A technician is someone who is driven to explore and master the familiar. An artist is one who is driven to explore and manage the unfamiliar.
Once an artist explores the unknown and corrals a piece of it into their work, it becomes familiar, and the artist becomes a technician seeking to master it.
Whether artist or technician or some combination of both (as most people are), everyone needs to learn the vocabulary of their art, the technique, in order to know the possibilities of expression within their field. The more vocabulary they have, the more they realize how much they have to say. Beginners too appreciate the possibilities of expression, even if they’re not ready to say very much yet. In fact, these possibilities are what generally make someone want to learn in the first place.
How do you feel when you see someone else perform something that’s amazing? If you’re more of an artist, chances are you’ll be inspired by the work of others, and sense new ways of approaching your own work. If you’re more of a technician, chances are you might feel challenged or disheartened by brilliant performances, because a technician’s first question tends to be “Can I do that?”
I know an artist who achieved a level of accomplishment that drew many students and apprentices to his studio. One of these learned so well that she produced work that confused people as to whether the teacher or she had made it. At first, this artist was annoyed that his student had taken on his techniques and not developed her own. But then, he realized that the reason he was annoyed was that he had become only a technician and forgotten to move ahead with his art. He needed to dig into the vein of his own creativity to explore new, unfamiliar territory, new ideas and techniques that he could develop and master. He actually felt grateful to that student for inadvertently alerting him to his own plateau, and he went on to produce a great deal of new and amazing work.
These definitions of artist and technician are not limited to any particular field. I think of Elon Musk, for example, as an artist driven to explore the unfamiliar, manage his ideas, and then master them with a blend of new and old techniques of design and manufacture. High-profile (and wealthy!) creators often delegate much of the technical part so they can move on to their next project.
However, the skills of the artist, even though they can apply to creative drive in all walks of life, are mostly taught and learned in the arts. It is no accident that some of most successful innovators had a background in the arts, whether musical, visual, literary or dance, though some developed artistry in other physical areas such as sports. There are those who learned a sense of curiosity and artistry through science but interestingly, many scientists are also musicians. We usually only learn of a person’s achievements in one public arena, but most creative people live and explore their curiosity in many ways. It shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did!) to run across an art gallery displaying the paintings of Bob Dylan.
Artistry is curiosity, the desire to piece together knowledge with what-if’s, to juxtapose old ideas and observations to synthesize new ideas.
People who come from a noncreative background (in other words, their natural childlike curiosity was suppressed in favor of more “practical” ways of thinking) may not understand the drive to create. I know one such person who tried to analyze the success of some performers, determined to find the “devices” that worked best with audiences, and then reproduce them. One of his favorite words in working with people was “device” as if he had found the “secret” of artistic success. Such a person generally seeks success as measured by ticket sales, applause, and reviews, whereas artists tend toward other kinds of satisfaction, usually to do with quality of execution, impact of communication on others, and how soon they can move on to their next project. And yet, the “noncreative” person I’m thinking of, though really seeking no more than to be an acclaimed technician, did open doors to artistry in some of his work. The drive to solve problems and do things well often leads to a kind of artistry.
In music as in other fields, such as the movies, spinoffs are common. People see a successful creation and copy it. Harry Lauder’s music hall performances were enormously popular, and loads of singers have followed in his footsteps to the point that many listeners are either happy to enjoy mindlessly familiar music, or turned off by what has become imitative kitsch. And yet if I listen to Lauder himself, I hear the passion he put into all those songs that he wrote himself, and can’t ignore the freshness and appeal of his performances.
If you look back through many of the articles on this blog, you’ll find tips on thinking in new ways about the musical language, the role of ears and muscle memory, allowing you to develop your musical and technical curiosity, and avoiding mindless and deadening technical drills. Below are links to a few. In building this kind of creative vocabulary, you can go beyond “devices” into mindful learning. You can become both technician and artist. You can aim farther than just getting good at something, toward having a voice of your own, musical (or other) ideas that we all want to hear.
©2019 Ed Pearlman
Links to Related Articles:
Music Doesn’t Fit in a Box
Reversing Old Presumptions
Standing Music on its Head
Good and Bad Perfectionists
Clarifying and Embodying a Tune
What’s in a Fiddle Style?
Music is Connected to Everything
High Risk, Low Stakes