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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Enjoy Learning

When I was a kid, I learned by imitation; gaining rapport with my teachers was irresistible. When I was a teen, I learned by accident, in spite of myself. I was lucky to have teachers who accepted that I was learning while half asleep. Once I got to college, I began to learn by absorption - so I started to choose my teachers carefully because I realized I had no idea what I was absorbing. After college, I thought knew how to spot a fantastic teacher. I became fascinated with what makes a teacher worth the topic they're teaching.

For this community musical "Carnival" in 1989, I learned how to walk on stilts, how to juggle clubs, how to hang and build sets, install stage lighting and manage drama queens. There I am on the ladder.

Sometimes I would just learn whatever a fantastic teacher had to teach. Fantastic teachers seemed to bring out talents their students never knew they possessed. I had to admit that often what attracted me to being taught was trivial, irrelevant or downright foolish. It was only after my ignorance had subsided that I could say there was "a method to madness" for wanting to learn that particular thing. My tolerance extended for learning about something before making up my mind about its value. While learning, I gained and defined the value and use of what I'd gotten on the fly.

Absorption is still my favorite style of learning, because I realize that many people who attempt to teach come up with an explanation that doesn't really match what they actually do. It's the doing of something that I'm often interested in more than the explanation. People teach how they learned - if they take what they learned further, they often don't have ways to explain what they're really doing, so they use their former teacher's words. A learner sometimes needs to ignore that presentation, and get to the source in a more direct way.

What I mean by "absorption" is to merely open up as wide as possible to the skill that is being demonstrated. With absorbing, time of arrival or sequence does not matter. Pretend as if you can already do the skill, even though you are vastly inexperienced. Imitate everything you perceive - body language, attitude and facial expression. Cast your attention wide to take in as much as possible at once, and see if it's possible to juggle all these unknown factors. "Fake it 'til you make it." Count on "beginner's luck" to fill in the blank spots. You have nothing to lose, because you have nothing invested.

Since college, have always been able to learn from books. Surprisingly to me, this is rare. People seem to get a book to "have" the contents or refer to it, seldom do they get a book to really learn it. I outline a book if I think it's something I want to learn.  Learning using a book by outlining it can be done with a library book; it's cheaper than buying the book - and I have the contents that I want to use or remember after I outlined it.

The learning skill that has been the most useful for me as a learner has been to observe. Observation pays off when choosing a teacher; barefaced self observation allows faster learning. Each discipline, skill, world of knowledge or study has it's own sense, body language and lexicon, which  it pays off to learn - but not at first. I find that I want to directly experience a subject first, before I'm trained into looking at it from the traditional point of view of how most people learn it. After that direct experience as a complete beginner, I'll understand what the classic solutions have answered. Sometimes confronting a subject directly will allow me to innovate beyond the classic learning procedures. Sometimes the way I give back to teachers is by asking them original questions that they haven't yet thought of asking themselves. The way to come up with these original questions is to note what puzzles you or fascinates as you first encounter the skill or subject, before you know what others think is "important" about it.

How do you learn best? What do you enjoy about learning?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Stories Drive Invention

 Since the art of telling stories is so essential for the articulation of almost anything that is communicated, I thought I'd bring forward the continued inspiration for new creative inventions that I get from the field of screenwriting. What fascinates me about screenwriting is how it is the art of selecting what is relevant to a story that "drives" the plot line forward - and of course, what is left out as extraneous. For this reason, I'm always curious to look at movies that are inspired by much longer and more detailed books to bring forward this selection process, scene by scene.

One point that's not obviously revealed by merely watching movies is how movie viewers have been educated over the years to figure out what is happening in a story. Viewers are shown what has been determined by producers to be relevant to the story in the scene action of the actors, set and events. Of course this also includes indications of time frames, foreshadowing of later events, suspense, drama, character building, etc. Movie watchers are, to a great extent, completely unaware of how much work they are doing to construct the plot, events and characters as a story unfolds - and good storytelling never disturbs the illusion of how a viewer must continue to be tracking these elements to make sense of the illusion that is being created as an experience.

But how to put an ability to observe and analyze into becoming a new invention? Comparing to reveal differences is my favorite means. Then the differences can be used as a model or form, plugging in the different content from an unrelated area that then becomes related.

Recipes are an obvious example of this. You can take the form of a casserole, for instance - which is some sort of grain or starch in a container that is baked, containing some sort of vegetable or meat and a type of topping. Now you can take a genre of food, such as Lasagna which is a baked dish - and switch the contents to another country's food style - and you can make a Mexican food casserole instead of an Italian one and have an original combination that wasn't obviously apparent.

To apply this idea to music and screenwriting, there's a fascinating parallel that imagines a piece of music as if it were a story. This suggested to me how musicians could be playing roles in carrying out what this story will become using their ability to improvise. If you'd like to see the result of this invention that was inspired by this parallel thinking of marrying the genre of screenwriting to musical performance, check out the unique advantages of playing with the arrangement and instrumentation of a musical piece as if it were a story.

Any invention takes a bit of investment to wrap your mind around, and this one is no different. It's unpredictable what happens when you take one genre and use it to inspire unique characteristics in another arena. It often creates a synergy type combination, that is often useful for more functions than could be originally expected. Using and playing with a unique combination of genres will make these characteristics apparent. Projects need to be "born" and brought to maturity by figuring out what they are good for. Any baby is lots of trouble and not really good for much of anything until it grows up into a person who can do stuff - ideas are similar.

In this case, what started out as a convenient way to combine the differing abilities and involvement level of a large group of performers turned out to have other uses. As I used this newly invented system to describe existing characteristics of musical styles that already existed to see if it was relevant to them, I realized it could be used as a way to invent a completely new musical style that could be infinitely varied. It can also be used for one person to compose arrangements of a performance a way for a music teacher to have all of their students to improvise together, as a way to discuss musical arrangement in to give form to generalized "jamming" among musicians who do not know each others songs. Possibly it could be crafted into a composer's game with some programming - but I would think that the experience of making music together with other people would be it's most interesting and fun application. Of course, that means you would need a "troupe" of people who played music on instruments or performed and were interested in playing together with each other, which may be a unique situation to find in this day of virtual reality.

For instance, a business application of such descriptive function in common with the A-Game I invented is apparent in the "music genome" of Musicians working with Pandora listen to music and describe the characteristics of common factors such as instrumentation, style, use of harmony and rhythm and these descriptions are correlated to other "similar" songs. These commonalities are now organized into a database, so now any user of the site can specify a type of music they like and a whole radio station is generated from these descriptions, containing songs that the user would not normally become exposed to knowing about.

I'd love to know how you think the field of screenwriting could be applied to your favorite project.