Why We’re Dead Wrong About What We’ve Told Our Kids About Music and Music Education

It’s no secret that our society has long valued left brain thinking over right brain thinking. Up until now, it’s left brain thinking that has more or less paid the bills for a lot of us for the last few years, and was definitely taught to us within most education systems. Prioritizing analytical thinking skills at the expense of creative thinking, while well enough intentioned, has proven to be more of a disservice to society than anything else.

To clarify, left brain thinking is the common reference to most logical, calculated forms of reasoning. Things like mathematics, the sciences, and deduction occur in this hemisphere of the brain, and are thus given the highest esteem when they translate into business practice. Generally, the types who are born or successfully work to develop an acute ability to exercise this hemisphere are the ones who go on to illustrious careers in traditional career fields. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc are the ones that most often come to mind.

By contrast, right brain thinking – as you might have used your left brain to figure out – is responsible for the abstract, creative, “out-there” kind of thinking that characterizes us musicians, artists, theatrical types, poets and writers, and the like. Those of us who long ago expressed a logically inexpressible need to try to do something impossible to recreate to the T, those of us were discouraged from pursuing what we loved because “it would never pay the bills”, and those of us who may have listened or didn’t.

Now, was that counsel misguided and untrue? No. At least, for the most part.

The streets are full of brilliant cellists, guitarists, songwriters, artists, actresses, writers who just knew they would be the exception. The “starving artist” stereotype is in place for good reason, and largely because it’s true.

Ultimately, it’s not within the scope of this article to explain why left brain thinking is superior or inferior to right brain thinking or why you should develop one over the other for the purpose of greatest economic gain. That’s an argument best left to dedicated scientific types; a population I am far from part of. Personally, I see merit to logic and think we could a whole lot more of it. But all that is beside the point.

The trend in just about every phase of our society’s developmental architecture, where young people experience their most dynamic years of development are decidedly, ardently, and unarguably against developing right brain thinking.

Some would contest the validity of that statement, and the simple way to respond to that skepticism is examining the financials. Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, even colleges are routinely cutting or completely eliminating budgets for art and music departments entirely. Seriously? If ever there was need for evidence of an imbalance, there you have it.

It’s also not within the scope of this article to get into the incongruencies within the education system as it applies to music and art, in spite of the juicy, compelling fact that there is now more money being pumped into our education system than at any point in (American) history. However, it is within the scope of this post is simply trying to break down the why? behind the paradigm shift and whether the new paradigm has merit.

Once upon a time, America was a thriving, envied contributor to both the global economy and a trendsetter for the rest of the world in all things cultural. What changed? We’ll ignore economics for now, although the two are surprisingly linked.

When it comes down to it, you can argue the politics/bureaucracy, the economics, the applicability, the real productivity of the arts for years. Indeed, the argument has been going on for some time and to no useful end. In a way, this article is just a continuation or extension of those arguments. Unfortunately, the issues discussed at board meetings high up in the schools’  food chains are missing the mark, for most part, by a long shot.

In fact, those discussions are an enormous waste of time because they have no regard for the nature of art.

It’s more or less in the abstract mission statements of our school system to produce promising young people and in some way or another prepare them for the workforce or whatever it is that people do after high school. Unfortunately, much of these decisions are made based on estimations, numbers, and projections or otherwise concrete notions. Obviously, the arts don’t have much of a place in those kinds of discussions.

Why is it such a disservice that young people are blatantly or not so blatantly (To me, ousting it from standard curricula is pretty blatant. But hey, is a white lie still a lie? Same argument.)  discouraged from pursuing art or music or theater? It doesn’t start with the school, it’s simply propagated there.

It starts in the home, and that’s often where we end up back at an economic argument. Mom and dad want Little Johnny and Suzie to have nice things when they grow up, a college education, a home, financial stability, and the classic American dream. Mom and dad think back to how little they used any of that mandatory recorder (or tonette) training they experienced and then discount it. Add to that the pressure many young men experience to commit to conventionally masculine pursuits and then you start running out of hours in the day. At some point the balancing act becomes unmanageable. (Ironically, save for <1% of athletes, there’s not a lot of economic gain in sports either, but stay with me.)

The parents then take these concerns to the schools, and because they don’t see a need for it, they don’t want Little Johnny and Little Suzie’s time being wasted on stuff that won’t get them anywhere in the real world. While a legitimate concern, and with absolutely wonderful intentions, many, many parents also completely miss the point.
Ignore the economics. Ignore the politics. Ignore the bureaucracy. And certainly ignore the stereotypes that come with the arts. None of that stuff is the point of music, it’s not the point of traditional, it’s not the point of theater.

The point of developing right brain thinking, embracing art, and encouraging it in young people is to instill an ability to think outside the realm of the known. The point is to encourage making the unknown less daunting. Art and embracing it encourages something I’m told used to be called “gumption”. Or rather, the acknowledgement of the rules, but the willingness to bend or break them when necessary.

This is a common trait found in entrepreneurs, who see the world in a flexible light, while by extreme contrast, others view their worlds as fixed and only marginally subject to augmentation, but over the course of a great period of time.

Again, the point is not embracing art and music for the sake of paying the bills, but for the sake of coming up with innovative solutions to pay the bills. It’s about developing and having the capacity, imagining what’s outside the realm of probability, and the gumption to test the one’s ability against the currents of possibility. How could this be a bad thing?

I admit, the science isn’t in my favor. Not many studies have been conducted in defense of what musicians, artists, and other creatives have long suspected. In many, if not all of us is this deep-seated suspicion that “I don’t think I think like all the others”. Personally, left brain thinking is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for the balance my insatiable curiosity in leaning both directions at differing intervals has provided me.

At the heart of the argument, then, is that music, art, and its counterparts are far too often discredited as things to be taken with a grain of salt. Activities best left to pursuing on the weekends and if it makes you money great, but don’t put a lot of stock in your abilities, because there are so many other people doing the same thing, there’s always someone doing it better than you, blah, blah, blah. Continue inserting whatever excuses you like. The point is that although the arts merits are a long way from being measurable, doesn’t mean they’re not formidable. And if you’re questioning the value of art and the type of thinking it promotes, perhaps you just have a limited capacity for challenging the “impossible”.


The Psychology of This Amp Goes to ’11’ & What You Buy When Buy a Guitar (or other gear)

If you’ve spent much time around musicians, be they bass players, guitarists, pianists/keyboardists, or even drummers, you’ve probably sat in on conversations that-to the non-musician, or new musician-revolved around stuff that you couldn’t possibly believe matters to playing music. Guitarists talking about what gauge pick offers the optimal amount of resistance for the most desirable pick attack, bassists swearing up and down that nickel-wound strings are too “jazzy” for the sound he’s going for, drummers who have sworn off birch shells because they’re only marginally as punchy as maple.

For a lot of us, there is no detail in the music equipment world not worth analyzing.

As with just about any other activity (“activity” is very weak word… just know I’m not trying to minimize the significance of the music community!) that has an enthusiastic following, manufacturers of music equipment have graciously given all of us access to more options than one lifetime would allow exploring. These options allow us to sculpt, in every imaginable way, our own musical identity, provided that we have both the cash to fund that identity and the gumption to pursue it.

Back in the 90s (when I entered the guitar world), there was a fraction of the STUFF that we now have at our fingertips. Everything from devices to clean underneath guitar strings, to strings made from cobalt, to guitars made from wood scraps, to the Ebow, to amps that double as analog to digital/USB converters is now available that scarcely existed even 15 years ago. Technology and capitalism have managed to make it all so.

In light of this enormous amount of STUFF, it’s incredibly difficult for beginners to wade through all the superfluous and move directly to the real stuff. On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy for the budding guitar player to be seduced by the overwhelming draw of all the gear and lose focus of what’s really, genuinely important, which is, has been, and always will be playing the guitar. 

There’s little wrong with loving the spoils of our hyper commercialized corner of the world. In fact, for many years, I made a decent living doing so (more about that on another day). Suffice to say, guitars, basses, drums, amps, and all that is a multi-billion dollar industry that goes out of its way-like all industries-to add as much allure to their merchandise as possible. It just so happens that the guitar industry is able to market a highly personal product. Not guitars and amps and beautiful paint jobs/finishes, not black market materials illegally shipped in from Madagascar. That’s just stuff. And the music instrument industry knows that.

They’re selling identity. 

At the outset, not unlike a teenager and his first car, what’s important to us? Color and body shape. That’s it. That’s why guitar shop employees will have the distinct, highly memorable pleasure of demonstrating guitar after identically built, identically setup guitar to new musicians, going over each dust fleck and possibly each nick before a decision is made. At the outset, this is what counts because we’re paying for the appearance of the instrument. Traditional psychology will tell you that the only reason we invest as much time as we do in appearances is what? Identity. A sense of uniqueness. Parts of who we are packaged into a physical thing.

For the sake of clarification, there is nothing wrong with this!

In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable (unless you’re the guitar store salesman, and its 5 minutes to closing time and you’ve got to be at a gig in an hour) aspects of being a musician. For better or worse, buying gear (to start with, for the color and the body) is an exciting experience, and rarely results in buyer’s remorse-assuming you’ve done your homework and thought about your purchase, and spent a little bit of time with the guitar or amp or whatever before making the decision to buy. Impulse buys, just like with any other purchase, frequently result in a sense of regret.

Back to the sense of identity, it’s why Nigel iconically felt compelled to persistently reiterate that his Marshall cranked to 11. This is as good of a demonstration as any. A room full of guitars for any practical reason? Nope. It’s not a rational, logical compulsion. It’s purely emotional, and something we’re (almost) all inclined toward at some point or another. With music gear, it’s because it’s incredibly fun. If that weren’t enough, consider the runaway success of such incredibly personal merchandise sold by Victoria’s Secret. Is it necessary to own $70 underwear? No. What’s being sold, in that case, is beauty. Again, not a long way from identity.

Ultimately, the point is that as anyone who has been in the guitar community for a while can tell you, all the gear in the world will not make you the next Steve Vai, Stevie Ray, or Jeff Beck. Enormous amounts of practice over long periods of time, a set of definite musical goals, and an unwavering passion for music, however, will help. Even if you’re plucking away at your $40 pawn shop special. Keep at it.