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live a creative life
Driving home, I couldn’t help but keep thinking how that poor lady dealt with reaching into her grief box and tossing out a rose thorn every time she had a pretty good day and didn’t think all the time about the loss of her 20-year-old daughter who had taken her own life. Michael, a woodworking instructor, had told our class earlier the story of a special box he had made and given to this lady. The woman was a dear friend deep into grieving over her schizophrenic daughter who let herself be taken from this world for reasons no one really knew. After some time, Michael had made the mother a special small box with a threaded lid and filled it with the thorns of a rose bush. At moments when she could enjoy bits of life again, she would remove the lid, shake out a thorn and then toss it away. Eventually, the special box would be empty.
I have always enjoyed working with my hands to make things. I am a woodworker by choice, but have tossed clay in pottery classes, tinkered alongside tinsmiths, and pounded steel with blacksmiths. I have always come back to wood, though, and have amassed a fortune in various power tools to plane rough lumber, rip sections to glue up for furniture, turn blanks into bowls and spindles, and mill rough material into unique objects that show off the grain or the twists and turns of the growth patterns. I even have a steam box which makes wood fibers temporarily more pliable so that you can bend them into handles. When in my shop, I proudly wear a T-shirt that boasts, “By hand and hammer, all things are built.” Over the years, my shop has changed shape and function to accommodate my interests.
I used to have an imbalance of hand tools over power tools. Instead of a power miter saw, I had a box with slats cut straight across or at forty-five degrees. There were no power sanders or screwdrivers. I still had and used my father’s old bit and brace to drill holes. My first electric drill didn’t come till much later. Once when I attended a presentation by Roy Underhill, host of the PBS program “The Woodwright’s Apprentice.” I got a good laugh out of his disparagement of power tools. The class ran at the same time that Nancy Reagan’s TV ads were showing on TV urging young people to “Just say no to drugs.” Roy appropriated her slogan and signed copies of his book, “Just say no to power tools.” He instilled all of his students with a respect for what we could do with our own hands if we only paid attention to what the wood could teach us. I still hear his mantra echoing in my head: May the Grain Be With You.
In a timber framing class I took a few years back, our days alternated from using large hand-held chisels or “slicks” to grappling with modified mini-chainsaws used to dig out mortises. My other classmates came from a number of states as well as Canada and ranged in age from their early twenties to gray beards like me. One quality we had in common, though, was a comfort with tools and an eager willingness to learn and help one another. The class followed along the lines of Shaker carpentry. As we formed our pergola, the emphasis was on simplicity, cleanness of lines, and function. We were following in the tradition of those Shaker men of an earlier era who relied on their many years of experience to produce such straight-forward structures. There was no clutter. The appearance of simplicity belied the involved structures.
Unlike most classes which allow you to proceed on your own individual pace, this class emphasized team effort. In no time, we melded into a good unit for a variety of reasons, but I suspect there was a pool of DNA in common. We all had great respect for this ancient art of joinery that holds walls and ceilings together with tenons, mortises, and pegs, not nails and screws. I guess we also must have been born with hammers in our hands and with eyes that focused on any scrap of wood we could whack into shape. But above all, I believe we had the gift of good luck to grasp this opportunity to stretch our curiosity and self-reliance.
Of all the practical training and advice I ever received in my life, the most valuable was: “Never be afraid to fail.” One of my mentor’s favorite sayings proclaimed: “Failure is not the end, but rather just the beginning. It offers new opportunities to grow.” In one class taught at the John C. Campbell Folk School nestled in the Great Smokey Mountains of western North Carolina, we focused on design, proportions, surface quality, and structural integrity. The school describes itself as “a special place of big magic.” And we all were borrowing from some of that magic to get the parts of what we were building to come together precisely. More importantly, we were learning that what we were doing was not just about how to use tools—power or hand—but about using our hands as tactile guides. We were learning to trust our eyes and sense of touch. We were learning to let our senses complement our tools. In one demonstration, our instructor gave us a demonstration on how to use a hand chisel correctly to round over a rough piece of hardwood. He made it look pretty easy and straightforward. He wanted us to learn to recognize how the chisel behaved and to “read” the way the grain ran. In his practical way, this experienced woodworker used a clear contrast to explain how to feel for the direction of the gain. He simply asked if anyone petted their dog or cat from the tail to the head rather than head to tail. Following his direction, we learned to see more in the wood than just whether it was mysteriously darker or lighter in color. The coloration was not there simply for decoration. It represented growth rings and how the wood resisted or accepted the sharp chisel in different ways depended on what part of the wood you were cutting. Knowing these details allowed us to end up with clean results rather than chipped or torn out edges.
Our teacher was a bit of a cracker-barrel philosopher and said the grain, like a lot of people, can play tricks on you and change direction or go off in some unexpected ways. In constructing something or getting along with people, sometimes you have to rely on body language and flexibility as much as you do sharp tools. He added that you need to develop a feel for the right amount of force to use. I can still hear him say: “It’s the Goldilocks theory—not too much force, not too little, just enough.” As he walked us through the motions, his grander scheme was becoming clearer. We were gaining confidence through our fingers and hands and proceeding in small steps where we could feel more in control. Like Roy, he passed along some of his amusing but true sayings such as: “Experience is what you get when you proceed without it.”
In the class that Michael taught, we discussed how broad the definition of a box is and what it is to be a maker of boxes. At one level, the box doesn’t have to be a practical vessel, although it certainly can be. On a different level, the box can be part of something bigger, as we learned from the one that carried the thorns of a mother’s grief. What the box can be is is the gift of the gift maker. As such, it can express care between people. Of course, it will come apart over time—hopefully not for centuries, though. In its lifetime and the lifetimes of those who use and enjoy it, it will be a part of their lives.
At the beginning of the class, we were asked to fill out 3×5 cards to answer a number of whimsical question one might not think of as having anything to do with woodworking. The questions ranged from the name of someone you love dearly, to someone you are estranged from, to your favorite song, to your tastiest snack, to the name of the artist who has had the most influence on you. And a last but most intriguing question: What would your ideal Chinese fortune cookie tell you? We then folded our cards in half and pinned them to the wall. At the end of our week, we randomly picked a card to read. Mine read: “It is just as important to learn to live within the box, snugly intact, as it is to view the box from the outside, marveling at its construction and wondering how its secret compartment is opened.” The class had been a true gift.
On my drive home, I heard an interview with Gary Marcus who had just written his book Guitar Zero, The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Marcus is a cognitive psychologist and researcher of learning at NYU. An earlier article in Scientific American (19 January 2012) described his own journey into learning to play music as an adult when he was in his late 30s. The idea of a “gift” is central to Marcus’ ideas. The gift is not about being a natural musician but rather about being open to learning new things. Picking up on what my woodworking teachers had pressed home, I was again being taught that to live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong. As I drove, it became clear to me that Marcus had written a book that paralleled my own venture into the world of music as an adult. I had started anew at 65. I had no special “gift” for music, but I wanted to try.
“I had no musical talent whatsoever and was at one point gently told to stop taking recorder lessons when I was younger,” Marcus told Scientific American earlier. With a sabbatical coming up, and a growing interest in whether people could learn to play an instrument in their adult life, he did what anyone would do: He picked up a guitar. Not any guitar, though, but rather a “Guitar Hero” virtual guitar.
Since I didn’t grow up playing video games, “Guitar Hero” was foreign to my ears. As a youngster, I was much better pounding nails and cutting scraps of lumber in two. I learned, though, that “Guitar Hero” is a relatively simple game that allows you to pretend that you’re playing a real guitar. Marcus describes it as a “gateway drug” to other instruments. Next, he turned to a real acoustic guitar, learning music theory and taking lessons. Along the way, he admits to a musical malady that he suffers from—congenital arrhythmia. Bingo! I knew when he said those words that I was a fellow traveler on this journey which has taught me humility amounts many other lessons.
When I first heard a few years back that the Lifelong Learning Institute at James Madison University, about 50 miles from where my far more musical wife Jody and I live, was introducing a class where adults could get together to play ensemble music, I was mildly curious but didn’t really think I could fit in. The program falls under the New Horizons concept of getting mouthpieces and reeds back against the lips of adults who played as young people and then put down their horns for decades. I missed out on the first year, but joined the second, much to Jody’s encouragement, although she said she would only be a cheerleader, never a player. She was a pianist and didn’t want to play ensemble.
I played trumpet in junior high school and a couple of years into high school many moons ago when the world was younger and so was I. Unfortunately, I was a poorly motivated and ungifted student who never did well and dropped out in my junior year. My most unmemorable moment in the marching band was that gut wrenching night when we lined up on the 35-yard line during halftime of a football game. I can still see poor Mr. Rocky, our band teacher, looking so bewildered as he tried to conduct us from his podium that had been set up on the 50-yard line. And like Marcus, I was also arrhythmically challenged then as well.
So when my good friend John pestered me to join the band and have “fun,” I said why not and chose to visit our attic where there was an aging Jupiter student alto saxophone that had once belonged to Jody’s son, Aaron. The sax had been in its case for years and was obviously rested. Whether it was ready to resume life anew was unknown. Truth be told, the band had far too many brass players and I’d always liked sax music. Besides, I had never been able to get the image out of my mind of Michael Caine way back in 1966 playing Alfie. When his love interest asked him what kind of music he liked just before she invited him into her bed, he unhesitatingly said, “Anything with a sax.” That was enough for me.
It was this concert band that introduced me to Will, our director and associate professor of music at JMU, who is a champion of the New Horizons concept. His assistant was Keith Hoodock, an incredibly gifted musician who just happens to play flute, clarinet, and a number of saxophones. Needless to say, neither of these men are arrhythmically challenged. Since I had never played sax and barely knew which end of the horn to hold to my lips, Keith had a real challenge before him. Before I could even dream of sitting in with the band, I had much work ahead of me. Keith started giving me private lessons which would continue for several years. I felt at times buoyed by learning to play and at other moments frustrated and ready to quit. As I often said, “At this time in my life, I am supposed to be reducing stress, not adding to it.”
Meanwhile, Jody couldn’t bear sitting on the sidelines. Within months she decided to join the band, too. She chose to play the clarinet, another long-time resident of our attic and the former sidekick of her younger son Sean. Not surprisingly, she quickly surpassed me in our learning curves. She also signed up to take private lessons from Keith. In just a few months, we took a giant step forward and upgraded our horns.
Learning the fingering of the sax and making mellow sounds come out wasn’t and still isn’t especially easy. One fellow sax player told me it had taken him several years to make sounds that were different from the honks of geese flying overhead. If making good sounds wasn’t difficult enough, I soon found that I was woefully ignorant of even the fundamentals of music theory. Since the band is focused on playing and a bit light on theory, I was definitely under the gun to catch up on major and minor scales, key signatures, ledger lines, and note and rest durations, not to mention transformation of concert keys so that we all end up playing in harmony even though our instruments are in different keys. It took me the longest time to figure out how the chromatic scale plays into the harmonic equation with its series of half steps from flats to naturals to sharps.
Thanks to a lot of on-the-job training, I’m not quite as bewildered now, but I sure understand Marcus’ statement that time is the key to the rewiring of our brains. It just takes repetition. As Marcus points out in his book, few of us really appreciate the amount of commitment required to even begin to learn to play music, especially in an ensemble. In contrast to most young people, adults are hyper conscious about embarrassing themselves in public. They are afraid to fail.
Over the next several years, I learned about frustration and stage fright. I also was caught in the bright lights of some public humiliation when I panicked during one of our concerts and froze during a short duet. With the help of Keith, though, I was able to put it all in perspective, realizing that no one had died or cut off a finger running wood through a table saw. The moment was just part of the learning experience. Keith reassured me that I didn’t have a monopoly on such a gaffe. More importantly, I learned you can’t just slink away after such a slip, return the horn to the attic, and write the effort off to an ill-advised venture.
In reading the Marcus book and feeling how it struck such a note with me, I found so much that I could easily identify with in woodworking. Most importantly, Marcus repeatedly stresses “commitment” and practice. As simple and almost cliched as this statement may be, progress really does depend on so much practice, especially “deliberate practice,” which focuses the student on working on those difficult passages until they’ve got them right. You don’t want to fall into the comfortable patterns of just playing the easy pieces which don’t stretch you. It’s the same with cutting sharply defined dovetails. You don’t want to stay stuck on easy joinery rather than learn how to create the beauty of dove tails.
As Marcus describes the situation, there’s a big difference between the colored plastic buttons on the guitar-shaped game control and the six strings of his actual guitar. I feel the same way when I have to look at the colored pages on the instructions when I need to change the knives on my planer. Like Marcus, I have to see the real thing, get my fingers around it to see how it works. So what are we capable of when we pick up the real life guitar or saxophone or clarinet or guide the wood through the teeth of a blade? Herein lies the gateway to understanding what can be done with the gift of new opportunities.
“I had a sabbatical coming up,” Marcus says. “I decided to see what would happen if I devoted myself to music full time, for a month or two–or as long as I could stand it. If someone as tuneless as I could make progress, perhaps there was hope for anyone.” Thinking of my own experiences in the box-making class, I remembered the angst I felt worrying over my joinery. Like Marcus, I felt I had to keep at it to satisfy my need to master the skill and to prove to others that they, too, could do it.
Marcus’ journey may have started because he wanted to “rock,” but he’s also director of NYU’s Center for Language and Music. As such, he examines how our brains are affected by creativity—learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language, for example. He wanted to show how these experiences remain open to all of us, no matter our age. In the Scientific American article, he answers the question of “How?” Simple answer: Again, by practice. Practice spurs brain growth, he says. It causes the brain to take what it learns and shift it from explicit to implicit—a process he calls “proceduralization.” That’s why the beginning guitarist struggles to bend a string but a practiced player bends the same note seemingly without any effort. The beginning carpenter butchers the wood, whereas the master transforms it into something beau
tiful. Both exercises move, thanks to the brain, to a deeper, visceral level—that’s the level at which great musicians play and great furniture makers build.
Further on, he says it’s also the level that a young child reaches more quickly than an adult, but that doesn’t mean adults should give up. The fact is, Marcus says, “a musical mind develops only if we put in years of hard work…in which parts of the brain that evolved for other purposes such as language … are gradually co-opted into doing something new.” In the same way, we have evolved as tool makers. It takes the mind years of practice to learn to use these tools effectively.
More than just stating the obvious that “practice makes perfect,” he looks far more deeply into the ways our brains rewire themselves and find ways to compensate for certain gaps or deficits in our abilities. When I heard him say this, I saw Michael the box maker focus his attention on showing us how to run a piece of wood through a saw with one smooth motion.
I’ve been looking at myself over these past few years almost at times like an out-of-body experience, hoping my brain would rewire itself a bit faster. To my disappointment, it hasn’t, but I’ve grown to accept that this process is incremental at best. My piano teacher Mark can only shake his head when I fail to get Mr Right “Treble Clef” Hand to play nicely with Mr Left “Bass Clef” Hand on the piano. But in the process, I get a better appreciation of how our wiring changes ever so slowly. I take solace that if my hands don’t cooperate well on the piano, they do on the saw which is far more punitive than Mr Steinway. I have a lot more practice on the saw. And like the piano, I had no “gift” for the saw, but had to learn its ways.
In moments of frustration during this time, I’ve not lost track that my goal is not perfection or virtuoso skills. The same applies in furniture making. I’ll never be a world-class designer. Instead, it is the realization, as Marcus so eloquently summarizes at the end of his final chapter, that learning makes us happy, and it provides us with feelings of control and novelty that are crucial to our psyches. “Maybe, just maybe,” he says, “the art of reinvention and acquiring new skills can give us a sense of a life well lived.”
While I was reading the book, Keith formed a Jazz Band which has introduced all kinds of new challenges, including improvising and learning to hear chord changes in the 12-bar Blues scale. If I thought the basics of the concert band weren’t difficult enough, I’m now learning that improvising is the elusive butterfly of music. I’m “listening” with all my might to the bass, high-hatted drums, and piano, but I’m still having trouble hearing and adjusting to the chord changes. Meanwhile I’m trying to play a decent rhythm while doing my best to remember which chords take sharps and which sound better flattened.
When I got home from one recent band practice, I found that my latest turning gouge had arrived in the mail. This is a specialized tool that is supposed to make it easier to hollow out deep vases. Despite the hyperbole that we’re just one tool away from greatness, I consoled myself knowing that I will get better but probably not perfect at hollowing. I will also improve at switching chords given enough practice and time. I probably won’t even need to buy an expensive Selmer Mark IV saxophone. All I can do is pay more attention to how I hold the gouge or hear the rhythm as the schematics in my head get rewired.
As I have learned to appreciate, music and woodworking have common links: They rely on long traditions of hard work, learning from one another, listening to what others are playing, and watching to see how the most skilled individuals use techniques for better results. I am reminded of the Shakers who believed in approaching every task with care. This care resulted in a distinctive Shaker style of architecture, furniture, and decorative arts characterized by Shaker values of simplicity and fine craftsmanship. One of the gifts the Shakers gave the world was a sense of order and neatness that is reflected in the clean lines of their designs. Like music and the tactile crafts, I consider their contribution as the gift of an uncluttered life.
In the meantime, I just have to keep reminding myself that failure is not the end, but rather just the beginning. If appreciated correctly, it offers new opportunities to grow. The adventure continues. Stay in tune.