The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Do musicians just do it?

I wrote in Chapter 4 that the classical cellist Inbal Segev thinks that it is important for the musician to not be led by the music, but to consciously direct it. Do non-classical musicians also guide their music, or do they tend more to follow it where it leads them?

Charlie Parker famously said, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail” (quoted in Petras and Petras, 2011). And Trey Anastasio, the guitarist from the band Phish, explains that in improvisatory performance, “There’s a lot of preparation and discipline that goes into it just so that, when you’re in the moment, you’re not supposed to be thinking at all" (Simonini, 2001). It is, as I have mentioned, sometimes difficult to know what is going on in your own mind, but if I take seriously the claims of experts who say that they think in action, I need to take seriously the claims of those who say that they don’t. So let me ask: In music improvisation, do musicians turn off the thinking mind?

Neuroscientists have weighed in on this question by having musicians improvise on a custom-built, non-ferromagnetic piano inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.167 And, in line with just-do-it, one thing some of these studies show is that in comparison to playing a memorized arrangement, such as a scale, professional musicians improvising in the scanner exhibit reduced activity in executive control areas associated with conscious self-monitoring. This suggests that that they let the music lead them, and as such, it challenges my think-to-win account as applied to conscious self-monitoring during music improvisation.

There might be reason to question whether the conclusion we should draw from these studies is that executive control is diminished during improvisatory music performance. A recurrent theme in this book has been, as I put it in the introduction, that controlled laboratory experiments destroy expertise. Clearly, there is something peculiar about playing a keyboard while lying down in an fMRI machine. Yet this would not account for the results, since it would seem that the peculiarity would, if anything, make one need to exert more conscious control.

Something else, however, may be going on. Based on my understanding of dance, even though all improvisation is new to a degree, a dancer’s improvised movements, when performed without conscious guidance, often have the same general look. When the look is good enough, perhaps one need not try to alter it. Twyla Tharp’s choreography, which arises out of improvisation—indeed, her dancers usually need to watch her and remember the moves, since she often does not even recall what she has done—is perhaps a case in point (citation?). But although dancing or choreographing in the same style is unobjectionable and characteristic of the best choreographers, one wants to avoid the feeling of creating “the same old stuff.” One way to do this in dance, and I would think in musical improvisation as well, is to engage the conscious mind. The same old stuff is fine for playing in the scanner, but not for playing on stage.

Moreover, as I also suggested in Chapter 4, playing music involves social interactions, not all of which are unconscious and automatic. Indeed, a more recent neuroimaging study that examined the process of trading fours, in which musicians alternate four-bar solos, brings this point home (Donnay et al. 2014). In contrast to the earlier studies, the researchers who undertook this study found that the improvisers displayed not reduced, but heightened activity in executive control areas of the brain.

Songwriting, though it may employ improvisation to generate ideas, is typically not simply improvisation (though some rappers, such as the late Notorious B.I.G., compose their lyrics almost entirely based on improvisatory techniques: citation). And certainly, songwriting can be difficult work. I mentioned, for example, that the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen spent at least four grueling years working on the song “Hallelujah.” However, Cohen’s employment of a think-to-win strategy seems to stand in stark contrast to Bob Dylan’s apparent just-do-it compositional method. As Cohen tells in a 1992 interview:

Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago . . . and he asked me how long it took to write [‘Hallelujah’]. And I told him a couple of years. I lied, actually. It was more than a couple of years. Then I praised a song of his, ‘I and I,’ and asked him how long it had taken and he said, ‘Fifteen minutes.’ (quoted in Light, 2012: p. 2)
This story, as Light (2012) points out, was clearly told for laughs. Nonetheless, Dylan did compose a prodigious number of songs in a relatively brief period of time. And some songwriters seem to work even more quickly: “I find you can write [most songs] in less time than it takes to sing them” Harry Nilsson states (Zollo 2003: p. 242); and in response to the question, “do you find your songs come in a flash, or do they come from the result of a lot of work,” Yoko Ono answers, “it’s always a flash” (Zollo 2003: p. 252).

To be sure, some musicians who cherish the flash also may hint that the process can involve work. Elsewhere Dylan tells of the novel he wrote, which he admits to having worked on for an extended period, and then explains songwriting: “It’s like writing a novel; it just takes me a lot less time and I can get it done—done to where I can re-read it in my head a lot.”168 Re-reading sounds like thinking to me, and if writing the novel took effort, then it would seem that songwriting, given that it felt like an abbreviated form of novel-writing, may have taken some effort too. And Carole King, who claims that “You’ve Got a Friend” was one song that “wrote itself” also emphasizes the importance of novelty and the effort it takes to arrive at it:

There is a lot of hard work involved in songwriting . . . I like to be unpredictable . . . [Not] one song has a [recognizable structure] . . . And that’s something I work at. (Zollo 2003: p.142)

I said that not all ideas arrive in the shower. I didn’t mention, however, that part of the reason for this is that with some musicians, ideas seem to come to them while driving. In Paul Zollo’s (2003) interviews with songwriters, this was a theme: “you’re driving a car or something,” Dave Brubeck says, “and pow, it’s there” (p. Zollo 2003: p. 58). Chris Brown, guitarist for the band Dog, told me that many of his ideas also materialize “while driving, and not specifically thinking about music or trying to write anything” (personal communication). He explained: “I can labor at a song for a long time (this is when nothing gets written that I will keep, in general), until there is a flash of insight . . . and an idea will come to me.” But again, just like in the shower, one might wonder how to understand the “pow.” Why is it described in terms of ideas arriving unbidden ,rather than in terms of thinking of ideas while driving? Perhaps it is that driving can be relaxing, and so one is only thinking in a relaxed way, or as I mentioned before, in a peripheral way. And of course, it may be that driving is conducive to unconscious thought. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these songs that come to musicians out of nowhere while driving “coincidentally” happened to be similar to what was playing on the radio a few miles back.169

Then there is the famous story about Paul McCartney, who claims to have woken up one morning with the melody for “Yesterday” fully formed in his head (See Deezen, 2014). Was the tune of one of the most-covered songs in music history an example of effortless mastery? While the melody, he claims, came to him in a dream, the lyrics themselves apparently took a great deal of thought and effort. Indeed, McCartney was working so hard trying out various possibilities on a piano during the four or so weeks the Beatles spent shooting their film Help! that the director of the film threatened to have the piano removed unless he finished writing the song. And when he wasn’t working on it at the piano, he was often talking about it, which tried the other Beatles’ patience: “Blimey,” George Harrison opined, “he’s always talking about that song. You’d think he was Beethoven or somebody” (ibid.). Of course, it was the melody and not the lyrics that were dreamt, and I don’t know how much, if any, the melody of the song changed during the intervening two years between when it came to him and when it was first recorded, but one imagines that during those two years of struggle with the lyrics, the melody underwent at least some revisions.

Nonetheless, I think that the singer-songwriter might sometimes be, if not an example of an extreme case of just-do-it, then at least on the just-do-it spectrum. And, to conjecture a bit more, perhaps one reason for this is that many rock/folk/singer-songwriters do not have formal musical training and do not read standard musical notation. Although Carole King was classically trained, neither Leonard Cohen nor Bob Dylan nor Paul McCartney read standard musical notation. This wouldn’t be relevant to why composing lyrics was so apparently effortless for Dylan, and effortful, at least with “Hallelujah” for Cohen. But if in certain forms of music, the entire training process is less analytic than training in at least some other areas of expertise—if it proceeds less in terms of words that identify concepts, than in terms of “making, making, making,” as Alex Craven explained it to me (see Chapter 5)—this could account for the attenuated explicit thought process that, at least for some, facilitates composing the music. In other words, I think that one important reason for why experts are able to think beneficially in performance is that they train in a thoughtful, analytic way; musicians who do not train in this way may be an exception to the view that expert actions are thoughtful.

Or rather, thought may occur in such cases, but not in words; such musicians think, but they are thinking in music. What this really means, I as a nonmusician cannot fully fathom; however, I would guess that it is similar to the situation of the dancer. In dance, we do not have words to describe every significant aspect of movement, but one nonetheless conceptualizes one’s movement in various ways. One is thinking, in such situations, in movement.

The jazz bass violinist Mike Fleming commented on thinking in music: “you got to hear the note before playing it” (personal communication), which is not really so different from what a baseball player once told me: “when you play, you need to know what to do with the ball before you catch it.”170

Of course, it might be that part of the appeal of some rock music, like the appeal of the blog, is that, though it may come about only after years of practice, the piece itself was created quickly and somewhat thoughtlessly. Less worked out and refined ideas can sometimes be grasped more readily than the output of many years of editing (of course, one need only think of Hegel, who wrote very quickly to see that this is not always the case.) Some rock songs have immediate appeal, and if this is in part due to the fifteen-minute composition, it leaves a place for just-do-it.

Yet again, perhaps the degree of explicit, conceptual thought involved in musical composition simply differs among individuals. 171 In response to Zollo’s question, “Is it possible that knowledge can get in the way of spontaneity?” Paul Simon says, “certainly in popular music and rock and roll, that’s not the problem. The problem is that people don’t know enough” (2003: p. 113).

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