Das Studium

I’ve bid Boston adieu for the time being and started studying at the University of Münster Musikhochschule in northwest Germany.  Everything’s in German, so that’s been a bit of a trip, but it’s pretty wonderful.  Without getting too deep into it, because that’s not the original point of this post, I’m one of just five drumset students here, which is just worlds away from part of what I didn’t like about Berklee.  I already know everyone in my class and many from the others (in my part of the school, which is pop music performance / music education).  It’s also incredibly cheap.  The scholarship money Berklee gave me was very small in comparison to what my tuition every semester cost, and yet, thanks to German university tuition laws, my per-semester scholarship there was over 8x more than what I have to pay outright per semester to study here.  Less convoluted:  I’m paying less than $300 per semester towards my bachelor’s degree.  Unglaublich.

Anyway, I was just browsing last night and came across this video posted on Reddit in which Bertrand Russell discusses the importance of philosophy.  There was a comment thread discussing the video, and buried therein was the following post regarding searching for knowledge vs. information, or following a quest to understand the “how” and “why” rather than just the what.  You can distill it down to simply being about learning, but I liked the account of the rewards he found, and that it’s an anecdote from a discipline I know little about.

It resonates with me right now as I’m struggling to keep up with my music theory classes, a fight that’s compounded by a little voice in the back of my mind that says, “You don’t really need this stuff, anyway.”  It’s tough sometimes to shake that feeling that you’re just learning something because someone else says you should, but I find this account of finding the drive, and seeing retroactively the worth of pursuing knowledge when it’s later applied, inspirational.  Too often in my study of music, whether under a teacher or on my own, have I sought to simply reach the next level of performance, or, in other words, results, rather than given myself over to really being a student and digging deep into the “how” and “why” as a more comprehensive means to the same end.

And as I trudge through a difficult subject in a difficult, foreign language, I’ll take the inspiration, wherever it may come from.

Anyway, here’s the post.  I’ll just post it unedited as it was originally written.  The last bits are in response to someone having recommended him some places to begin studying philosophy.

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“Once you commit to studying philosophy, accompanied by a genuine thirst for knowledge — I must warn you — you are opening up Pandora’s box in the best imaginable way.”

About 3ish years ago I was playing minecraft with some friends, and we decided to try to make a trap to get monster loot. I remember making a trap that ran of a little redstone logic circuit I made. I was surprised when It worked so well, and that my friends didn’t understand it. I thought I wasn’t smart enough to do something like that. This set off a chain reaction. I started to wonder what else I could do.

So I decided to learn programming, scrap by scrap. I was smart, I didn’t have to understand how it worked, I didn’t need knowledge. This is just confusing because somebody else’s fault. People who have knowledge aren’t smart, they only have that knowledge because they couldn’t just figure it out themselves, right?

Then I meet another programmer who started about the same time I did. He could code circles around me. He did so much that I would have never imagined possible. One day I asked him how he got so good. He shrugged and said “I just want to know how it all works.” I thought that that was a silly reason to do anything, I didn’t really take it to heart.

Then one day, I decided to emulate that mindset, to chase ‘knowing how it all works’ for a while, to see what useful things I could learn. So I read. Not a lot mind you, just enough to understand how the language worked. Then when I tried to program again, it was suddenly different. It was like sailor first finds the wind, when a musican first hears the music they’re reading. I was in resonance with both knowledge and cleverness. This was the potential teachers had always said that I wasn’t taking. Code was no longer a chore, It was no longer a thing to be cleaned on occasion and forgotten, It was expression of self, It was the flow of raw and ruthless ideas without a care in the world.

I always thought climbing the mountain of knowledge was a fools errand, until I was high enough upon it to see the view. I had always starving, but I had never realized what had hungered. The little I had read fead my curiosity, but only enough to raise its appetite.

Later on I wrote a little multiplayer game. It was slow and terrible, unplayable even, but my programmer friends were amazed, even the one who could code circles around me.

Then I dove down the rabbit hole. I began to read everything I could about computers. I wrote useless tools that I knew I’d never use. The knowledge I was gaining made everything so clear.

During this time I also played strategy games. Dota and the such. The bits and pieces of math that I had picked up with code began to show the value of themselves with strategy. I had started to see the numbers, the way it fit together. That was the moment I began to understand what math truly was. It wasn’t some group of equations to be memorized, it was patterns. It was the art of thought. Music has sound, Sculpting has shape, math has thought and pattern. The other subjects too, history, literature, art, they were all connected in ways that I had just begun to see.

I began to study math. I struggled, just as I did when I started with code. I studied physics along the way as well.

It started to change everything. I had begun to see. To see. It cannot be fully described until you have experienced it. I no longer drifted along like a numb rag-doll, deaf to all but impulse. The patterns of everything started to appear. Everything began to show its own sort of intense beauty. This was how it felt to be rapt in awe.

Curiosity, which was once just a faint whisper on the tongues of others, has quickly started to become a huge force in my life. It grows and grows the more it knows. Three years ago I had begun to crack open Pandora’s box of curiosity, and now that its open, I can’t imagine closing it, I can only feel excitement in what next I’ll find.

I started to learn math still not to long ago. The idea of it is definitely something that I want to pursue now that I understand what It actually is.However, It still is quite confusing to me. It reminds me much of how I felt when I first tried to learn to code. The part from the video that struck me the most was when he talked about people trying to shape knowledge, rather then allow knowledge to shape them, I realized that that was exactly what I was doing with mathematics. I was cherry-picking the parts with obvious value, and only thinking of them. I had never cared for the foundation because I tried to quickly to reach the bits which I had already found interesting. The entire guiding force behind my curiosity was the off statement of another mind. I didn’t recognize that till I watched the video. I need to learn how to give others the reign of thought and see where they take me. Doing it before has given me so much, and only doing it again now has let me recognize it.

ANYWAYS, thanks for the suggestions.

“The other side of ‘it’s possible'”

I threw this up on Facebook a few weeks back and thought I would just post it up here, for posterity and future pep-talk usage.  It got a little more far-reaching than I intended, but so it goes.  I’ll just leave it as-posted.

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I was entirely self taught on drums from when I got a crash-ride and snare for Christmas at… what, 13 years old or so?… until spring, 2007. in that time I undoubtedly developed lots of bad technique habits. when I was accepted to Berklee in 2007, I started seeing a local drum teacher to prepare for Berklee. one thing I could never get down was the double stroke roll, which drummers will know is a highly foundational rudiment to one’s playing. my left hand just always wanted to turn over, tighten up, and very deliberately “push” every hit, rather than “dropping” or “throwing.” and I couldn’t even ask it to try controlling a bounce. snowball’s chance in hell.

I didn’t assimilate much at Berklee because I never felt like it was the right place for me. also, I was still playing a lot of my own music while I was there, so I couldn’t (ok, didn’t) take the time out to reshape my technique. but I vividly remember confiding in my first private instructor at Berklee that I just could never get my left hand to play nice re: stick control, and expressed my fear that I had just been doing the wrong thing for too long and would never get past this major handicap. he said very flatly, “that’s possible.” this was a private instructor who was well-respected and -liked, and a totally formidable player in his own right, as one could rightly expect a private Berklee instructor to be. I won’t lie; his reaction crushed me a fair bit.

over the last month or so, though, I’ve finally really buckled down, and for the first time in my life really focused deliberately on just a couple simple exercises: a rotating double stroke roll Bertram Lehmann taught me at Berklee (that I could expand upon if anyone was curious), as well as accenting the upstrokes as he suggested; and, primarily, an introductory stamina exercise by Gary Chaffee that Alex Major turned me on to. and for the first time in my life, I’m started to feel like it’s “clicking,” like my left hand is “getting it.” it’s taken almost shutting off everything else, drums-wise; the last few weeks have been 90% spent on the practice pad. (but that’s coming from a total ADD case when behind the kit.)

and I’m finally beginning to believe my deep-gut reaction that my first instructor’s flatly crushing “it’s possible” was horse shit. his words rang in my mind for a good 6-7 years, and while I chipped away occasionally at my problem by sitting down for 10 minutes here and there to work on double stroke rolls, I always had those defeating words overhead like a gathering dark cloud. but I knew if I just forced myself to focus, I could do it. I just hadn’t taken the practice seriously until now. and it’s amazing what a difference even just a few weeks of focus can make.

so, you know. “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” and all that pocket-sized jazz.

now I reassess things as I consider my future as a drummer, and catch myself every now and then worrying that I’ve just started to focus on that facet of my instrument too late; hell, there are guys who are 10 years younger than me who blow me away at that game. but I remember the words “it’s possible,” and remember that it’s probably horse shit. as long as you’re bettering yourself, “too late” or “never” couldn’t be more irrelevant.

Like Hossein Might Say

I’ve been spending time trying to finish an old screenplay, and in so doing I’ve read through a book by Brian Murphy called The Root of Wild Madder.  It chronicles the journalist’s dive into the world of Persian carpets, his passion leading him into a world in which he soon feels out of his depth, and his search for a “lodestone,” a kind of North Star by which to navigate his passion for learning more about this mysterious art.  It’s a fascinating read and really has a lot to say about a lot of things, and a lot of what it says about the fine art of Persian carpet weaving works well as broad observation of art at large.

There’s a lot of talk in the book about contradictions, unsolvable mysteries, nebulous mystique – things the author tries repeatedly to pin down and distill into simple, digestible terms, and which his Persian hosts and guides remark are beautiful just for their inherent mystery, and need not be nailed down in more approachable epithets.  In fact, many can’t – take, for example, that the majority of carpets have no signatures or known origins, differentiating them from most or all other art styles, and origins can only be guessed at based on the style of the piece.  The author asks a member of a large carpet trading family, “Doesn’t that frustrate you?” to which the man replies, “Why do you keep coming back to this idea?  No.  On the contrary, it’s the thing that makes carpets fascinating.”

Anyway, this has all been to introduce a quote I really liked about remaining with open heart and mind and being receptive to all possibilities around you.  The quote comes from a carpet vendor featured in the book named Hossein, who owns a large shop in Isfahan and is the source of many amazing insights.  Hossein and the author had been discussing how traditions had been dying and globalization and the internet were sweeping the world.  Was modernization always a bad thing?  Of course not.  “Sitting in the dark because you don’t have electricity isn’t so good.”  But he goes on to say:

“What I’m afraid of is that we lose the sense that the world is a big, mysterious place where all kinds of things are possible.  Being modern is one thing.  But I hope this doesn’t mean losing wonder and awe and a sense that God is watching us.  If that happens, my friend, these kinds of carpets will be no more.  They come from that type of imagination.  What I’m trying to say is that good carpets – or any art, I think – come from people who ask questions about life and try to see things that aren’t there.  People who think they know all the answers and just create things to sell are making nothing but junk.”