Image source: Biography.com
There’s a painfully funny short film on the internet now in which a man/woman couple are having a conversation. She keeps complaining about a terrible pain in her head. The camera pulls back to reveal she has a nail stuck in her forehead.
Each time the man tries to point out that she might feel better if they removed the nail, she interrupts him. “Why are you trying to fix me?” she says. “It’s not about the nail!”
Anyone that’s every been in a relationship will get this conversation. Perhaps the dialogue doesn’t really describe differences between genders, but rather describes different perceptions about solutions. For the man, pulling out the nail might have solved the woman’s problem, but he was really trying to solve his own problem of having to listen to her complain!
That was the point. As dire as her situation seems to be from the outside, she is asking to be heard, not to be cured. It takes an enormous amount of patience and compassion to listen to someone rather than solve what we perceive to be their problem.
I may be forgiven for not always having that patience and compassion, but if I don’t listen, I end up going after the wrong problem. However efficient I think I am being, in the end I don’t even solve the problem I thought I solved. Even worse, I miss the real issue that needs dealing with.
One of my hobbies is the study of how to write for an orchestra. One of the great orchestrators of all time is Richard Strauss, and for all the years I’ve studied him I’ve found myself unable to understand how exactly he writes for the orchestra. For me, studying him has always been like trying to look through a wall with a picture on it…all I see is the stupid picture!
Finally, last week, I noticed something, not about the way he writes for the orchestra, but the way he writes the music itself. Instead of the music bouncing along like a waltz where you can always hear the beat, his music floats, so you never know where the beat is. That allows his orchestration to float as well, and when he creates his effects, the punch is extra powerful because he can manipulate your sense of time.
If you are lost by my technical explanation, just focus on this: For years I have been focused on solving the wrong problem: How does Strauss use the orchestra? Really, he doesn’t use it as differently from Brahms, Tchaickovsky, Debussy as I thought.
Because I am now focused on solving the right problem, “How does Strauss create a sense of timelessness with his music,” I understand one important reason why his orchestration sounds so unique. My fervent desire to solve a problem was keeping me in the dark. Now that I’m investigating the right question, I’ve not only begun to address the thing about his orchestration that’s been bothering me all these years, but I’ve learned something new about writing music that I’ve missed for decades.
Solving the right problem (if solving is the correct approach) requires patient listening and thinking. It may also require a sense of failure so that we “give up” and are open to things we hadn’t thought of. So what’s your problem?