How long will it take?

Music teachers get asked a lot - "How long will it take my child to <insert achievement or quality here>?" Music teachers answer a lot - "Depends on how much you practice." or "Everyone has a different speed, so it depends." or "Depends on what you really mean by <aforementioned acheivement or quality>." To me, these questions represent a partial view of music that does not consider time for what it is.

Music has an interesting relationship with time. Whether that's a quality of music, time or both - I don't know. Time itself is interesting. There is no direct way of measuring it. We can only measure frequency against some other frequency and determine a mathematical relationship between them. Music is also based on frequencies. When someone tunes to A440, they are actually tuning the vibrations of the air to the frequency  440Hz. In fact, there is a way to generate pitch from rhythms just by speeding them up, as demonstrated here. This has been used extensively in electronic music to  All there is to different interval in music is a relationship of frequencies. So, when musicians talk about rhythm, it might as well be just a very slow version of some greater pitch. It can even potentially explain why even beat is so important in music - it's like a constant wave of a pure tone! These frequencies relate also to larger concepts of time, such as day, month, and year. Those markers of time are based purely on frequencies of certain occurences - rotation of the earth, rotation of the moon, and rotation of both around the sun. There is no real true measure of time passing. In fact, the days change length all the time! Not just through the seasons - actually all the time for millions of years! To take that even further, maybe time itself is changing as well.

I just took that to the extreme. However, people live through these things every day. We have leap years, Google has smear leap seconds, and, the most common of all, we have our mis-perception of time. A boring meeting or a tense situation can make minutes feel like hours, whereas a fun movie or really interesting project can make hours feel like seconds. These concepts relate to the quantative idea of time. In Greek, it is called chronos: even, measurable time that goes on as we're all used to it doing. We judge ourselves and the world against its passing. In music, it's the metronome marking, it's the length of the piece, it's the sequential progression of notes based on certain subdivisions of the beat. It's the time music teachers get asked about - "How long will it take?"

However, Greek has another word for time - kairos. It's a qualitative idea of time. The moment of opportunity, the right time. Kairos is a moment in time that archers seek when they pull the string, a photographers seek when they focus on the scene, offense seeks when it goes for the goal, and we all feel when we realize something after many days and weeks thinking about it. It's the time performers play with when they are on stage. It separates a good execution from perfect performance. Aristotle and other philosophers referred to kairos when they discussed the art of rhetoric. I think it applies to any performance art. In music, it is especially pertinent, because music disappears after it is played. That is why a live performance is always more than just the sound. Musicians walk out on stage with a certain amount of prescribed parameters: clothing, time of the concert, score, tuning, place, bowing and applause, etc. That's why peole complain about rigidity of classical music. However, there is a great amount of work that goes into working with kairos - how to respond to the acoustics of the performance space, how to respond to the body as it is feeling that day (talk about nerves!), how is the audience responding to the performance, how to shape a certain phrase at this moment, what to do after a certain mistake happen, what to do when a mind goes blank or a certain phrase came out way better than ever before. All that happens on the stage. However, going from the stage to the audience is that moment, that kairos, when a musician can shape their perception of time. Music can evoke feelings and memories and associations that are individual to each person and will take them on a journey that can make the 2-hour concert feel like a few minutes. It's rather curios that it does that through playing with frequencies, as I described above.

As far as performances go, recordings have tried to revolutionize the concept of kairos, but they only go so far. Real kairos happens in communication (going back to rhetoric), therefore it cannot happen without active listening on both sides. Once that happens, it is easy to see a moment of opportunity to say something that will have the greatest effect. Talking without listening is like boxing without looking at the opponent. Now, I don't want to say that talking to people is the same as throwing punches, but it can be - if you don't listen. Same goes for recordings of "great moments" or "great performances," it sounds and looks good, but it's only giving you what it saw and heard - they don't have the background story or the emotional content of the people involved (although someone else can tell you about it). So often, people get excited about seeing certain recordings of something "totally awesome," where the production value is way higher than and way different from the actual effort involved in the experience, that when they experience the event itself, while still exciting, it feels like a completely different thing.

How does this relate to learning to play music? Listening. Listening to understand. To understand the situation, the person, the moment and then find that opportunity to act, the right time, the kairos. It takes that kind of time to get to "<insert achievement or quality here>." During practice, musicians deal with moment of opportunity - how to play a certain note, do I feel ready to play this pasage faster, what do I do to make a perfect crescendo, etc. It takes as much listening and analyzing as it does moving and playing. That's why, in this case, recordings are a great boon. After living a certain moment, they can provide an opportunity to recall the memory and analyze what happened, so that the next time - it will go better (or, at least, different). It's not the amount of time one spends on a <insert achievement or quality here>, it's the quality of time. Ten thousand hours will be spent, but they won't make you into anything. Same goes for parenting and any other kind of communication. It requires listening to understand the other person and the current situation - current moment in time - to be able to have the most effective input. That's why Suzuki method doesn't start with Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro - it's not the time to play that yet. That's why telling your kids how you lived through the same thing doesn't do much good - it's a different moment in time now. Not to say that stories and history can't teach us anything, but without having listened first - which story is truly relevant? That's why spending time with kids, while thinking about work or worrying about their future is not truly spending quality time.

Maybe I should write about German concepts of kennen and wissen...