Artists and Technicians

A lot has been written about learning styles but there are questions about how meaningful it is and I’m not an expert anyway. I have, however, always felt that there are two opposing approaches to learning that each end where the other begins. Here I’m thinking not just of how people begin a learning process but how they progress to become experts. I came to this through a combination of reading, having widely varying interests, and being in contact with many different kinds of people.

The most interestingly different people were the arts majors at Carnegie Mellon University. Most of my family were economists and both my grandfathers and my mother were very technically inclined so I was used to thinking about engineering and science. Economists and engineers think in very similar ways so the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Everyone meets a variety of personalities and dispositions going through school but most aren’t too highly differentiated when they’re young; grade school is where they start to get that way. In college people sign on to a goal and go for it. Being hip deep in sculptors, industrial designers, singers, athletes, musicians, stage designers, and actors (and to a lesser degree architects) was mind-expanding for someone like me. Not only did we get to know each other up close in my fraternity, we got to participate in major events that allowed each type of person to experience something of what makes the other tick.

When we weren’t studying we were often building things, painting things, wiring things, singing things, pushing things, planning things, and practicing things. Putting up crazy decorations for theme mixers was one thing but the big Spring Carnival competitions of Booth and Buggy (formally called Sweepstakes) took it up several levels. Booth was a mixture of art and engineering and Buggy a mix of athletics and engineering. The biggest crossover for me was Greek Sing, where all the fraternities and sororities put on seven-minute musical productions. My fraternity wasn’t very good at Buggy but we went all out in Booth and Greek Sing.

The winning acts in Greek Sing usually performed two or three numbers from a famous stage musical (we did How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and 1776), and we always got into full costume, sang in three- or four-part harmonies, and worked up some complicated choreography. I can’t sing to speak of but I can fake it respectably in one of the lower registers. Performing a big production in front of a thousand people or more was both scary and a rush. It was so much fun and no small relief to have three months of work pay off with a nice placement. It wasn’t the performance itself that was so moving, it was the experience of working together on something so physically engaging. It tended to be a more emotional experience than the technical efforts I was used to. It gave me a real appreciation for what the graduating theater majors felt each year when they got to paint their names on a different section of wall backstage.

In later years I grew to appreciate musical theater more, seeing many live performances and catching pop culture events that featured song and dance (I saw Baryshnikov and Hines in White Nights three times in the theater—when I wasn’t watching Rambo and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, of course!). Around this time I also read about how some people learn by just doing, without fear and without thinking about it too much, while others start taking things apart by trying to do the individual technical parts right. Those who get better and better through the joy of just doing eventually have to figure out the technical parts; their love and passion must carry them through the work of analysis, instruction, research, and endless practice. Barysnikov may have been born with talent but he wouldn’t have been who he was if he didn’t put in the work. By contrast those who learn by analyzing and experimenting can find the effort so engaging and interesting that they keep going until they can stop thinking and do more and more by feel. They ultimately get to where they can create without the hesitation of not being perfect, because they’ve perfected all the pieces.

Performers and artists can learn either by doing or by analysis and engineers and programmers can do the same but it’s tempting to use the example of dancers and engineers as a shorthand to observe, in the end, that the best artists have to be great technicians while the best technicians raise their work to the level of art. That’s the goal for all of us, right?

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