Insights and Healing with Patrick Moore


“Not Even Music”

On two different occasions a college professor rejected my work, in front of the class.

Along with math, I chose to take several semesters of music theory. In the final weeks of my last music theory class, the kindly youngish professor had invited his own music theory professor to come to our school for two things: a performance of his own compositions at the music hall, and a visit to our music theory class to have a listen to our compositions.

In the first semester I learned the rules of counterpoint and in this semester we created one-page compositions. I worked on my composition in one of the second story piano practice rooms of the lovely old music building designed in 1909. My composition was influenced by a feeling or emotion that I felt or wanted to feel.

When the famous composer came to our class, a few brave students handed their sheet music to him. He set each one on the piano stand and sight-read it, playing on the piano. Then he gave his comments. After seeing a few other students receive this feedback, I must have felt it would be okay to share mine. He played it and then looked at me sternly. “This isn’t even music,” he said as he handed it back to me. I was shocked, stunned, and perhaps I swallowed some other emotions in there somewhere.

I was thinking I might become a musician but I believe this moment shifted my direction in life (I became a construction worker instead, not really by choice but default). I believe I am better off for not having become a musician/composer at that time. So maybe that rejection turns out to have been a synchronicity. However, decades later I realized the chord progression I had written is similar to a part of a song by Jean-Luc Ponty and to part of a song intro on a live Earth, Wind & Fire recording. Apparently what I wrote was music!

If this were the only example of my professors rejecting my work in a personal way, I might have forgotten or buried it in my mind.

When I later attended graduate school for math, I chose to take a 400/500 level creative writing class. The professor was a published author with a couple books out. (I just checked Amazon and she now has thirteen novels to her name, including a pushcart prize.) The first story I wrote for the class was a day-in-the-life of myself as a carpenter’s helper. I called it The Refinery, sort of ironic given no refinement existed in the story–certainly the three characters were quite unrefined. Following directions I printed ten copies of The Refinery and passed them around the table, to be critiqued by the following week by each student, the TA and the professor. The next week I received back ten copies, all with good comments and good suggestions from all but the professor, who wrote only “See me.” When I saw her, she said my story was not complete, that I would need to redo it. Why is it not complete? It did not have a plot, she said. I agreed it did not have a plot, but did that make it unacceptable? I did not rewrite the story, which probably irritated her. I just couldn’t bring myself to rewrite something for reasons I did not agree with, when the other nine people seemed to find value in it. Nearly forty years later I have begun reading Steinbeck, and I find The Refinery resembles the style of his beautiful descriptions of grimy details and hard luck of the working class.

It came time for my second story, called Porous. This story had a plot but I admit it was a little fantasy or magic but set in the present day, so it wouldn’t fit a genre. The plot was that a young protagonist (much like myself) lived in a house with 5 guys, one of whom had a seawater aquarium. The friend told me the spiny starfish is unlike a regular fish. He is porous, so the seawater simply flows through him. He does not need a barrier to keep his own blood from the outside. The seawater acted as his blood to circulate what needed to be circulated. Then there is a nuclear bomb that wipes out everyone. (This was 1986, still in the Cold War). Insects survived but no humans, except the protagonist. By the end of the story the protagonist learns to be porous, with respect to the radiation, and he is sort of remade or reharmonized by the bees. Again I printed ten copies and handed them out. The following week I arrived on time and received back nine copies of my work, all with nice comments (better than my first story) and good suggestions. The teacher was late. When she came in looking stern, she did not sit down but pointed at me and said, “You, I need to see you outside, now. Bring your things.” I followed her outside and she said my story was “Not even a story.” She was very upset and emotional and told me I was removed from her class for not following the instructions. She went in and I did not.

My musical composition was “Not even music.”

My story was “Not even a story.” Coincidence? What were professors thinking? Are they still that way?

My wife Traci had a similar experience with her senior photography project when she was in college also in the Eighties, but I’ll let her tell her own story..

 

The good part of this story is, while the musical rejection halted my progress as a composer, I did not stop writing.

A year after the 1986 story rejection, I printed off a dozen more copies of Porous and began sending them out. In 1989 while staying home with my newborn daughter I wrote a novel called Nonjudgment Day, in pen, in a spiral notebook. It was a dark comedy, following a group of evangelists who wanted to see the Messiah so badly that they were willing to instigate nuclear warheads against one of the major superpowers, which they would think were the enemy so they would retaliate, ending human life as we know it. Since the evangelists believed prophecy literally, they were certain this global destruction would bring about the second coming. Well, what happened surprised them. I can’t remember now, maybe some sort of embracing radiation perhaps like the Porous story I had written earlier, and some sort of forgiveness for the misguided terrorists who destroyed the world. In the style of Life of Brian.

By now I have (guessing) about a hundred short stories and novels begun, though none finished yet.

In 2015 I attended a writer’s conference and got an appointment to show six pages of a book idea to an agent. It blended short fables using wolves, coyotes and the cells in a tree as characters, with nonfiction about the power of group mind. The agent did not wait for me to speak but began a barrage of how my work would not fit any genre, and what was I thinking, and why was I wasting her time? 

This definitely put a damper on me showing my writing for a while. I was really inhibited after this third major rejection. I realized the group-mind book wasn’t really publishable, or not that way, or if I am going to write something there is no genre for, I need to be really resilient. I need to be able to handle rejection to be able to move forward as a writer–even aggressive rejection that sounds personal.

It took decades, and a couple years after the agent rejection but I am growing a sense of humor about it. Maybe by now, the rejections I have experienced as a music composer and writer are better for having happened that way. Or they soon will be.

One of the stories I am currently working on takes place at the first Writer’s Conference on the Moon. The teacher is a frustrated writer who had several number-one bestsellers of space-adventure-existential-comedy, and now he has writer’s block. He is on contract and owes his publisher one more book but he can’t do it, so they gave him an option to teach this writer’s workshop on the moon, to fulfill his contract…

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Making Mistakes Leads to New Era in Jazz, 1963

(this is a refresh of a blog post from 2014)

I am reading Herbie Hancock’s new biography, Possibilities. On the first page I read:

 “… this show is really heating up. The band is tight— we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell. … The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. … it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats. Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it. Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there , unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.”

Herbie made a mistake, and Miles made it better for having happened that way. Herbie Hancock learned to not judge his performance, to not linger too long on what was done wrong, but to adapt and grow and make it better for having happened:

“…that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything . He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

 It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage . As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it— he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing? And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing. Miles trusted the band, and he trusted himself, and he always encouraged us to do the same. This was just one of many lessons I learned from Miles.

We all have a natural human tendency to take the safe route—to do the thing we know will work— rather than taking a chance . But that’s the antithesis of jazz, which is all about being in the present. Jazz is about being in the moment, at every moment. It’s about trusting yourself to respond on the fly. If you can allow yourself to do that, you never stop exploring, you never stop learning, in music or in life. I was lucky enough to learn this not only from playing with Miles but over the decades of playing that have followed. And I’m still learning it, every single day. It’s a gift that I never could have imagined back when I first started…”

Because Miles did not judge it, he was able to turn it into something amazing. This took place around the year of my birth, 1963, which happens to be the center of my favorite jazz period. Other musicians were also not judging things that had been previously judged as atonal, dissonant, tritone or other concepts to be shunned as not music. 

I wonder how many other areas this applies to? All the creative arts, and making mistakes in general. . .   What else?