want to become a truly great writer rather than just a desultory word-tinkerer, it's going to require a lot more practice -- what Jane Yolen refers to as "butt in chair" -- until I reach the point of proficiency where it's no longer honest for me to call what I do "work."