3 Essentialism Questions

One of the more recent books on the topic was written by Greg McKeown and he raises three questions worth passing along as very useful especially to innovators. I am paraphrasing not quoting here but it should be pretty close.  Here are Greg’s three questions that are part of his process.

What do you have a passion for?  What do you have a talent for?   What will make a difference?

Innovators notice many things, are curious about many of them, and come up with large numbers of ideas all of which can make for a noisy existence cluttered by an excess of focal points, vantage points, and perspectives. This is why we helicopter around so much, as Malcolm an early SVII member puts it. Just because we can helicopter around, does not necessarily mean that we should, even though it is fun, it is not always productive, which is where the three questions mentioned above seem to be useful. Over time we may have the passion for a relatively large number of topics or fields but integrate over a long time constant to see what rises above the rest. 

I have been passionate about trying to understand why sound in general and music, in particular, have such a profound upon many people, including me. This led to decades of study and eventually professional work in the areas of acoustics, signal processing, psychophysics, music theory, composition, production, reproduction, and most recently orchestration. My life has been littered with science, engineering and music books, papers and instruments. I still do not have a single conclusive answer but do have many ideas about the topic and am still learning several degrees and careers later.

Now the second question do I have a talent for it? This is a little more complicated because according to who? But perhaps writing, performing and recording and releasing a number of musical pieces counts in some way even if they have not and may never change the world. And contributing technologically to digital pianos and computer sound systems may also qualify as I did earn a living doing these at Apple, Bose and other places. 

The third question having to do with making a difference or having some sort of impact is also somewhat subjective but having publicly performed over a thousand times and having influenced products used by millions implies some sort of traction.  Now here is the interesting part, fifty years after heading down this path of music and technology I am still reading, thinking and listening about both, still performing and still attempting to harness or invent technology to lower the overhead for musical creative expression.

In several decades one does not likely have a single career and I am no exception. Having worked in industry, government, and education, I am still passionate about the same topics, and still, wonder if I have enough talent or impact. I do not need to have answers or impact or fame or fortune form these activities – I still like them and still do them and they still function as priorities.  I had not thought to qualify these as organizing priorities, in a long time until beginning to listen to Greg McKeown’s book on Essentialism.

So thanks, Greg – you reminded me to ask important questions which help me to be clear about my priorities, reduce the noise, and focus my energy.

Essentialism Time

Just about everyone has more to do and more to think about then there is any hope of addressing.  Prioritization, essentialism, deep dive, focus and emphasis are just some of the many terms people use to refer to the need to filter much out of their life, in order to get what matters, and is important done. There continue to be many books written about intention, discipline and how to be in the world, and I have no desire to add to this literature.

What I do have a desire to bring up, is the time-varying nature of one’s ability to perform any of the above, as we are not primarily logical and the way we feel continues for most of us to dominate the way we think. In other words just because we think we know what to do and what our priorities are, does not mean we are able to perform upon demand.

Ah, I hear some of you saying that’s why god invented deadlines. To some extent, this is a terrific way to focus, but usually an external way.  The internal should really rule over the external as much as possible if we are to be masters of our own destiny.  There are however empirically certain times that are significantly better than others, to address one’s essential nature and focus on what matter most (which are also time-varying).  The way to determine these times is usually by trial and error, for humans are not primarily logical. 

Nevertheless, there are times that occasionally reveal themselves, which are excellent opportunities, to take on things we have been avoiding, and which we know need to be done. Sometimes, it has simply not yet been possible to psychologically address something, like cleaning up inherited messes from deceased family members, until enough time has passed to decrease one’s sensitivity to the tasks. 

Sometimes we can become engaged in essential activities, that are so close to our hearts as to free up enough energy to address other avoided tasks. I call this Essentialism Time. I am not going to define essentialism as there is already plenty to read on the web, and it is adequately self-explanatory.

The point I am raising here, is when one is on their essential path, the stunning amount of previously locked up energy, which can be released can not only benefit the primary essential task, but also literally “float your boat” and make it easier to do anything and everything, in your life including avoided tasks you were not yet ready to address. In this exciting state, vitality is increased, releasing energy which can be applied to all manner of things. Unfortunately, this can dissipate it, and lead you back to where you started overwhelmed.

On the other hand, if you can remain conscious of this liberated essentialism energy, by being aware that you are operating in essentialism time, there can be great gains in productivity, regarding every aspect of your life. 

At the moment this seems true, teaching a great lesson.  One had best be on their essential path, for otherwise, everything in life is harder than it needs to be.  

Space, Time and Timbre

There are many ways to create in every domain and music is certainly no exception. One reason this is so is the very many types of musicians who bring music into the world. One would imagine singers and players of other monophonic instruments usually begin with a melody, percussionists and drummers with rhythm, and bass players with progressions of chord changes. The majority of composers are able to play polyphonic instruments, capable of simultaneous notes or chords, with the two most prevalent examples being piano and guitar.

When playing an instrument capable of melody, harmony, and rhythm one can start with any of them. Less obviously powerful, composers can also begin with space, time or timbre. Sound is a function of the three spatial dimensions and time which is why listener and source location can profoundly impact the listening experience. Directionality or lack of directionality and immersiveness, the quality or degree of being immersive can add tremendously to the emotional engagement of music. The acoustics of the listening environment (architectural acoustics) and psychoacoustics (two listeners perceive physical sounds) are two more variables a composer can control to a meaningful extent as can how sound varies as a function of time. Notes produced by different instruments bloom in a range of time-varying manners which also contribute to timbre or tonal quality. Another extremely important attribute, of not only pieces of music, but the places within which it is performed and the instruments upon which it is performed, all in combination impact tone or timbre.

Included are several (or the many) definitions of timbre. My Mac’s dictionary says the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity. And the Mac thesaurus says the timbre of the reeds: tone, sound, sound quality, voice, voice quality, color, tone color, tonality, resonance.

Wikipedia has a long definition the first paragraph of which is; In music, timbre is also known as tone color or tone quality from psychoacoustics) is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments, such as string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish between different instruments in the same category.
And finally The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) Acoustical Terminology definition 12.09 of timbre describes it as “that attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and pitch, are dissimilar”, adding, “Timbre depends primarily upon the frequency spectrum, although it also depends upon the sound pressure and the temporal characteristics of the sound” (Acoustical Society of America Standards Secretariat 1994).

Suffice to say timbre is such a big deal as to be considered another dimension of music and this is one of the main reasons composers study orchestration just as painters study color. It is so critical that some instruments can cost millions of dollars and others are worthless. There are some popular musicians including both vocalists and instrumentalists who can be identified by hearing a single note. Timbre can also be extremely subjective.

The next to time you listen to, perform or create music loosen for timbre, it can be just as important as melody, harmony or rhythm.

Closing the Loop

Have you ever returned to a dream you had at the other end of your life? If you have worked a few decades, are in your retirement years, and there are still uncompleted and unfulfilled, it can be incredibly rewarding to re-engage dreams from the past. You know the ones I am talking about, the ones you had already rationalized as impossible, impractical and as unlikely, and also you did not have the ability, so it was wiser that you did not go down that path. Yeah, those!

Let’s say you had practical parents who were somewhat justifiably frightened that becoming an artist, musician, poet, playwright or any of those soul fulfilling but pocket emptying pursuits would damage your ability to have a reasonable life. So being the dutiful son or daughter you went and had a practical life.  It happens all of the time and is far more prevalent than those who went against their families and pursued something improbable. 

Right now for a large and growing population,  65 is the new 40 and 9PM is the new midnight. And guess what, this population is not yet ready to hang it up and go quietly into the night, or at least a sizable portion of them is not. And as universities struggle with defining enrollments some of them are attempting to reinvent themselves by offering new programs to nontraditional populations that are either younger or older than typical undergrads. Even some prestigious institutions who have no shortage of applicants to reject are sometimes engaging in out of the box thinking and offering extremely high-level instruction to new nontraditional populations who they subject to rigorous requirements. 

If there was a field that attracted you in your youth or anytime along the way to becoming a pragmatic adult, it may not be too late. And returning to earlier dreams can be incredibly rewarding for they may represent unfinished business. Just maybe you can once again go after the one that got away?

As a seventeen-year-old, I had briefly dreamed of becoming a composer and conducting a symphony where not all of the notes were predefined and where improvisation was not only tolerated and accepted but welcome. In other words a bridging of classical music and jazz. In today’s world, there are plenty of examples of crossover artists and ensembles so it is probably too late to be first, but not too late to join in the fun and close the loop from a long time ago. 

Even prestigious schools like Harvard, MIT, and Juilliard offer evening coursework not usually, but sometimes leading to a degree. But then again these dreams were not generally about degrees but about doing something you loved and were told you were unreasonably attracted to. Hey not everyone married the love of their life the first time around. For some of us, it took a second try. And the love of a field that attracted you as a younger person can be just as exciting as an adult. In fact, it can even be a kind of forbidden fruit and therefore more exciting even if there may be no one left to tell you not to go for it.  

Whether you had a successful career or even a set of careers, there is something to be said about closing the loop, a phrase originated by techies but which has entered more common usage. All I can say is as a student studying composition and orchestration in the evening division of Juilliard, that it is even more thrilling decades later than it would have been when I was seventeen when I took all of my opportunities much more for granted. 

Even if you do not have an existential crisis, and are not entirely retired, and actually did enjoy the careers you had and still have, it is never too late to close the loop and add some icing to the cake your life has been. And if your life has not been a cake, well, then you have even more motivation to close the loop!