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The Necessity of Logic for Musicians (and everyone else too)

Nearly everyone claims to champion logic in their approach to the world. Politicians cite logic in policy debates. Scientists claim it to defend their theories. Corporations exploit it when advertising product designs. Preachers refer to it in the pulpit. Engineers apply it in the laboratory. Teachers and professors tout it in their classrooms and lecture halls. However, very few people actually have spent any significant time studying it, and many of its biggest proponents in public life fail to correctly invoke it.

Logic concerns itself with generating valid conclusions from a set of premises. An argument is logical provided that the reasoning from those premises to the conclusion is valid. Unfortunately, the focus of many public debates centers around the veracity of the premises, and completely ignore the reasoning of the argument itself. In order for a particular reasoning operation to be valid, it must not yield inconsistencies. In other words, no matter how you reason from the premises you must be able to arrive at the same conclusion.

In this way, logical operators function like mathematical operators. To solve the expression 2(3+4), it shouldn’t matter how I reason that out provided that I use valid operations. I can say that 3 + 4 = 7 and thus 27 = 14, or I can say that 2(3+4) = 23 + 2*4 which yields 6 + 8 = 14. All of those are valid mathematical operations because they yield a consistent result, 14, no matter how or in what order I apply them.

Musicians need logic. They need it in their practicing, performing, teaching, research, marketing, accounting, and just about anything else they do. Unfortunately, many musicians do not apply valid arguments to the problems they wish to solve.

Nearly every young musician discovers a favorite performer of theirs. It’s not long until they have discovered what mouthpiece and/or instrument this person uses, what school they attended, with whom they studied, what practice techniques they subscribe to, etc. They will quickly purchase every recording, memorize every interpretation, and begin their quest to carbon-copy themselves to this performer. After all, if player X plays on this instrument, attended this school, and practices these exercises . . . what should happen if I were to also to do each of those things?

Unfortunately, as many young players discover (myself included) it rarely works very well. Over the course of their career, a performer chooses a particular instrument and develops certain exercises to solve various technical and musical problems they encounter. Each player confronts different problems, and thus will discover different solutions.

Logic helps us to find these answers for ourselves, but few musicians seem to be receptive to it. In fact, I’ve found that many musicians are actually taught to be illogical on purpose. In many instances, they have found solutions to problems that don’t exist. Logical fallacies come in all shapes and sizes, but in the end they rarely produce the desired results.

I have run into many brass players who obsess about endurance problems. After all, doesn’t playing for long periods of time inflict damage to the embouchure, especially if that playing is very loud and high? Let’s examine this argument. It goes something like this.

A player makes several observations about an occasion when they exhausted their embouchure. They probably played for hours one day without breaks with a school or professional ensemble, only to awake the next day almost completely unable to produce sound. They probably tried to play through an hour-long recital and by the end of the fourth piece on the program had lost most of their accuracy in their upper register. From these events they conclude that their embouchure can only handle a certain threshold of strain until it “gives out.” They become very shy about pushing themselves to or past that limit on a regular basis, mostly driven by fear.

There are a few problems with this reasoning. While it is probably true that one’s embouchure can only handle a certain threshold of strain, nothing says that that threshold is fixed. It is quite possible that over the course of time, due to various factors, such a threshold can change (both positively and negatively). In addition, playing a brass instrument (even in the extreme tonal and dynamic registers) doesn’t involve a fixed amount of strain. It is certainly possible to make one’s playing more efficient to minimize strain while playing. Considering both of these conditions, logic implies that one should work in both ways at the same time: 1) to become more efficient and 2) to challenge and build up their facial and respiratory muscles on a regular basis.

However, in reality most brass players will usually try only one of those two solutions in isolation and conclude that it doesn’t work. They will either try to practice for longer and longer periods of time, eventually concluding that all they have done was inflicted a tremendous amount of damage to their embouchure — or they will work to streamline their breathing and embouchure function to play effortlessly, eventually causing the muscles in their face to deteriorate from not being pushed to their limits. In this case, logic implies that one really needs to do both simultaneously to notice any significant improvement.

This shows a common fallacy made by many, that a given playing problem has only one cause. While any given problem might in fact have only one cause, it also might have several causes or (very common) a main cause with several secondary causes. Being able to solve one’s playing problems relates more to the ability to ask the right questions than it does to being able to find the “magical” answers.

Almost everyone, at some point in their musical life, discovers the power of the metronome as a practice aid. With the help of constant clicking it becomes much easier to notice “sticky notes” or “difficult passages” or places where we tend to rush without even realizing it. Objectivity in music has its value, but also its detractors. Many performing musicians despise the metronome as it removes the heart and soul from interpretation. It’s true that constant tempo tends to be antithetical to using tempo as an expressive device. Many musicians seem to fall into one of two camps: one that uses the metronome religiously no matter what they are practicing, and the other that almost never uses it at all. Neither of these makes any logical sense.

The metronome isn’t a matter of dogma, it’s a matter of logic. Using it has the affect of evening out all tempo fluctuations. It’s a great tool for developing consistency and fluidity of technique. It also tends to make for very mechanical and boring music making. When trying to develop consistent technique it is important to use it as much as possible. However, when it’s time to develop a unique interpretation that utilities tempo fluctuations, one should probably turn it off completely. The real sign of great music making is knowing both when to use the metronome as well as when to put it away.

It takes a logical, inquisitive, and independent mind to figure these things out. It’s not something that can be learned by listening unconditionally to a “master teacher.” In my opinion, the best “master teachers” impart on their students the ability to think rationally and solve their own problems. Valid logical reasoning is at the heart of that process. It’s not always an easy or straightforward process, but in the end it is the only one which can work consistently. This is true for theorists and historians as well as performers. It is probably most important for teachers, as they attempt to analyze and solve the range of problems each of their students face. We need it to successfully market ourselves, make important business and life decisions, and ultimately to observe any kind of sustainable long-term progress. Logic, quite simply, is the only winning hand at the table.

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