The Instrument

One of my favorite pieces of music is Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Although meant as a ballet and scored for a classical orchestra, the Rite doesn’t sound anything like what you think of when you think of “classical” music. Instead of being genteel and melodic, it shifts from soft and sensuous to brutal, thundering, and atonal — and back again. It’s so different that it nearly caused a riot when it premiered in Paris in 1913.

One of my favorite recordings of The Rite of Spring is a four-handed piano version played by Fazil Say, a performance which recreates much of the color provided by a full orchestra with “just” a piano. (I say “just” in quotes because there’s lots of studio magic involved, starting with having Say accompany himself. He also grunts and hums throughout, and the piano has been “prepared,” a la John Cage. Still, the recording is astonishing.)

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to sit in front of a piano, you’ll know it’s relatively easy to make it produce sounds: all you have to do is press a key. On a piano, all the notes you need are easily accessible. However, there’s a wide gap between noodling around and playing something like the Rite, with its nuance, range, and percussive violence. To produce this performance, Say had to first master his instrument.

Musicians aren’t the only ones who use instruments; scientists have them too. Instead of using them to create art, scientists’ instruments allow them to see things the rest of us can’t see. In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei created a telescope that allowed him to look at the heavens in a new way, ushering a new understanding of the universe. Galileo, too, mastered this instrument.

A telescope is not the same type of instrument as a piano, but they do have some things in common. These are not mere tools. People like Galileo and Say spend a considerable part of their lives familiarizing themselves with their instruments. These instruments become extensions of themselves which they use to probe the universe — and put dents in it, too. They practice on their instruments, always trying to improve. They take great care of them, making sure they are in proper working order. They treat their instruments with great respect, perhaps even reverence.

As a designer, I think a lot about my instrument. You may be thinking I’m talking about a software tool like Adobe Illustrator, or maybe paper and pen — but I’m not. I consider my consciousness to be my primary instrument. My ability to be present — to bring my full awareness to a situation — is the one thing that is essential for me to do my job and to do it well.

I care for and respect this instrument. I avoid doing things with it that may damage it or make it “go out of tune.” I study its capabilities and nuances. I practice daily. (Mindfulness meditation, in case you’re wondering.) I think of it as a combination of a scientific instrument and a musical instrument: when functioning properly, it allows me both to perceive things more clearly and create new things. It also makes it possible for me to empathize and communicate better with other people.

I aim to master this instrument.