The Experience-Stretching Hypothesis
25 Sunday Jul 2010
You never know where or when an idea for a post is going to pop up. In this case, it was from an article from Wired.com entitled “Why Money Makes You Unhappy” by Jonah Lehrer (I think I prefer the saying, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure quiets your nerves”).
Lehrer says that once you’re out of poverty that how rich you are has little to do with how happy you are or how satisfied you are with life. The phrase “experience-stretching hypothesis” comes from Daniel Gilbert and says, in essence, that too much of a good thing reduces – even kills – the pleasure we once took in something when we only had a little of it. Food tastes best to a hungry man; one who is satiated finds little interest in even one bite of gourmet cooking.
When you work in a chocolate factory, they let you eat all you want, knowing that after the first week you won’t want to so much as look at a Hershey’s Kiss after that.
Lehrer cites the Amish, who live life very simply but who record very high levels of happiness. He compares them with modern consumers who chase after the latest car or electronic gadget but who aren’t any the happier for it.
It made me think about a life in music. In my early days of being completely committed to music study, I was ravenous for every bit of music experience. I couldn’t get up early enough, practice late enough, couldn’t wait until tomorrow to start all over again. Even after I got my orchestra job – dream of a lifetime fulfilled! – I still kept at it; I even practiced during orchestra breaks, for years. I was buffaloed by the attitude of a lot of the older players who had been at it for decades. They barely seemed interested in music at all. During breaks they talked about their new sailboat or car, not Mozart or Beethoven. When I came back from a week at a brass workshop, not a single person had any interest in my experience there. I declared I would never be like them.
Well, I didn’t ever become quite like that, but things changed after some years. After the repertoire came around a second time, it was less thrilling. Ditto the third and fourth times. The job was more and more perfunctory, but I remembered an article I had once read that said, “Don’t depend on your job to provide you with fulfillment. It provides you with a paycheck. Fulfillment and satisfaction is up to you.” So I did some other things. Chamber music was one thing – I was in a wonderful, crazy woodwind quintet. I joined a jazz choir for a while. I went back to teaching classical guitar for a couple years (I had studied it intensely earlier), then switched to jazz guitar and learned to improvise, which helped my composing greatly, so I began writing jazz-tinged pieces for classical musicians. I wrote song lyrics for people who needed English song lyrics in a German speaking country (Switzerland). I wrote a suspense novel to see if I could do it, and tried a musical libretto for the same reason. I learned to bake bread, make pies. I made my own tofu. I took ballroom dancing lessons. I wrote articles for the Horn Call and translated forty-seven issues for the Brass Bulletin. I kept busy, kept my passion for music and life alive, even though the focus had strayed from its early focal point, the horn. It was something of an illustration of the experience-stretching hypothesis.
When I started university teaching a decade ago, the passion for horn was reignited. I loved teaching and still do. It has not succumbed to the experience-stretching hypothesis probably because it is so varied. They say the interesting thing about golf is that it is nothing but problems to be solved: distance, rough, sand traps, water, etc. Teaching is the same – a joyous teamwork on devilish technical and musical problems that is different with every student. My playing horn was revived as well for several reasons. First was doing something new (besides teaching): I decided to learn how to make up music on the horn, something I had done for ages on the guitar but had never dared to do on the horn. It is easy to fall into brain-numbing ruts if you do the same classical routine over and over for years and evermore amen (that’s certainly what happened to me), but once you start making up stuff, you suddenly find you have forty-seven thousand more things to work on, not just those couple dozen things you did over and over for years in your routine. Your whole relationship to the instrument and music changes, the whole way you think about creating or re-creating music.
Second was a complete rethinking of the basis of horn study and technique. Inspired and informed by what I learned from the improv adventure, I have been wrestling with the subject for several years and am in the process of putting together a new book; tentative title A Systematic Approach to Horn Technique. I hope to have it complete by next spring or summer. I’ve also just sent to the publisher a new book Improvised Chamber Music, to join the other book that should be edited and released before too long, Improvised Duets for Classical Musicians. There are a couple more book ideas that I hope to get to by mid-2011. Never a dull moment.
And the orchestra? After I started university teaching, I didn’t care if I played in an orchestra for a good while. That particular vitamin was covered, shall we say. But what happened was that after a while I got to play now and again in regional orchestras and you know, it was fun again. Absence made the heart grow fonder. I had been out of the chocolate factory long enough to regain my taste for pralines. I’ve been the interim principal horn with the Quad City Symphony the past two years and have enjoyed it immensely (partly due to a terrific conductor and a wonderful section, any of whom could play any position in the section). So things have come full circle. My both my playing and my enjoyment of it is at a lifetime peak. Which is not to say that there are still lots of things to work on – that is the joy of it. After those experience-stretching years in the orchestra I had lost that vision of what’s possible on the music and on the instrument. I wouldn’t want to go back and only play in the orchestra and nothing else. I think that the balance I have now with teaching-orchestra-chamber music [Iowa Brass Quintet]-writing-composing makes an ideal situation. A feast with many ingredients is tastier than a feast with one ingredient.
If you have an experience stretched by too much of good thing, see if you can get away from it a little, bring some balance in your life with something else. You might even pick something that’s new to you, something difficult. In that same issue that had the article about finding job satisfaction, they said that one of the things that keeps you young (when you’re getting long in the tooth) is to take up something new that’s difficult. Life is full and tasty and passionate and fun when you have to struggle to attain something, not when things are easy and you can have too much of something. There’s the rub. The illustration for the article was a old lady playing the trombone. They might have had her play the horn…