Tonight my family had dinner at a Chinese buffet. Next to us were two tables occupied by a pair of families. One table was populated by the adults, and the other by four teenage offspring. Not children anymore, but not adults yet either. There was one young man at that table that seemed to be going out of his way to be different. He was a bit dorky and seemed like the type of guy that ten years from now would either be the manager of his local Radio Shack, or selling his software company for $35 mil.
At one point I looked over and he was eating his ice cream with the handle end of his spoon. It seemed apparent that he was doing this in the hope that someone would tell him he couldn’t. No one did. The parents were at the other table. When nearly all of the ice cream was gone, he flipped the spoon around and used the standard end, because otherwise he would have had to leave those last few precious drops of melted chocolate ice cream at the bottom of the bowl.
My first reaction to all of this was, “He can’t do that!” Then I asked myself why he couldn’t do that. There is etiquette that tells us we must use the proper end of the spoon to eat our ice cream. I also had a college composition teacher tell me I couldn’t put the #11 in the bass line, especially on beat three. I changed it for my senior recital, but I changed it back 12 years later when the tune was dug up and recorded. I was told I couldn’t do that, but I did, and no one got hurt, and people have even told me they like it! If they only knew about the #11 in the bass line. What would they think then?
The rules of society are there to guide us to behave in a way that will elicit the desired response. Those rules change to some extent depending on one’s target audience, and one’s desired response. Painting your fingernails black is not the best way to get invited to the church choir potluck, but in the ’80’s I knew people that would hardly speak to anyone that didn’t have at least one black fingernail.
Most great art breaks the rules, or at least breaks the rules of the preceding generation. Charlie Parker was all about playing great melodies through lots of changes. Ornette Coleman is all about playing great melodies over no set changes. They both broke rules and upset people, but now kids are being taught rules for how to play like Bird. If we follow the bebop rules, we will get a certain response from a certain audience. Someone out there right now is breaking those rules, and being told that they are wrong. 30 years from now kids will be taught the rules for how to play like that someone, and the next someone will break those rules.
It’s funny that I am a greater stickler for societal rules than musical rules. I keep telling my stepson to put on socks and tie his shoes, but I keep telling my improvisation students to forget what I say and play what they hear, and it’s ok.