Guest blog: Peter Davison, Is the shortest distance between two points a straight-line?

Has Classical Music anything to teach us about the current economic crisis? Why are people so disillusioned with contemporary living and its cultural norms? What can help us improve our quality of life? Peter Davison, Artistic Consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall asks – is the shortest distance between two points a straight line?


Is the shortest distance between two points a straight-line?

From time to time, I have professional reasons to travel to Scotland to hear concerts, and it is quite an undertaking to travel up there, especially if I squeeze it into a tight schedule. In this regard, I am doing nothing different from many other professionals, including many musicians, caught up in the hectic pace of modern life. But two recent visits north of the border recently taught me a very simple lesson about getting into a hurried state of mind. The first time, I drove up and, just to be clever and save time, I decided to drive back straight after the concert. This ended up in a mad dash through heavy rain on a dark and winding road where my only thought was – how soon can I bring this nightmare to an end? The following day was a write-off, and I ended up feeling exhausted and unwell for several days afterwards. You can burn adrenalin and feel you are winning the race in the short-term, but in truth you have damaged yourself.

These ill-effects made me change my plans second time around. I took the train, stayed overnight and ensured there was no rushing involved. On paper, this added almost a whole day to the journey, but I really enjoyed the trip and felt refreshed by it rather than drained. There were other benefits too. When you slow down, you notice how beautiful the countryside is, as you now have time and opportunity to look at it, and you become a lot friendlier to your fellow man, who no longer merely represents an obstacle to your goal. I had a long and interesting chat on the train with an American student who predicted the eventual demise of his own country because of its obsession with making money and mean-spirited attitude to healthcare. He spoke from experience, claiming his life had been saved by the British National Health Service, and that returning home might kill him, because he wouldn’t be able to afford the drugs which were keeping him alive. Perhaps, he was saying, the problem in the US is a culture driven by linearism – that is the obsession with moving in straight lines. Linearism certainly defines the corporate culture we often associate with the US and, the bigger the company, usually the more you will hear talk of meeting targets, “going forward” and “necessary streamlining”. It is a language that is also creeping into creative institutions and organisations with little sympathy for the impact on individuals.

Now some will already be saying how lucky I am that I have the chance to slow down, that I must have paid some price for my decelerated state – either in lost work, lost money, colleagues kept waiting, some domestic chore left undone and so on. But I want to make the argument that much of what we deem to be life-stress is created by our addiction to it, not by real pressures. We get caught up in the general rat-race, and lose our perspective of what is truly in our interests. For example, have you ever had that urge to start a task and then become obsessed with it? Let us say, for the sake of argument, it could be tidying the house. You start by observing a few crumbs on the carpet, and the next thing you know, you have deep-cleaned every surface you can find and hunted down surfaces you have never looked at before and scrubbed them twice with disinfectant to be sure. What began as a pragmatic intervention soon becomes distorted by perfectionism. Worse still, every visitor thereafter appears to arrive only to leave muddy footprints where you swept up just five minutes before. You become harshly critical of your nearest and dearest who are declared the official enemies of the general hygiene project.

I exaggerate of course, but my point still stands. When we focus too hard on anything and apply unreasonably high standards and expectations or targets, we soon become anti-social, overly critical and stressed out. Everything then vexes us and nothing is good enough. We cease to enjoy life, to judge things fairly and we are unable to find the practical solutions which would make life seem worth living. Very soon matters are on top of us, because our focus on one area means another has suffered neglect. The unfinished tasks add to the stress, and there is usually someone who feels they have had a raw deal from this period of dedicated obsession and won’t mind saying so. Pushed to an extreme, the workaholic attitude causes us to get ill or to fall out with people. We start to make poor decisions with dire consequences. Over a life-time, such one-sidedness can cause us to miss out on many of the good things of life altogether, leaving a catalogue of personal disasters behind us.

For musicians, these pressures are particularly acute, because the temptations to over-work are great indeed. Opportunities have to be seized like rare birds, while the pressures to perform at a high level are immense. Travelling is often part of the package, so we rarely turn up as fresh as a daisy, and this often makes us dissatisfied and anxious. Sometimes the technical demands of the music require huge effort that does not bring much musical or financial reward. Then many musicians are sometimes juggling with family life, teaching, practice and performance. It is perhaps a cruel truth that a performer always believes they can improve, even when any improvement would be marginal and go unnoticed by the public. Musicians thrive on self-criticism, and arguably you have to be a bit obsessed to be a musician at all. But these very qualities can exert physical and mental pressures which can all too quickly destroy well-being.  Because a musician aspires to enjoy their work, if they do not, there can be a sense of bitter disappointment. To avoid this, we need to learn to know when to quit trying so hard and living with the compromise.

While there is no magic solution that can take away all the pressure all of the time, we can learn to make better judgements so that the worst excesses of linearism can be curbed. Occasionally that might mean saying “no” when we might have liked to say “yes”. Or it might be accepting that this time around those few bars will have to be fudged. It may be about planning our schedules sensibly. There are countless little ways to minimise the stress and also to avoid the dangers of accumulated stress, which is in many ways a much more insidious problem. We have cut so many corners over the years, one day the dam breaks and a breakdown ensues.

Now the good news is that when we find a more natural pace, something strange begins to happen. We find ourselves more relaxed, so we play better and communicate better. We make better decisions and choices. When we practice, we feel less pressure, so things are learnt and improve more quickly. We find ourselves more human and friendly towards others, so they are more tolerant of us. We suddenly find there is time to clean the house, take a day off or spend some quality “me-time”. The benefits of slowing down are exponential, i.e. we don’t do less or achieve less. We may even achieve and do more, by doing things more effectively and with much less anxiety. Stress is an addiction, and it completely blinds us to the extent to which the adrenalin-rush has taken over.

There are good psychological reasons why slowing down improves things so much. The human body responds to the cycles of nature, which are wave-like not linear. The linear approach is very much a human conceit which does not serve us well. It gives rise to dangerous myths such as believing in endless economic growth, commitment to constant progress and placing undue value on breaking records and lofty achievement. Such ideas have dominated social and political discourse for the last 200 years. Linear development is like a bid for immortality, because it works on the principle of denying there is ever a catch or downside. If we have grown cynical about our politicians, our employers or our own life-style, it is because they do not deliver the promised results. Yet such linear attitudes are so deeply embedded in our modern culture, we let them influence our behaviour and expectations without realising how damaging they are. We get anxious when the cycle starts to work against us, so we start trying too hard. This only makes things worse. Sometimes – stopping, being still, letting-go or taking the long way round is exactly the right thing to do and actually takes us closer to the goal. Effort, will-power and linear ambition, on the other hand, leads us away from natural process and exhaust us to no avail.

Imagine a graph. The bottom left hand corner represents the initiation of a task and the top right-hand corner its completion. Most people, asked to show the trajectory of completing the task, would draw a straight line rising left to right. But in reality, the most effective completion of the task will be a gently waving line which incorporates ebbs and flows within the process. That seems counter-intuitive, until you understand what happens if you attempt a linear approach. In effect you squeeze the natural waves of energy so that they become steeper and bunch together. The highs are higher, but so also the lows are lower. This represents the volatility of adrenalin-fuelled activity. If you adapt to the natural cycle and go with the natural wave, then the volatility decreases and you find that you are carried along with much less effort and stress. The task may take a little longer but, in the long-run, much less energy will have been expended. So while the linear-ist may get there first, he needs a day’s rest to recover. The surfer of the wave takes a little longer, but he is ready for another task more or less straightaway. He has also had more pleasure along the way. Surfing is fun, while swimming against the tide is pure graft.

Music can provide many examples of the benefits of the more circuitous route. Almost any symphonic sonata movement shows you that completion occurs by first going away from the goal, then following an intuitive path which leads you back to it. In a work like Mahler’s Ninth, the idea of achieving a goal is totally subverted, and attainment is where will-power is eliminated altogether. Compare that with the huge physical effort required to play the work’s Rondo Burleske! Many frenzied and difficult notes take us far away from the serenity of inner silence which is the music’s eventual destination. How about Arvo Pärt? There is a composer who, by deep introspection, has found ways to express a sense of vastness and timelessness with very few notes. He has arrived at this economy without any conventional ambition. But can we deny that he has been successful? It is perhaps a flaw of many modern scores that lots of the notes add little to the audible impact of the work. Individual players can feel a great sense of futility battling with surplus notes. The sounds which musicians are asked to make are often, in such circumstances, unmusical and technically ill-conceived for the instrument. Years of training have to be ditched for something which feels like carrying rocks up a mountain.

Whether the task is small and well-defined or something huge and indefinable, like a life’s dream or building a successful career, the same insight applies. Follow the curve; go with the ebb and flow. Join the rhythm of the dance with its twists and turns, back and forth. The linear approach only generates frustration, wastes energy and creates instability. The way of the wave however creates the space to make the journey as pleasurable as reaching the destination. Politicians should learn the lesson too. Short-term gains are always won at a price later down the line, as we are now discovering. They should listen to more music. Perhaps the symphonic repertoire can teach them (and us) how to live more leisurely and ultimately more sustainably successful lives.


Peter Davison


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Guest blog: Peter Davison, Is the shortest distance between two points a straight-line?”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    A fantastic post, Peter. Let’s face it- more often than not, the life of the artist is not very sane or healthy. To some extent, this comes with the territory, but a bit of perspective, an eye for the bigger picture and a respect for one’s own limitations, both physical and mental, can really help one to weather the various storms life throws at us. Chances are, most any wall you might bang your head against has a door on it somewhere. Sometimes, all you have to do is step back and look for it.

    Also, every musician needs to learn the value of a nap!

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