The story is told of the Beethoven fan who had exhausted the usual pursuits of musical enthusiasts—he had all the recordings, publications, pictures, anecdotes, and so forth. At his wit’s end to spend his zealous energy further, he arrived one midnight with spade in hand at Ludwig van’s grave in Vienna. He dug to the casket. Gently prying its lid, beams of light filled the excavation. Peering in, he observed the master rubbing on a manuscript with a large eraser. Beethoven, looking up, implored, “Silence and away, please, I’m decomposing.”
Well, the story/joke is perhaps marred by Beethoven’s deafness—why would he ask for silence? Which takes me to the larger question: Do all composers require silence in order to transfer their musical ideas to staff paper? Do distractions kill their train of thought? I had not asked this question until I recently read a biography of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (Ainola: The Home of Jean and Aino Sibelius, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2015). I was struck by the lengths to which “Sibba” went to insure silence and absence of distractions while composing. So much silence, in fact, that he even eschewed the use of a piano—normally required by composers as they pen their notes. He went from brain to paper directly. Children had to play silent games downstairs. Maintenance workers could make no noise in the course of their work. Often, when total silence was difficult, he would stay up all night with a pot of coffee and sleep til lunch. The children could not even practice their piano or other instruments while papa was penning.
As a personality psychologist, I regard the power of concentration as what we call an “individual difference variable”—some individuals find it easier to concentrate—they get into a kind of trance and blank out the immediate environment, noises and all. Others have more difficulty concentrating, and the television, playful children, hammering carpenters, and passing motorists drive them to distraction as they lose whatever train of thought they may have contemplated. In other words, concentration varies according to the normal curve along a continuum, from those who find it easier to those who find it more difficult to concentrate, and many who are in-between, where it sort of depends on the circumstances.
I asked myself: Do all composers of music require total absence of distraction in a manner similar to Sibelius? Or do some composers pen away in total oblivion with respect to local distractions? Put another way, is total silence a work attribute requirement for all composers, or do composers vary on their need for distraction-free environments? I haven’t known very many composers in my 75 years, so I turned to two friends who have—Bob Ivey, retired organist, bell-ringer, and conductor, and Andrew Pester, doctoral student in music history at Duke University, whose dissertation focuses on three 20th century French composers.
Bob first replied that
…the only details I know of the type you are requesting pertain to Edvard Grieg. We have been to his home (Troldhaugen) twice in Bergen, but actually all I know is that he has a separate composing building with many windows (the size of a tool shed or a small play house for a child) that is separate from his home. It is in a beautiful location on the side of the hill, overlooking the water. [see photo above]
Bob forwarded my question to his musician friend and Curtis Institute graduate Richard Cummins of Roanoke, Virginia. Richard responded:
I guess the most famous composers I ever knew were Samuel Barber and Roy Harris and Jean Langlais. We had a 50th birthday party for Sam when I was at Curtis and I had several nice chats with him. He took something out of his hip pocket which looked worn and tattered. Turns out it was a pocket score of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Sam told me he carried it with him whenever he was traveling by train or plane and constantly studied it, always gleaning something new and revealing from it. I don’t know about Sam’s requirements for actually composing but would think a reasonable quiet place would be welcome— however some composers prefer to have a piano handy to try any ideas which may appear in their minds.
Roy Harris was a truck driver in Oklahoma before he became a serious classical composer. I am guessing he also liked quiet when thinking and experimenting with notes, etc. When I knew Roy the longest he was at Inter American University in Puerto Rico. They had a new and wonderful recording studio/concert hall there and Roy and his wife would pawn the many kids they had produced off on his composition students while he and his wife, Johanna (a wonderful pianist), would work until the wee hours of the morning in the studio and then sack out until time for morning classes. However, listening to other composers’ music in real time or by recording can also prompt ideas. It’s a very personal thing and I don’t think there is any one vessel any creative person can use to approach actual composing.
I do know that Sibelius, late in the afternoon, would walk down the hill from his home to the local pub and imbibe until he could no longer make it up the hill to home, whereupon Mrs. S. and the two daughters would take an actual wheelbarrow down to collect the great man, and the three would push him home! [Sibelius’ drinking problem was legendary. With such an active mind, he likely drank to fill the void when not composing, much as the fictional Sherlock Holmes used cocaine for stimulation when not on a case—a way to slow down their racing minds. –PJH]
I also knew Jean Langlais who, as you know was blind. I remember playing themes for him on the piano and he would, in turn, play them over on the piano several times and then put a piece of paper in between a small metal grid and, with an instrument, punch holes through the grid into the paper, which captured the phrase or fragment for him.
St. John’s [in Roanoke] choir is doing my Dag Hammarskjöld piece on 2 April at the 10am service and I am conducting. I nearly always worked at the piano because I like to immediately hear the sound of any ideas I get. Some, like Mahler, would compose in a small cottage with no instrument. And then there was Beethoven–ultimately he had to write only what he could hear in his head and, my gosh, what he could hear!
It’s an interesting question. To be fair, of all the information that I’ve shoved into my mind, I cannot say that I know much of this as a composer’s need for absolute silence. In fact, I know much more of composers who have been productive through extraneous noise and disruptions rather than silence. I know of other requirements: Beethoven liked to compose at the piano; Rachmaninoff preferred a certain brand of piano—Blüthner–as did Stravinsky. But absolute silence seems elusive. I imagine that this would be the most conducive environment for composition, but I don’t know of those who demanded it. I know that composers frequently sought out certain conditions [italics mine], but (somewhat strangely) I don’t know of silence being a frequent or common requirement.
Conclusion: “Sought out certain conditions”—to me, that is the key. Composers’ need for a particular ambience varies with the individual according to their personality traits, the nature of their compositional task, and the habits they’ve learned over a lifetime. In truth, all creative people tend to have their own way of setting the stage for composition:
- William Faulkner took a jug of rye whiskey up to the hayloft of his barn to get in the mood.
- Samuel Johnson and W. H. Auden drank tea.
- Dame Edith Sitwell lay in a casket.
- Friedrich von Schiller placed rotten apples in his desk drawer.
- Hart Crane listened to Latin music.
- Edgar Allan Poe perched his cat on his shoulder.
- Rudyard Kipling had a fetish for the blackest of India inks.
- (More at Topic 25.8 in my The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 4th, William Morrow)
Et moi? I burn a big, fat, red, Christmas candle to transport me into my writing frame of mind. To each his own! There is no one right, mandatory, way to be. Silence is nice, but not the only device.
Well, not really a churl. Or a girl, for that matter.
At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we employ the Five-Factor Model to describe individual differences in personality traits. One of the traits is Accommodation, which reports how an individual typically behaves around power. Broadly described, Challengers are those low in Accommodation—as a rule they have no trouble saying “No”—i.e., standing up for themselves. Negotiators are those in the midrange—saying no is more situational, and they are as likely to negotiate to get what they need as they are to say no when their limits have been reached. People high in Accommodation are Adapters, and these are they who tend to have trouble saying no—saying no to social pressures, saying no to requests for help, or saying no in moral dilemmas when something untoward is requested of them.
As a researcher and educator, I am always looking for ways to help people understand how their traits work for or against their interests. One of my favorite resources is “poem-a-day,” a free digital poetry service of the Academy of American Poets (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day). I’ve subscribed to this service for several years—I get one poem on weekdays composed by contemporary poets, and one poem on weekend days composed by past poets. Today’s offering is from Poet Dana Levin, who is Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis: “Instructions for Stopping.” It is an ode in support of saying no:
Instructions for Stopping
By Dana Levin
Keep your lips pressed together
after you say the p:
(soon they’ll try
your breath out—)
three times in a row:
Stop Stop Stop
In a hospital bed
like a curled up fish, someone’s
gulping at air—
How should you apply
List all of the people
you would like
Who offers love,
Put a period at the end.
Decide if it’s a kiss
or a bullet.
Copyright © 2017 Dana Levin. Used with permission of the author.
One way to evaluate the quality of literature is to look for evidence that the writer’s characters reflect the various dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. Characters who can’t be pegged as to their traits are what I would describe as flat characters. Characters whose personality traits are apparent I would describe as round characters—more fully developed characters. In this brief gem, Ms. Levin captures the essence of the internal struggle between the two poles of the Accommodation continuum—Whether to draw the line (“bullet”) or to bend the line (“kiss”)—that is the question. Well drawn, professor!
Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.
Accustomed to being a provider, teacher, administrator, and therapist, he was suddenly adrift. It was as though the sails, oars, and motor that had energized his boat had disappeared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “Who am I?” he asked daily, hoping for an answer. “What is my purpose?” “How do I fit in?”
I have heard his earnest lament during lunches over the past several years. At last I have caught the universal implications of Mark’s three questions. They are like a proof from my high school geometry days: Given (Who am I?), To Prove (What is my purpose?), and Proof (How do I fit in?) Similarly, they are like construction plans: raw materials (Who am I?), plans (What is my purpose?), and nailing it all together (How do I fit in?).
These three questions form a catechism for personal change. Not just retirement leaves people adrift. Divorce, moving one’s household, caring for a disabled family member, changing cities or countries, changing jobs, marriage, having a baby(ies)… After every such change, I suggest we would benefit from asking ourselves early on how the answers to these three questions are different. Here is a guide to addressing the three issues in the catechism for change, for finding new energy and direction for your boat—adrift after a major change.
- Who am I now? Fortunately, even under major, cataclysmic change, the answer to this question doesn’t change appreciably. We are our personality traits—sociable or solitary, casual or perfectionistic, skeptical or trusting. They are strongly based on genetics and are resistant to change. We are our mental abilities—verbal skill, visual/spatial skill, auditory acuity, kinesthetic prowess, strong (or weak) memory, critical thinking, creativity—and they don’t change. We are our values—spirituality, power, relationships, and they are not changed easily. We are our physical characteristics—allergies, hand-eye coordination, motion sickness proneness, and they seldom change. We are our memories—from growing up, from college days, from former jobs, from military service, from our travels and vacations, and those memories don’t change—we just add to them. So the answer to Mark’s first question is the easiest: Who am I? I am essentially who I’ve always been. Whether my change is retirement, divorce, or moving to Canada, I maintain my traits, abilities, values, physical characteristics, and memories. Change cannot take those away from me. But the answer to the next two questions can change immensely.
- What is my purpose now? This soul-searching question is about one’s goals, and goals can change dramatically when one’s life undergoes major change. In divorce, the former goal of building a quality relationship changes to building a strong sense of self, and then to perhaps finding a new partner. In retirement, the former goal of providing for my family changes to something else, perhaps something self-indulgent (I want to write a novel!) or socially beneficial (like volunteering at a school, hospital, or homeless shelter). We set new goals to express our changing purpose following major change. Goals for health, learning, spirituality, family. Stephen Covey called such goal-setting “sharpening the saw.”
- How do I fit in? This is the question about execution: What do I do with myself? It is about roles. Based on who I am and what my new purpose is, what roles do I need to play in order to be true to myself and to accomplish my goals? Teacher, grandparent, volunteer, scientist, friend, mechanic, tinkerer, chef, storyteller, housecleaner, musician, artist, writer, comedian, scholar, discussion group leader, soldier, politician, social activist, hobbyist, gardener, counselor, lover, organizer, consultant, manager, researcher, athlete, entertainer. Some of my roles will continue regardless of how my life changes (musician, chef, scholar), while other roles can come to a dramatic end with some kinds of change (spouse, at death of a partner; manager, at retirement; gardener, at a move to the inner city), and roles can be thrust upon us as the result of change (parent, upon the birth of a child; soldier, upon an act of war; health activist, upon suffering one’s first heart attack).
This is the time of year that many people take time to be introspective. That is the spirit of the New Year’s Resolution. That is the spirit of the Jewish high holy days, when they figuratively open the book of life on Rosh Hashanah, reflect on questions such as Mark’s catechism, and then close the book of life on Yom Kippur. For me, that time is between Christmas and New Year’s—a time of self-evaluation and personal accounting. What if we committed to beginning a journal in which we revisit Mark’s catechism both once a year and after a major change? That would certainly make for an interesting autobiography. I think I will begin a new file on my computer after finishing this draft, and I will enter an unending, recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for December 26-31 of every year to update my answers to Mark’s three soul-searching questions.
Oh, one more thing. Mark has answered his questions and is comfortable in his new skin. Who he is hasn’t changed—outgoing intellect with a passion for people. His overarching purpose remains the same: to make the world a better place, with some attendant subgoals that are new. What has changed is how he fits in. His roles as gardener, musician, husband, parent, grandparent, and scholar have continued in retirement, but he has added volunteer, homeowner advocate, mentor to young’uns like me, and great grandparent.
When Mark read this draft, he shared some of his earlier answers to these questions. When he was a child, older brother was (in his judgment) smarter; younger sister, more beautiful. So Mark evolved his goal into being the responsible one of the family—he calls it being “Goody Two-shoes.” He would get up at dawn and work in the garden while his siblings slept in. In high school, his purpose was to “be a good student.” Goals and roles both can change upon experiencing a major life change. He recalled with a smile his niece’s glee at learning she had a new baby sister: “I’m not the baby anymore!” Indeed.
The sleepy Davidson College campus awoke with a start.
It was graduation day in the Spring of 1960. I, a lowly freshman, sat quietly with fellow singers in the Male Chorus. We awaited our next turn to entertain with song. With the audience of faculty, parents, and fellow graduating seniors expecting him to dribble on for 15 minutes, graduating senior and poet-scholar W. Dabney Stuart had given an address that was not a speech but a dare. Here’s what he said, as I recall:
Many people have lived. Many people have died. One of these was Jesus of Nazareth. He said, “Love one another.” I have nothing of significance to add.
And then he returned to his seat. Some thought it an insult to tradition, a sign of disrespect from a rebellious hippy. I thought it the most powerful lecture/sermon/dare I had experienced. Often I have quoted Dabney, now a professor emeritus of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. At the risk of oversimplifying, Dabney had cut to the chase. He got to the point. Southern haiku, as it were. No meat, fat, gristle, or cosmetics–all bone. Life at its essence.
Sharing a value for poetry, I have subscribed to Poem-a-Day for many years. This program of the Academy of American Poets emails one contemporary poem every weekday to subscribers (for free, at www.poets.org,) and one classic poem on Saturday and Sunday.
To my surprise and delight, last Sunday I received Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Eros” (1847). I do not know if this gem was the inspiration for Dabney 56 years ago. It does not matter. What matters is that Dabney’s dare to live lovingly was nothing new:
The sense of the world is short,—
Long and various the report,—
To love and be beloved;
Men and gods have not outlearned it;
And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,
’Tis not to be improved.
I am amused to think that scholar-poet Stuart might have taken a professor’s assignment to paraphrase a poem and used “Eros” as his original. In either case, whether we say there is “nothing of significance to add” or “’tis not to be improved,” both Stuart and Emerson have struck the proper tone for any major religious or humanist holiday.
All politicians have weaknesses, but having a strong team compensates for them.
German-born political scientist Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), advisor to U. S. presidents and professor at the University of Chicago and City University of New York, is known for his theory of political realism. Something he wrote back in the 1970s offers insight into the 2016 U. S. presidential election.
Dr. Morgenthau observed that, throughout history, politicians’ weaknesses went mostly unknown until the mid-20th century. What changed this pattern was the birth and flourishing of modern journalism. With rapid travel, instant communication, and virtually omniscient research capability, journalists informed their public about every detail relating to political candidates of most interest. Unrelenting and effective investigations found all the warts, all the blemishes, all the skeletons.
In Morgenthau’s eye, this mushrooming of investigative journalism changed the basis for selecting politicians. Don’t select the best individual, he urged. Select the best team. If you focus on the individuals, you will see that both have blemishes. If you focus on the team that each would likely assemble after elected, the blemishes take a seat on the bench as the starters take the field.
Indeed. Whose team would you prefer to lead our country?
Abe Lincoln had blemishes, and he was aware of them. Professor Morgenthau quoted honest Abe as saying that
I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.
I have more terms of endearment for my wife than there are waves headed for the beach. And like waves, they just keep on coming.
Turn-of-the-century anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) first identified this phenomenon. People have more words for things that are most important to them. Snow is vitally important to those living within the Arctic Circle. North Alaskan Inuits have over 50 words for snow, and the Samis of northern Scandinavia have a thousand terms for reindeer.
In today’s advanced cultures, life is so complex that many of us seem to live under constant stress. So long as all of our balls remain juggled in the air, we are fine. But often they fall crashing to the ground, and we have to address the crisis. Stress is important because we can’t avoid it and we have to figure out how to alleviate it. Because stress is so important to us, we have developed quite a vocabulary to refer to these dropped balls, just as the Sami speak of reindeer:
- The sky is falling
- Everything has come crashing down
- I’ve just used one of my nine lives
- The s*** has hit the fan
- All hell has broken loose
- The end is near
- I’m packed in snowball that is rolling downhill gathering more snow
- Everything has gone to hell in a handbasket
- SNAFU (Situation normal—all fouled up!)
- The bottom fell out
- My life is like a three-ring circus without a circus master
- Everything is turned upside down
- I’m living in a whirlwind
- I’m feeling topsy-turvy
- The props have fallen out from under me/us
And there are more. I’ll bet you can add to this list by posting a comment below.
I recently wrote about “When You’re Not You.” Most people are not themselves when the bottom falls out. Those who are low in Big Five Need for Stability, or Neuroticism, are typically unaffected by life’s major stressors. It takes a prodigious amount of stress for these serene people to change behavior. That’s a minority of the population—about one in three. Good for them! But the rest of us—two out of every three—writhe as though someone were controlling us with an equalizer board turning our knobs to make us more intense in various ways. I am reminded of Auguste Rodin’s early 20th century sculpture La Porte de l’Enfer (The Gates of Hell). It depicts the Thinker posed before over 100+ figures in hell from Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. The thinker represents those unaffected by turmoil—the calm one in three, while the characters in the background represent the rest of us who are affected by stress.
Most of us undergo a quantitative change under stress. We become more of what we have more of already. Each of us has traits that are stronger than others. For example, my imagination is stronger than my sociability, and my trust is stronger than my methodicalness. Under stress, being someone who is higher on Need for Stability, I become even stronger in imagination and trust. I will dream up wild escape plans and trust strangers whom I would normally keep at a distance.
To say we’re not our normal selves under major stress, I mean it in a quantitative sense, not a qualitative one. We are more intense in our salient traits.
- If we are normally trusting, we become more trusting under stress.
- If we tend towards perfectionism, under stress we become more perfectionistic.
- If we tend to have a temper, under stress we have an even quicker trigger.
- If sociable, more sociable.
- If solitary, even more solitary.
- If comfortable with the details, we wallow in them even more.
- If competitive, then even more so.
- If deferential, then we can become a doormat.
- If optimistic, then we become Pollyannaish.
- If pessimistic, then we become a doomsdayer.
So, the way we change under stress is that we become more of who we are, like a salty dish becoming more salty, a sweet dish more sugary, or a sour dish downright pungent. We change, but quantitatively, not qualitatively. In intensity, not in kind. Under stress it is as though our personality were a tongue that lost half of its taste buds and needs stronger flavors just to taste anything. Sock it to me, sock it to me. Turn up the volume.
A word to the wise: Perhaps this ramping up of who we are under stress has survival value, in an evolutionary sense. Perhaps it has worked to some creatures’ advantage to become more intense rather than different—to change how many stripes, not the kinds of stripes. Maybe fast gazelles ran even faster, clever creatures became even sneakier, when under attack. But we moderns are not always best served under stress by turning up the volume on our strengths. We need to question whether these natural tendencies serve our best interests. It might pay for us to consider not being more intense in who we are under stress, but the opposite. Maybe your sociability should yield to solitary reflection, my trust become more skeptical, and my imagination take back seat to being more practical and appreciative of the tried and true and what is known to work.
We are not gazelles who always need to run faster to escape the leopard. We are humans who can pause to reflect and consider our options. We don’t have to do it alone. Partners make great stress busters. In lieu of a partner, try aerobic exercise to find your calm spot that is conducive to problem solving.
 For a summary of the exploratory research that supports this statement, email me (email@example.com) for “State of Trait Levels under Stress”, by Bennett, Ey, and Howard, CentACS, 2015.
Give me a break! That was my first thought when I read these passages in a scholarly article:
- “How do students make meaning when they explore their strengths?”
- “Does their meaning-making influence their daily lives?”
- “Identify your strengths and give them meaning.”
- “Enabling a deep analysis of personal meaning-making…”
- “Depending on individual meaning-making, etc….”
- “…reflection and other meaning-making processes.”
- “…which leads to a more meaningful”
- “This can be a complex meaning-making experience.”
What do all these uses of “meaning” mean? For me, they are undefined jargon—terms used by a writer who cannot find a more concrete way to say what is on their mind. But “mean” and “meaning” are perfectly good, simple, and concrete words until they get elevated to the clouds and semantic obscurity. “Mean” comes from the Old English “mænan,” which is defined as to intend, to have in one’s mind. When we ask the meaning of something, we are saying we don’t know the definition of a word someone has used (What does expialidocious mean?), the purpose of a behavior (What is the meaning of that glare?), or what a written or spoken message was supposed to communicate (I heard/read what you said/wrote, but I don’t know what you mean!).
I suppose that the writer of the above bullets was referring to the degree to which an individual derived value from an experience, or how they reacted to it. What were they feeling inside? What do they know now that they didn’t know before? What did it make them think of? I am reminded of “Sentence Completions”–a facilitator’s guide to helping participants report to one another how they reacted to a shared experience. Let us say that you show a film about prejudice to a group. As a way of helping the individuals evaluate that experience and speak about it with the others, the facilitator might ask them to complete one or more of these sentence stems:
- I learned that I…
- I realized that I…
- I was pleased that I…
- I was displeased that I…
- I was surprised that I…
- I rediscovered that I…
- I noticed that I…
- I re-learned that I…
- I was amused that I…
- I was saddened that I…
- I regret that I…
- I look forward to…
- I wish I had more…
- I wonder if…
- I wonder why…
- I wonder about…
- I wonder whether…
- I wonder when…
- I wonder how…
- I plan to…
- I am optimistic that I…
- I am pessimistic about…
- I wish I could change…
- I wish I had…
- I need to…
- I want to…
- I was perplexed about…
- I’m planning to contact…
- I need more…
- I need less…
- I will never…
If someone is unable to fill in any of these incomplete sentences, then it is probably safe to conclude that they did not find the film experience “meaningful.” This list, incidentally, is taken from my book The Values Toolkit: Application Manual for The Owner’s Manual for Values at Work (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, 2016). It is an activity called “Sentence Completions” and is based on a similar activity popular in the Values Clarification literature in the 1970s.
So when we think about asking someone whether or not they had a meaningful vacation, date, interview, trip, worship, or some other kind of experience, what we really mean (i.e., intend) is to ask them what they enjoyed, learned, hated, what was the high point/low point, and so forth. Did they have an emotional reaction or a cognitive gain? Or both?
Rather than ask whether something is meaningful to someone, try getting more specific. As in, now that you have read this blog, rather than my asking you whether or not it was meaningful for you, I will ask you: Was it worth your time to read this blog? If so, in what way? If you have trouble answering, refer to the sentence stems above!