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October 2018

Music and education have lost a most significant caretaker in Australia. Those fortunate to have learnt from the conductor and educator Richard Gill will always remember his tireless passion for music and his unlimited enthusiasm for humanity. Richard was inspired by possibility. An unequivocal love for possibility distinguishes the musician, the educator and the artist. In our passion for possibility, music and education converge. Such passion nourishes and renews humanity when it is carried by a commitment to beauty and truth. “Together with their students, teachers embark on the search for the lost wisdom how to be a human being” writes the philosopher Georg Picht. Gill was such a teacher.

More specifically, Richard Gill was an exemplary custodian of the art of listening. This made him at the same time also an exemplary custodian of musicians. Listening is fundamental to humanity. It is substantially formed by music and it can substantially form listeners. Music contributes most to such formation as it always demands more from the listener and from the musician. For musical listening is not finished by having merely heard. Musical listening reaches out, recognises and validates the other to gain its most profound insight from the perspective that is essentially not its own. True listening always transcends the individual listener through active attention to the other.

In everyday life, listening is seemingly familiar. Yet, as our decreasing ability for genuine dialogue in public life indicates, listening is becoming increasingly difficult and rare. We hear much, but we notice little. We talk, argue and debate, but we rarely listen beyond such talk, argument and debate. Our listening is as noisy as our talk. Some might argue that this development is intended. Amplified stimuli exhaust our attention, deafen our ears and blunt our minds. People who can not listen can be manipulated. They are easily lead.

Against advancing deafness, genuine listening affirms the freedom of human existence and spirit. Genuine listening does not merely process acoustic stimuli. It is not limited to reactive perception but follows creative imagination. It is the responsibility of the autonomous individual. It is a profoundly human activity. Genuine listening intuits and anticipates what is about to be heard. At the same time it retains and questions. It must reflect and confirm that what is heard makes sense. The dual consciousness of listening reflects our temporal existence, our extension within a temporal flux from past to future. Listening is actively finding meaning in the always decaying and renewing flux of reality. Human existence is part of this flux. Some aspects of our being seek to arrest it. An ambitious pursuit of comprehensive knowledge and objectification is driven by our desire to overcome transience – an essentially Faustian endeavour with potentially Faustian consequences. We forget too readily that in the face of a chaotic, mysterious becoming, humanity cannot hold fast and defiantly assert its objectified simplifications. It must learn to listen, its intentional activities bridging the distance between mere hearing and anticipatory, retentive attention. Those who truly listen do not only hear more and better - they will hearken! Through listening we reach beyond the reality of appearances, beyond the many things, the mesmerising events and the exciting happenings that distract our lives. Through listening we reach for the transcendent realm where humanity finds itself and its essence.

In his educational and artistic work with musicians Richard Gill inspired huge numbers of listeners of all backgrounds, abilities and interests over many decades. One Leitmotiv remains dominant: the quest for the best listener. “We are looking for the best listeners,…” Richard Gill would beam into the audience of school children and discovery concert audiences alike. Indeed. We are still looking for the best listeners and we always should be!

Richard Gill showed and argued why listening matters and how it is developed. For one, the listening ear is never finished. The possibilities of listening are endless. Listening requires passion and skill. It requires single minded attention, resilience and compassion – even the failure to hear must renew our attention and our resolve to listen. Listening is learnt. Its traditions are passed on. It requires training and method and it requires leaders and teachers with truthful ears and hearts. Richard Gill exemplified the conservation of listening that is at the heart of our civilisation and of our culture of music and education with which traditionally a Conservatorium is charged. His work establishes leading, timeless ideals for anyone contributing to such a task.

Listening that is always present and close also seems the least noticed and the least understood. Richard Gill had a miraculous gift to show its mysterious importance without unnecessary abstraction but with passionate attention and inspiring imagination. He leaves a silence into which we must listen. His memory compels us towards renewing attention, towards a stronger resolve to listen, towards more purpose in the collective pursuit of music and the thoughtful engagement with education and most importantly towards real hearkening to the truthful possibilities of humanity.

Musicians spend countless hours practicing their instrument. It is an activity which also attracts extended discussion, relentless admonition from teachers and competitive comment from colleagues. It can become a battleground for individual consciousness and create at times ambivalent results. Not everyone who practices gets better. Some fight a heroic battle with frustration. Others pay a high cost automatising their performance in search of certainty and security. Some disable their imagination on the way. To be sure, many get better over time and all agree that without adequate and effective practice no musician will improve. Experienced musicians know that there is a reason for effectiveness and success of practice: the kind of attention that is brought to the task and our ability to work with this attention in the confines of our own perception and imagination.

Some time ago, a young musician wrote to me her observations, which I cite here with her permission: “I was just in the practice room, and found myself playing but not really doing anything - what many call "mindless" practice. So I thought to myself, this is a waste of time. Why am I practicing? How exactly do I want to sound? Presently I remembered my pianist's advice to try singing a phrase before playing it in order to sort out my thoughts and create something tangible to aim for (I later remembered hearing the same advice, in slightly different words and contexts, from half a dozen other teachers, including Donald Weilerstein). As soon as I started singing, it came to me: the importance of having an objective. After all, what is the point in doing anything if you don't know why you're doing it? Sure, you may be able to force yourself to practice for hours on end if you have perennial discipline (which I do not believe I have), but even then, if you do not have any idea as to what it is that you want to get from it, doesn't it make it all pointless? I realized that "singing" before playing, as well as "silent practice" or "practicing without the instrument" is all meant to serve that cause: figuring out your own idea of "perfect" so you can aim towards it and try to get as close as you possibly can to that ideal. That is why no two true musicians play the same - because everyone has a different "perfect." And that is why we all practise (or should) - not to eliminate mistakes, but to set a goal and with every inch of effort that is put into it, try to get closer and closer to that goal. The whole concept of practising, then, became more of a quest than a task (which is how I had looked at it until that moment). I could go on forever trying to quote all the things that I've heard along the road which all started to make sense once I made this discovery, but then I would never finish this already endless email. But not only did this new way of seeing everything affect me inside the practice room; it also changed the way I perform, and even teach. When performing, instead of thinking of what could go wrong, what to remember to do, or what not to miss, one should just envision a "perfect" performance, and, if it has been practiced the right way, it should happen without too much of a problem. Incidentally, this sort of thinking also maximizes concentration and minimizes nervousness, I find. If you're really concentrating hard enough on thinking (or "singing in your head"), there shouldn't really be any effort or time left to worry about what the audience or jury is thinking.”

This report is a real gift. It articulates wonderfully clearly what is at stake when musicians practice. I would like to focus on some pathways in these reflections:

Sing before you play - here and now we have the focus of attention and intention in our important musical activity. In effective practice we use our singing brain to determine the impulses that lead to the corresponding physical activities. Rather than conceiving playing and performance as reactive where we listen and fix our playing after hearing what has happened, practicing-well (eupraxia) challenges and exercises the creative, singing imagination at all times. The performing musician is so truly creative- creating the performance or musical event seemingly from nowhere and entirely through the powers of her imagination. This does not only give purpose to music making, it actually establishes the thinking which can genuinely sustain and transform doing. Practising-well implies that we imaginatively and intentionally conceive the entirety of the temporal idea that is our performance. Even where we practice technical issues, practice is never merely addressing mistakes or solving problems. It constitutes performance or “doing“ and by constituting such doing it creates being and character.

A second pathway of this special communication points to a perennial concern for artists: perfection is a self sufficient, autonomous idea. We are not pursuing mistakes, be it in their absence. This is a most significant message. Corrected mistakes and solved problems may still be mistakes and problems – working with them may leave us essentially reactive to the phenomena perceived. The philosopher Nietzsche recognised this so clearly in his idea of “overcoming” which requires a complete transformation of being and a thorough commitment to affirmative ideas.
Practice cannot progress on the basis of incomplete or rejected realities. It must rather affirm imagination and confirm the translation of our ideas in reality. Perception of a mistake, or the psychological correlates of dissatisfaction and dissonance between imagined and perceived outcome cannot successfully guide the musical performance where it becomes the main driver of playing. The reason is simple: focussing on a problem transforms the mode of thinking from a creative to a reactive consciousness. (Psychology knows this as “ironic process theory”. Try not to imagine a pink elephant for one minute and you know what I mean!)

While mistakes may be starting points for the creative imagination, the artist focuses on affirmative intentionality. He seeks what must be, rather than what is not. Accordingly, the artistic musician leaves behind what is no longer relevant to the actual artistic aim. The musical idea of perfection sheds the otherness of non-being- philosophically this follows Parmenidean principles. The pre-Socratic philosopher’s famous vision of justice and truth divides experience and true conviction in accordance with Being and Non-Being:

“Come now, I will tell thee - and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away - the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be, is the way of conviction, for truth is its companion.. The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be, - that, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not - that is impossible - nor utter it; For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be”. (Parmenides, Proem- The way of truth)

Parmenides establishes the ontological basis of consciousness (or thought - noeisis) itself. We can- and must not think that what is not, is or we leave the path of truth. Philosophers (and others) commonly attribute the label „idealism“ to this approach, however such a classification tacitly imports dualistic principles of world and subject into our thought. A musician knows that dualism is theoretical and conflicted. More importantly, it remains unsuccessful where it matters, notably in performance. For the artist, it is clear that there is one path and one path only: the affirmation and utterance of truthful imagination which unifies itself in an encompassing conception of being… that which is and must be.

Here, however, we encounter a challenge: Under certain conditions our thought and imagination are unable to exercise their powers. In situations of physical and mental stress, we are inclined to become increasingly reactive. Our awareness narrows and our energy rises towards executing fight or flight responses for one. If such conditions are encouraged in the practice room through frequent frustration or carelessness, our attention will not keep up and our imagination (and with it any authentic intentions) will be progressively sidelined. At this point, simply stopping is the best we can do. Once the reactive energy subsides, the imagination can re-engage and determine what must be the case. We need to maintain the activity of our consciousness in its creative dynamic. Naturally, this process can only really work if it is thoughtfully pursued with every step of repetition. Many believe that the key to musical practice lies in the mere accumulation of repetition. However, in this thinking repetition is not desirable unless it is guided by clear anticipation and presented by the imagination in the first instance. This extends to both musical and physical facts. Even supposed “physical training” receives its effectiveness from anticipating actions clearly in the imagination. Simply doing something again and again does not make it better.

Finally, the important message of this communication is that practicing is a quest, not a task – being a musician is indeed a way of life. Seeing practice as a quest allows us to conceive of music making as an important search for wisdom. This includes interpretative activity on a comprehensive level including embodied knowledge and knowledge of self. And indeed: the activity of musical practice is validated most clearly when it develops insight and wisdom that leads behaviour, skills, attitudes and performance abilities, as it must.

In the end, performance requires a capacity to clearly anticipate reality. In practice, musicians develop this imagination in all its complex, perfect detail. More or less random execution pursuing a vague passion for music or automatic reaction as answers to a yearning for security offer limited options with few creative possibilities and little musical application. Driven performances energised by frustration no matter how dazzlingly lively leave us exhausted or –worse- musically assaulted. The reality for anyone who has drilled music making to automatic levels rapidly diminishes. The results of largely repetitive practice are diminished attention, reduced listening and arid imagination. Performers of this kind are grateful for the lifeline provided by clichés and fashions making their playing as predictable as factory ware. While it might appear stylish, polished and even somewhat impressive it reaches the manicured level of a soap opera. Followers of fashion mostly sense the silence of their imagination, but they also find it difficult to address. In fact, their paradigm of practice does not allow this to be otherwise. We must remember: like a nocturnal animal, the imagination may retreat in conditions of business, urgency and noise. In the silence of the practice room a musician creates conditions of leisure in which the imagination can flourish consistently and authentically. Committing to such an aim changes our approach, our methods and ultimately our being. It enables the musician to find her true voice and become who she is.

Personal and professional circumstances have imposed silence on these writings for some time. Important digression has created fermentation of thought and a test of existence in the meantime. It is time to again face the music. And in this, I would like to start with a return to the beginning. Such a return is integral to philosophical method. Despite its seeming slowness returning to the beginning advances us on the path towards truth. So, the question is initially: Why am I a musician? And since I will consider it as a philosophical question, my argument will not be talking about historical fermentation or personal digressions any further. The subject of this question will appear only through its subject matter.

“Why am I a musician?” is an existential question. It is not answered comprehensively with reference to psychological, cultural or -least of all- professional reasons. Being a musician implies that we adopt music as a way of being and identify with it as a way life. Why is this so? What might justify the thought that the human being is best qualified as a “homo musicus”?

The answer I want to propose is fairly simple: Music articulates and confronts us with the essence of existence, namely, consciousness in its intentionality or directedness and spirit in its freedom. Thus, being a musician is a most authentic form of existence. Such an existence is a performative accomplishment. Freedom and intentionality need to be achieved. Freedom is not readily available on a shelf, nor are we free because we are entitled. We need to work deliberately at freedom of spirit. We must pursue explicitly autonomy of consciousness. The alternative is a mindless pursuit of opportunity generating quiet desperation.

The important point now is that such work takes place as a search for meaning or within a process of interpretation. While there are other forms of activity and endeavour that human beings undertake to make sense and discover meaning, music in its most complex and developed forms seems the most comprehensive in this respect. Making and interpreting music embraces and integrates embodiment, feeling and spirituality, formal and structural thought, social interaction and historical enculturation. It unifies our existence and our faculties in all conceivable dimensions profoundly. It is this interpretative discovery of meaning that gives music its fundamental purpose.

Reflections on the purpose of music may otherwise easily encourage trivial convictions. The thought that music makes us better or improves humanity in general is one of these. While it sounds like a nice idea, a quick look at history should make us hesitate: Reinhard Heydrich, a principal architect of the holocaust, played violin with sensitivity and skill, we are told. His parents were professors for music at the Halle Conservatory in Germany. Many of history’s most abysmal characters - Hitler a case in point - were music lovers and by all reports musical. There were orchestras in the concentration camps who played for the entertainment of privileged guards and officers. Mussolini too played the violin. Music can be used to entertain and ornament all kind, including evil human existence. Music is used to whip up the frenzy of warriors, sideline reflection and advance seduction. Music separates us in tribal isolation and exited confrontation. Yet, music is also used to connect, to calm and to cultivate us. It seems that music is as ambivalent and as multivalent as the human being itself. Especially where music is treated as expedient to our moral or emotional life its ambivalence seems to come to the fore.

Be that as it may, the purpose of music cannot show itself adequately in its supposed moral value. Music has no such value in and for itself. This becomes clear already when we look at its ontology and the implications in relation to our conscious existence. Music exists because of a sustained effort and expert activity of consciousness to make - and listen to it. Music is “intentional”. Music is direction and directedness into the future, a formation of time and a consistent, and ongoing creation of temporal form. Only an ongoing process and life of human consciousness and the complementary listening process leads to the existence of musical form. The temporality and essential transitoriness of music implies that the power and performance of our consciousness is consistently challenged. Music never simply sounds unless there is a forming, meaning-seeking intentionality at work. Music requires consistently active imagination. This is why Hanslick refers to music as a „contemplation of the imagination“

The consequences of these demands are profound, especially if we consider that developments in our technological world seem to suggest that human intentionality is in itself a deterministic process that can be reduced to algorithmic, generative mechanisms. It is one of the essential features of music that it seems to contradict such a technological view of the human being. Music calls for genuine freedom of thought – thought is here understood in the widest sense as freedom of consciousness which encompasses feeling, structural thought, intuition and reflection, memory and anticipation and spontaneity. Music defies objectivity as it crosses the boundaries of “clock-time” and reveals to us the existence and experience of a Bergsonian duree.

To be sure, the denial of objectivity which is inherent in the ontology of music is easily forgotten in contexts where we increasingly commodify music and relate to it in the form of trade-able objects. However, the truth remains that music and all that fascinates us about it, is related to an original requirement for intentionality and ontological openness. The ontological features of music find their direct correlate in what we call ordinarily “freedom and autonomy of thought”. To be experienced as meaningful, music requires our exercise of free and autonomous consciousness. Such listening brings music to life in its authentic being. The alternative is a perception of music that reduces it to a mere acoustic stimulant or ornament reducing our experience of music to the level of expediency.

What, however does it mean to say that music requires interpretation and inspires us to search for meaning? We are used to thinking of musical interpretation as a complex technical process which largely involves performers. Is interpretative activity required from those who perform as well as from those who listen? If music is perceived in its metaphorical, intentional identity in the shared activity of consciousness or listening how does such listening discover meaning?

We can answer this if we look at the phenomenon of interpretation in the context of language initially. According to the thought of the German romantic philosopher Schleiermacher (“Hermeneutik und Kritik”), we need to make an effort to make sense - “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of default”. In the context of the interpretation of text, Schleiermacher refers to two dimensions: a literal or grammatical grasp (the meaning of the words and the sentences) and an intuitive, holistic understanding (Schleiermacher speaks of “divination”) which anticipates the possibility of understanding the literal and grammatical layer of meaning in the first instance. Simply put, we must have a sense, an intuition of meaning, before we can understand the words in their full and detailed meaning. Interpretation in this sense is an artistic activity which does not simply gather the meaning from a given text. Giveness and gathering presuppose that the text is ready and available for such, which is not the case. The text comes to life with the free activity of human consciousness in the realm of intuition just like a musical form. Interpretation and the search for meaning are always creative and open activities. A text or musical form is not subject to dogmatic determination at any time. This understanding of meaning implies a dynamic process generated by infinity and openness.

Schleiermacher’s view of interpretation lends itself easily to music. Apart from the fact it might perhaps give a good explanation why we still bother with the music of the past today, the interaction of an intuitive (“divination“) and a literal approach highlights that all relationship with music is ultimately artistic and essentially open. We are never finished with the mystery of music. We continue to wonder about - and search for its meaning. In listening to music, in composing and performing we pursue our artistic search for meaning – we pursue music as a riddle. If this pursuit is sincere and insistent, we can give essential meaning to our life, a meaning that is lost when we adopt a merely expedient attitude to music that aims at success, entertainment or gratification of instinct.

The psychologist Jordan Petersen reminds us how important such a difference is for our entire focus on life when he says (12 Rules for Life): “Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short term-gain. It’s narrow and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It is immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges from the interplay between the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.”

It is the search for meaning that sustains the musician in music and centres him as a human being. It distinguishes the musician from a mere performer who we recognise in tendencies for unequivocal pretence, ready solutions and manipulative disregard for truth. Once we understand that music triggers our desire and search for meaning there just seems no convincing alternative to being a musician.