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Recent Musings: Confirmation Bias; Creativity vs. Playfulness

Confirmation Bias

I’ve had a very interesting few weeks performing and presenting very different music to very different audiences.

9/11 Memorial Concert at Messiah College, Parmer Hall: Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion. Photo Credit: Jonathan Isaac

Participating in a 9/11 Memorial concert, performing for a couple of very different chamber music series and presenting an early music ensemble at the opening of another made me realize just how much context matters to people’s ability to engage in meaningful ways with music. I love talking to people, and it is fascinating how a complex Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion presented in a 9/11 Memorial concert can genuinely move people, who would otherwise never consider checking it out. It is equally interesting how people who consider themselves connoisseurs of traditional chamber music could completely reject an exciting, virtuosic, early music performance with clarity and wonderful ensemble, because the sound is just too different from what they are used to hearing from modern instruments.

9/11 Memorial Concert at Messiah College, Parmer Hall: Brahms Piano Quintet. Photo Credit: Jonathan Isaac

Perhaps our common enemy is not those who have different taste in art or different political views, but rather “confirmation bias,” defined as the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. It seems that this is on display everywhere from our political life to recent labor disputes in some US orchestras. I wonder what would happen if our educational system switched from teaching “right” ways to do things to fostering curiosity? Would we see more people capable of establishing causality based on their own extensive and disciplined inquiries? Would people perhaps choose to spend the time they used to devote to defending their views to gathering more data and forming views based on the results, no matter how surprising?

Creativity verses Playfulness

I am fascinated by how easily people confuse creativity with playfulness. Things that are enjoyed with ease, are almost never created with ease. It takes tremendous focus and tedious editorial work to get anything to the level of artistic excellence, and yet people are rarely willing to fully acknowledge, respect and support these efforts. I see the roots of that in early education, where children who excel in art are quickly labeled as “gifted”. That word implies something that is free of charge, when in reality, any significant achievement by even the most “gifted” person carries a high price tag of time and energy. Why is it so difficult for people to consider that supporting artists who through their struggle make everyone’s life a little richer is worth it? When a person dedicates their life to research or coaching of a sports team, society celebrates it, but when a person wants to give themselves to taking a mastery of musical instrument to new heights it is thought of as insignificant. In a society with increasingly automated means of production, wouldn’t artistic excellence be a new benchmark of achievement? In the food industry there is an extraordinary explosion of creativity supported purely by market forces, but in music, where market does not reward complexity, things seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

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