Peace of mind isn’t at all superficial, really…. It’s the whole thing. That which produces it is good maintenance, that which disturbs it is poor maintenance. What we call workability of the machine is just an objectification of this peace of mind. The ultimate test’s always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself. [1. Pirsig, R. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Harper Collins.]
~ Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
In my Arts Business & Technology class we’ve been attempting to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), as a doorway into deeper thinking about creativity, the creative process and aesthetics. I’ve done this very successfully in the past with past classes, but I’ve also had difficulties in the past as well. ZAMM is a tough read for high school students and they don’t always “get” the concepts we’re trying to discuss. This year’s class is no different, but I’m having a tough time getting them to just read the book. They are obstinate seniors with severe senioritis, and while they’re willing to learn, reading a difficult text like ZAMM is not on the top of their priorities. I’m at the point where I’m reading to them and going over the points in the book much in the same way the narrator from ZAMM reads Thoreau’s Walden to his own son. With the time I’m allotted each day for class, however, I will not have the luxury to work this way and address the other parts of our curriculum. Nor would we be able to get through everything in the book that I’d like to address, so I’ve given up and resorted to discussing the aesthetic and creative concepts while elusively quoting the text and referring to Pirsig’s ideas. While the students may not grasp the entirety of Pirsig’s concepts of aesthetics, Quality, and the dichotomy of the classical and romantic sides of thinking and the aesthetic, I’m at least planting the idea and hoping that someday they’ll return to ZAMM and explore the ideas the book has to offer when they are ready. I myself have read this book four or five times and each time I uncover something new, something different, something that makes me look at my work in a different way as both a teacher and a musician.
This week we’re discussing the narrator’s run-in with the rotisserie instructions at a friend’s house and how the best directions he had ever read started with… “Assembly of bicycle requires great peace of mind.” After discussing what the narrator is trying to convey about this concept of “peace of mind” with the students, I lead the discussion towards your own state of mind as an artist before diving into a practice session, performance or some other creative endeavor. This year’s class continued past the idea of “peace of mind” and also discussed being in the “zone” during practice – the opposite of practicing with the wrong frame of mind – it’s perfect practice. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi identified this as “flow” in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it he outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. [2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.] The idea of “flow” is identical to the feeling of being “in the zone” or “in the groove”, and it’s the exact opposite of trying to work when you’re not in the right frame of mind. This is an important concept to understand as an artist – how to have peace of mind and the right “frame of mind” in order to practice or work effectively. I remember trumpet my teacher saying – “don’t get frustrated – if you’re having a hard time with a certain passage – relax, get a drink, walk away from the music and come back later. ”
My students will be doing some research on this topic on their own, and they’ll be writing about their own personal experiences with either being “in the zone”, or with their frustration over not having the right “frame of mind” for practice or creativity. I myself have experienced both ends of the spectrum – having some great sessions working, arranging or composing when the writing just flows and you get so much done without even realizing how much time has past. I distinctly remember composing a piece entitled Hunter’s Moon for my first percussion ensemble when I began teaching. I was living in my first apartment on 48th Street in Bayonne, NJ – I remember the room , the computer, and where it was set up in a little corner, away from the window. I remember sitting at the computer (still on Finale at the time) and composing that piece, and how easily the notes seemed to flow from my brain to the computer screen. It was completed in a matter of a few days – working after school, and was performed by my percussion ensemble later that year. The following year it was also performed by the New Jersey City University percussion ensemble. Since that time I do more arranging than composing, and even more curriculum and unit writing, but the idea of flow is still there – and still works its way into my own workflow – regardless of the type of creative work I’m doing.
Is this a concept high school students can really grasp? I hope so, as I think many young students venturing into undergraduate study in the arts truly struggle with this. I remember many frustrating practice sessions in the basement of the Old Music Building at Rutgers and I have witnessed my own son struggle with these issues as a young classical guitarist – to the point where he sometimes questions his own talent and abilities, not seeing that his frustrations and “frame of mind” are the problem and not his musicianship. To me this is the creative process, and being able to get into that groove, is an essential part of being a successful artist.