This motivational text popped up in my FB feed. Not withstanding the split infinitive, this is what high-quality academic research should be about… and it’s not a bad motto for political opinions either.
Learning from errors
The realisation “Aha, I made a mistake” is the first step towards self-improvement. We musicians do this all the time when we practise, athletes and martial artists do this when they train… but it’s harder to do in the academic or personal context.
In the context of Historical Performance Practice, “I don’t know” is the first step towards becoming more Historically Informed. Whereas “I can’t be bothered to find out” is a step backwards, in any context.
In a leadership role, it can feel awkward to admit to errors. But whatever respect you lose or gain from declaring an honest mistake, it cannot compare to how foolish you look when your colleagues know that you are bluffing.
I can’t pretend I manage 100% compliance with this ideal. But I do try… And I think this principle is so important for intellectual research, that I’ve devoted this entire post to it.
Accept the challenge
I’m well aware of the phenomenon of ‘researcher bias’, whereby investigators subconsiously select evidence that will support their pet theory. To combat this inevitable tendency, I have made a point of following up citations posted by my academic opponents, and investigating their chosen sources in detail. This allows me to use their researcher bias to counter-balance my own, and has been a most fruitful way to extend my reading list. In academic research as in martial arts, your fiercest opponent can be your best training partner!
If we consider that Musicology – in German Musikwissenschaft – is a science, then the scientific method demands that we constantly test our hypotheses experimentally, and that we re-test frequently, to find out if our initial findings hold consistently.
In this sense, every rehearsal, every practice session, as well as each performance is a new experiment. We should hope that we learnt something from the previous experiment, so we are already in a new situation, even if we tread what might seem to be a well-worn path.
For this reason, I consider it very worth while to re-read familiar and “obvious” historical sources, just as often as I look for a “new” source to read. Those familiar texts, which were perhaps our first steps into Early Music, can reveal startling new insights, if we approach them with an updated understanding of the context, and with the readiness to re-consider, to challenge our assumptions.
Challenge the accepted
Scientific scepticism is the aittitude that everything should be experimentally tested, and verified as replicable. The musicalogical equivalent in Historical Performance Pract ice is being ready to question the ‘standard operating procedures’ of today’s Early Music, whilst constantly challanging our own assumptions. What is even more difficult is to become aware of assumptions that we didn’t even know we had made, until some piece of period evidence proves them false…
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
L. P. Hartley The Go-Between (1953)
The past is a foreign country; there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language and understood its assumptions.
Michael Howard The Lessons of History (1991)
One of the challenges of Historically Informed Performance is to try to catch a glimpse of our own assumptions, to notice where something seems so ‘obvious’ and ‘absolute’ that we don’t even question it. The worst decisions in Early Music are the decisions that we don’t even realise we are making, because we don’t even notice there is a question to be addressed. But as soon as we become aware of an assumption, we can look for evidence of whether the same assumption held good in the past, or if attitudes might have changed with the centuries.
Andrew Lawrence-King A Baroque History of Time (2014)