The Art Of…

Dabble - Sketch by Trent P McDonaldOften the skill we think we need for an art isn’t the one that’s really required.   So you think the main skill for drawing is hand eye coordination?  The same thing with music, all you need is fluid fingers to play an instrument, so you can hit the right key/valve/finger hole/fret at the right time?  Perhaps all you need for writing is good spelling and grammar?  Let’s take a look.

Drawing is all about seeing. The average person has the hand-eye coordination to draw like da Vinci – if you can write your name legibly you have the necessary fine motor skills.  Really, that’s all it takes. So why can’t we all draw like Leonardo? Because we can’t see like Leonardo. Sure our hands can make the movements, but our brains have to tell our hands where to move. That is the art of seeing. Until I started seeing as an artist sees I didn’t realize how little I actually saw.  Photography opened my eyes, drawing taught me to see.

You can play scales and Czerny with the best of them but if you haven’t learned the skill of listening you can’t really play music, it’s just notes.  Listening is the most important skill in music.  In fact, a good musician actually hears the notes before they are played and can then ensure the note that is actually played is the one that was supposed to be played.  This is particularly import with voice and instruments that need to be tuned while being played.  With a piano or fretted guitar the note you play is the one you hear (but you still have to listen) while with most winds and non-fretted string instruments you can easily play a note and be way out of tune.

It goes beyond that.  Music isn’t just playing the right note at the right time.  Most of it is expression.  If you can’t hear it, you can’t express it.  Beethoven heard it in his head as he slowly went deaf, but there came a time when he embarrassed himself whenever he took the stage because he couldn’t hear the instrument.  The greatest virtuoso of his day could no longer play when he could no longer hear.

So, we have seeing as the most important skill for the visual arts and listening (much more than “hearing”)  for music, what would the most import skill be for writing?   Perhaps imagining?  Organizing one’s thoughts? Extrapolating?

Many famous authors would say reading.

The bare mechanics of words and language isn’t enough, just as motor skills aren’t enough for visual or musical arts.  A writer needs to learn to create with language.  Just as with the other arts practice is needed, so is that other skill.  And by reading I don’t mean just decoding the abstract symbols on the page.  That would be the same relationship hearing has to music.  A writer needs to understand how the magic is created.  A writer needs to enter that other universe that’s unlocked with those abstract symbols.

When we teach an art we often find it easiest to teach the medium.  We teach the pens and pencils, the musical instruments and the grammar and syntax.  It’s those intangible skills, however, that make a past time into an art.

28 thoughts on “The Art Of…

  1. Sarah Potter Writes

    I’m glad you’ve re-posted this, Trent, as I didn’t know you existed two years ago. It’s wonderful and all so true, although sometimes the hearing and seeing can work together with music. As well as writing, I’m a singer. And yes, I do hear musical notes in my head before singing them but when learning new music I am also reading it off the page and forming a picture of the words at the same time, as well as reading ahead whilst singing what’s written several bars back. Added to this, I can memorise songs by seeing the pages of the score in my head (like a photocopy), while still imagining and hearing ahead of what I’m actually singing. But, give me a piece of music to memorise on the piano and there’s no way I can do it. For me, there’s something to do with the connection between the words, notes, and images evoked that helps me remember. Maybe this is why I’m a writer and a musician.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      You’re right, there are a lot of different components to any art. Not all musicians are visual, but the visual element is a big part of classical training. Even people who will only ever play an instrument have to learn “sight singing” so they can look at the music and know how it is supposed to sound. Even without reading music, I know a lot of guitarists that learn new pieces by watching the fingering of someone else playing it. Anyway, it is an interesting topic. I’m glad you liked the post!

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  3. idiotwriter

    Heck yeah. :D I wonder if it works like this with people? I imagine we may have to FEEL them to know them. Cannot be sure. But indeed – Our senses need tuning in to the various artistic ways. For instance – I can play the guitar and piano but it is my lowest ability. I HEAR the notes before I play them – in fact I can only play by ear. But I cannot progress from that place as the physical ability is unpractised. So it defo works together in all areas – training both the left and right sides of the brain to work together. The more I practice painting the better I get because I am also practising seeing at the same time I suppose. I mean – they tell you to look, more than the marks you make…
    Even if that is in your mind you look…and at the paper. stepping back and looking if it fits. _ yeah another topic to go on forever about. Nice :D

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Just a short answer for now ;) Practice, both the manual skill and the abstract one, is required, HOWEVER, the right thing needs to be practiced. It is no good to practice bad habits. Sometimes I’ll just play scales without thinking. That does more harm than good. I know you get it, and you say so here – you practice seeing along with your drawing and painting. Both sides -are- needed, but often people forget.

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  4. Master of Something Yet

    This is in fact the fear I carry and much of the reason why I am a “Jack of All Trades”. I can pick up a pencil or a banjo or type some words on a blog but while the physical ability is there, do I have the gift? That’s the one I’m still trying to find. Wonderful piece, Trent. Thanks.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’m pretty much the same way – I have some ability in many fields but I’ve always questioned if I had enough skill in any one to do something about it. As you saw in the earlier post, I’ve decided i will do something and let the world decide if I can. One of the things is, although there might be a gift, as you say, a lot of it is just a skill, but a different skill – saw seeing, listening and understanding. Those are the skills that need to be practiced along with the scales, sketching and taking notes.

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  5. Silver in the Barn

    My daughter was a skilled artist before her brain injury and you can imagine how pleased I was to see that she had retained the ability to draw afterwards. She still could “see” things with that artist’s eye and create fairly recognizable drawings even though her hand-eye coordination was damaged. I’d not understood why before reading this post!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’m sorry, somehow I missed that about your daughter. I’m glad she can still “see” artistically and understand geometrically (for lack of a better term) what she’s seeing. It might frustrate her to not be able to get it down on paper exactly as she’d like, but I’m sure keeping the ability to see helps.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks Prior, looking forward to your note. I just noticed you left another comment I missed earlier, most likely when we were chatting about balls… footballs that is. I’m going now to take a look…

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