Wander and Wonder

Wander and Wonder

19 July 2020

I recently came across an article published in the online magazine Psyche called 'Why good teachers allow a child's mind to wander and wonder'. The author, Anders Schinkel, explores the seemingly eternal discussion around how teachers might create an environment in which children in the classroom are encouraged to engage with knowledge and learning in such a way that their minds are free to wander. And as a result of this mental meandering, the very possibility that a child may be struck by a sense of wonder and therefore draw on ideas from their inner musings and connect them to the outer, less abstract world. You can read the article here if you're interested.

The idea that particularly caught my attention was that of defamiliarising the familiar. I find this notion particularly intriguing not only as a teacher of adults but equally in relation to my personal practice which a large degree supports my instrumental and creative output. On the on hand, as an educator, I've felt for a long time that to bring adult music students to a point of recognition, or wonder, through deepened experiences of the seemingly simplest of concepts has the potential to profoundly impact on the way in which they perceive, interact with, and shape themselves and their world. As a teaching philosophy, nothing particularly new here...

One the other hand, to bring this level of 'child-like' wonder to my own day-to-day practice is undoubtably a somewhat more difficult mindset to maintain. It's almost as though my perception of the functional nature of practice has the power to lower the blinds and obscure the never ending array of creative and insightful opportunities that present themselves in every moment. It seems that regardless of the absence or imposition of a goal, for example a concert, the mind prefers to take the path of least resistance - the familiar. And this familiar path, more often that not, is one that results in repetition and disengagement. In my case, the answer lies in the reminder to live in a mindset that undertakes to invite and in fact exist in, a state of wander and wonder and therefore pursue creative paths less followed; to defamiliarise. Because for those of us lucky and committed enough to do what we love on a regular basis, there must inevitably lie a deep-seated sense of wonder; it's wonder that keeps the fire burning and the wander that keeps the search eternal.

For me, at the heart of this journey lies improvisation; especially free improvisation. This is a form of creative expression that for many years has tapped into something that lies at the centre of why I do what I do. And it's at this almost insurmountable moment at which description becomes impotent that I try to express the seemingly illusive impetus that fuels the search for an expressiveness that adequately explains 'this is why I do what I do.' With this in mind, I shall veer away from the attempting to express the abstract with language and talk to my more concrete processes instead. Far safer and simpler I suspect!

In response to recent changes in the way in which we don't interact with the outside world face-to-face, I have started to explore home recording as a method of not simply documentation, but equally as important, of putting myself under the performance microscope. The goal is to enhance my creative process and examine how it influences other, more constructed musical activities that include recording notated works and general technical practice. For example, as part of the recording of the Aria from Gerhard Wuensch's Sonata da Camera, I interspersed a number of takes with free improvisations. Koffer 1 is an example of an improvisation that took place on the same day and is part of an internal reset aimed at rejuvenating my sense of musical wonder and bring to the fore my focus on the creative, in-the-moment nature of music regardless of compositional context.

While the Aria is not particularly complex, it requires a particular musical flow that I found difficult to maintain over a number of takes. As time progressed, with each new take, that all important sense of joy and fun became increasingly distant. The solution harks back to the notion of defamiliarising the familiar. Whether playing scales, or arpeggios, or exercises, or recording a piece of notated music, one walks the tightrope that bridges understanding, competence and familiarity on the one side with a sense of the new, of freshness, of wonder, on the other. Control verses spontaneity. Either potentially perilous if unwittingly sacrificed for the other.

And in the case of the the Aria, I found that free improvisation opened the door to an artistic mindset that allowed a fusion of the technical requirements of repeated recorded performances with the flow required to musically present a recorded work. In my experience, the free improvisations that are most powerful and honest are the ones that are both spontaneous and compositional. The impetus is creative and of the moment but guided by an overarching sense of composition. In the present there is a sense of wonder at the sounds and ideas that come forth that, more often than not, bring me to a musical place that is unfamiliar though all the while moderated through a filter that is both compositional and constructed.

Notation's symbiotic relationship with improvisation,
Control verses spontaneity,
Wander and Wonder.