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Thought Experiment: Can’t Get No Dissatisfaction

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A recent conversation in a barbershop arrangers facebook group has got me thinking about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity. Participants were sympathising with each other over the experience of working on a chart, and knowing it isn’t yet right, but struggling to figure out how to make it work. Anybody in any creative endeavour (and I mean that in the widest possible sense) will be having a sympathetic sigh at that thought.

I initially thought my reflections would be leading to revisit the idea of decision fatigue. There are only so many decisions we can make in any one day, and one of the points of routine is to automate as many as possible to free up cognitive capacity for the projects where you want to make some new happen. The pandemic has blown all our previous-established routines out of the water, so anyone who finds themselves too tired after work to make much progress in their arranging is not failing. They’re just having their creative capacities consumed by things other than music.

Useful as that point is, I then found myself noticing how valuable, from an artistic perspective, the dissatisfaction people were expressing is. This tells you that their artistic standards remain intact. It may not be very pleasant to experience the feeling that your work isn’t good enough, especially when that feeling persists because you are stretched too much by other parts of life to muster the energy and headspace to do anything much about it.

But imagine a world in which you didn’t feel that way. Thought Experiment You would think that chart was finished. You’d be out there encouraging other people to sing it. And because you’re a good enough arranger to produce a chart that’s on the face of it complete, people would probably agree to.

But Real You knows that the experience you’d giving them and their audiences isn’t as rewarding as it could be. The rehearsal experience would be held up by bits that were difficult to make effective, whether through infelicity of part-writing or clunkiness in expression. The subsequent listening experience would likewise have moments of distraction or disappointment, since however carefully you rehearse your way round these glitches, it’s really hard to hide them.

More fundamentally, the awareness that there are bits that need this kind of handling within the chart undermines the confidence of the performers. They’ll always feel the need to bring the Manager with them on active duty, instead of giving the show over entirely to the Communicator, with the Manager sitting aside on call but without expecting to be needed. The performances will thus lose a bit of joy, a bit of sparkle as the singers can’t abandon themselves in the same way they can when the chart just works.

And the singers will probably blame themselves for this. As will Thought Experiment You, who will go around thinking they are a good arranger and wishing they had ‘better singers’ to work with.

When you think of it like this, when you see what might happen if you didn’t experience dissatisfaction, you can end up feeling much more grateful and relieved that in fact you know the difference between functional and elegant in your craft. You might not know exactly what it is you need to do to bridge that gap, but your intuitive musicianship is on the case and out there ahead of your conscious technical control.

Once you know something needs improving, it is merely a matter of patience, persistence, enquiry, experimentation, possibly putting it aside for a weekend or a decade, and lots of cups of tea before it will come good. If you never feel dissatisfaction, you will never know that better is possible. It may be more comfortable to be in the latter state, but you’ll give the world more musical pleasure by embracing your discontent.

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