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Entries in ridiculous analogies (11)


How to listen like a musician

When I was a kid, in those long moments when my mom would not! get off! the phone! to shower me with attention and answer whatever trivial and random question I had, I would lounge around and do the strange things kids do when they are bored. I developed a game in which I would lean my head upside down off the sofa or staircase and imagine an upside-down world where the ceiling was the floor and the floor was the ceiling. I visualized myself walking upon the sloping "floor" and passing by the chandeliers, floating upon their chains like strange metal trees.

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Private Lessons vs. Group Classes

If private lessons are the interstate highway, then group classes are the state road that winds through the small towns alongside it. Both roads are taking you to the same destination, but the journey is very different.

Decisions, decisions.Theoretically - theoretically - private music lessons are more effective than group classes. And theoretically, a child who starts piano lessons, say, at age four will be two years ahead of a child who starts at age six by the time they are both eight.

But in reality, we are dealing with human beings. In reality, a child can sit through four years of lessons and achieve less than what another child will do in six weeks. And (lest this discussion be reduced to talent versus lack thereof), that first child can decide to turn things around and make up for the wasted four years with six weeks of concerted effort.

The question that interests me is, Why?

Let's get back to my pet metaphor. The Eisenhower Interstate System is designed for efficiency. It is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B as quickly and safely as possible - no distractions, no fluff. Likewise, when you enroll in private music lessons, you get an effective, focused approach to music education with an expert teacher. Fun is incidental to both pursuits, although that's not to say that highway driving (or private lessons) can't be enjoyable.

My hometown of York, Maine is accessed via Route 95 north from New Hampshire. Unfortunately, there is a toll booth a quarter-mile north of the exit that can get backed up pretty badly in the summertime, and there are few escape routes. Plan ahead further south and take Route One instead if you want to stop and get the best fried seafood ever at Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery, and then you can enjoy so much outlet shopping that you'll forget where you were going in the first place. Even better: Take Route 103, which winds along through Kittery and Kittery Point before finishing in York. In May, the chestnut trees are gorgeously in bloom. At the height of tourist season you will not encounter any traffic, and there are no stoplights. You can stop in at Fort McClary or the Wiggly Bridge, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Spruce Creek, the York River, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond as you wind along the lovely country road. Less than fifteen minutes and you're in York, where you can hop back on the interstate if you feel like it.

Theoretically the interstate is faster than the state road. Except when it's not. Except when there is rush hour, an accident, a ball game, tourist season, inclement weather, construction, or debris. Plus, you can't ride your bike, pick the wildflowers, or see much of anything.

Most of the time, you take the interstate. All things being equal, you do the private lessons because that's what everyone does.

But all things are not equal. For one thing, private lessons are two or three times the cost of group classes. They are much less flexible. It's difficult to hop in and out. If things aren't working, that's it - you're already at the top tier.

With group classes, you can dabble. You can try different things, change it up. You can experience different teachers. You can have fun, and even study music solely for the purpose of having fun without alienating your teacher. You can collaborate with others. It's inherently social, which can make all the difference.

Now, you can take Route One all the way from Kittery to Bar Harbor, but it will be a loooooooong trip and you'll never want to look at another fried clam stand. Once you have some momentum with group classes, private lessons become something special and valuable that can help you get to the next level. But it may take a child two or three years to get that momentum, and private lessons will not necessarily create it. May as well spend that time having fun and developing a love of playing, instead of stalling out.

Go with your gut: Do you want the scenic route, or the expressway? No matter what twists and turns lay along the journey, you will learn to play as long as you just keep going.


Chords are colors

Imagine that you are in a room that is illuminated by one strong light. As you are listening to a piece of music, the color of the light changes with every chord change - from blue, to red, to green, back to blue.

In that blue light, everything in the room looks blue, and when the light is red, everything in the room glows red. Everything you see is affected by that color.

Photo by DocklandsboyEverything you hear is affected by the color of the chord as well. Violin, flute, guitar, bass, piano: each instrument that produces a musical tone will obey the laws of harmony and become a part of that chord, reflecting its color just as each visible surface will absorb and reflect color in accordance with the laws of the light spectrum.

Chords are not like colors. Chords are colors. Harmony is color you can hear, and with this understanding you can solve the mystery of what chords you are hearing in a given piece of music.

Although the options may seem limitless, the list of most likely chords in a given song is actually pretty short: They are a family of six, who will often have friends over for dinner.

Based on the seven notes of the major scale, you'll get three major chords and three minor chords. And 80% of the time, you will use the three major chords.

Yes, for all you music theory nerds, there is a diminished chord too, but that's like the end of the onion - you throw it away unless you're making soup stock.

The subtle, muted palette of our Virginia Avenue location is clearly visible here.The diatonic chords (those that are native to the key) are called I (one), ii (two), iii (three), IV (four), V (five) and vi (six). Each chord (and for that matter, each tone of the scale) has a different color that you can train yourself to hear. Their friends (chords borrowed from other keys) have distinctive colors as well.

When people sit down and play a song perfectly on the first try having only heard it a few times, it seems like magic. It's not. Trained musicians recognize the colors of the chords and scale tones they hear and have a command over the physical interface used to produce them (that's, you know, the instrument).

Here are a few ways in which chords are colors:

  • They can be described but not defined. You can describe blue as calm, peaceful, cool, but that is completely subjective. Likewise, I can describe the I chord as grounded, settled, and warm but that is a subjective description of an objective reality. Each musician must develop their own experience of each chord.

  • They can match or clash. Fluorescent orange really stands out if put in a baby's nursery of lemon, baby blue, and lavender, just as the bVI (flat six) chord sounds jarring amidst the usual I, IV, V, vi. I learned to identify these "borrowed" chords before I learned their normal, diatonic cousins because they stood out so much.

  • They can be used strategically to evoke emotion. Combinations of colors can be soothing, patriotic, aggressive, sophisticated, neutral, or romantic, whether visual or aural.

  • They can become dated. Avocado, rust orange, and the major seventh chords of Bread and The Bee Gees were all very much at home in the kitchens of the 1970s.

  • Variations can be too subtle for the casual observer to detect. To the layperson, it's green; to the designer, it's sage. And that's actually a minor ninth, not a minor seventh.

  • They are learned through trial and error. We start learning about color when we learn to talk. It's amazing that toddlers learn so abstract a concept so early in life. However, there is a lot of, "No, this isn't purple. This is green," on the way there. "No, that's not the V chord, that's the IV chord."

As you listen to music to hear the colors created by the chords, don't just listen to your instrument in the mix (for example, the horn section). Remember the room with one light in it, and how everything is affected by the color.

Hearing these colors is not an innate talent that you either have or you don't. Identifying chords by their color is an ability that anyone can develop. I hope this post will help you to better understand the nature of this skill, so you can put it to good use!


To leap across a chasm in several systematic steps

When I was a kid, we had to do the President's Challenge for physical fitness. I failed every time, because I could not do a pull-up. Every year, I would watch the little monkeys in my class who could do a bunch in a row, and then I would get up there and struggle mightily while the P.E. teacher would say something like, "I think you" and make a note on my sheet.

I wished to avoid this humiliating display in the future, but I had no idea how. Every so often, I would go out to my swingset int the backyard and hang until my shoulders felt like they were going to pull out of their sockets, but I never could do a single pull-up.

I think of this when I have a student who requests to learn a piece well beyond their ability level. I think an exciting, challenging piece can be a great motivator, but there is a point where a piece can be so difficult it is truly inaccessible for the time being. The student will try and try, like I did with my hopeless backyard strength training, and get no return.

What's the alternative? Systematically breaking it down (yes, sorry, sometimes you have to be a geek if you want to do a thing well). Unfortunately, when I was a kid we did not have the Internet, but if we had, I would have been able to research pull-ups to learn how to do them, including ways to make them easier. I could learn about the muscles used in pull-ups, and create a plan for building strength in those muscles. I might also acknowledge that overall upper body weakness is an issue for me, and create a complete plan for strength training with the help of a personal trainer.

Maybe, after six months of focused, targeted, and carefully sequenced training I would do a pull-up on the first try. From there, I would finally build up the number of reps I could do in a row.

By contrast, I could take those same six months and spend a few minutes every day trying to do a pull-up to no avail. I strongly doubt I would be able to do a pull-up after six months of that, for two reasons: One, I wouldn't even get to the point where the correct muscles were supporting my body weight; and two, I would probably get bored and frustrated and quit three days into it.

So, back to the musical example. Usually, students have great intuition about which pieces are right for them to learn. But occasionally, not. "I want to learn 'Cliffs of Dover' because it's my favorite song on Guitar Hero." Okay, fine. Go ahead and download the bazillion-page tab and set about learning it. Learn a tiny lick every day. If you don't go mad in frustration within the first ten minutes, after six months you might be able to play the whole thing (if I painstakingly show you how to play every note that you can't figure out on your own).

On the other hand, you could spend those same six months learning fifty easier songs that use similar skills and a similar vocabulary. You can build fluency, speed, and technique while improving your musical ear and your reading skills.

After six months have passed, you may well be able to pick up most of "Cliffs of Dover" by yourself in just a week or two. You might not even need the tab for very much of it, because your fingers will "hear" different parts of the song and automatically go where they belong as a result of playing so much. Because in the process, you learned fifty other songs. You learned how to play the guitar, not just "Cliffs of Dover."

They say you must leap across a chasm in a single, dramatic, all-in move. Or you could go to school, become a civil engineer, and design a bridge that will enable you to easily walk across. The first way only works if it works, and most of the time it doesn't. The second way is built to work every time. Not as daring, but you'll get there in the end.

Where are you attempting with no visible progress? Is there an intermediate benchmark you could be striving for, or a more systematic way to achieve your goal?


The "Neglected Backyard" approach to overcoming perfectionism

I live in an Atlanta neighborhood called Reynoldstown. It's a bit transitional, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, and has a mix of races, ages, and collars. Some homes are rentals, and some are owner occupied. There are apartments and single-family homes.

I closed on my home in late February 2007, when everything is still dormant from winter but the daffodils are just about to come up. Hmmm, what are all these viney things I keep tripping over in the backyard as I explore my new property?


A New Neighborhood, a New Nemesis

Turns out it was kudzu, that notoriously invasive blight upon the southeastern landscape. I also had japanese honeysuckle, which has lovely-smelling flowers but is also invasive and destructive. These plants stifle biodiversity by choking out the other species, and left unchecked they will cover any and all surfaces exposed to light (and even some that aren't).

After some research (especially this fabulously helpful website by a group in Spartanburg, SC), I learned that the only way to truly eradicate kudzu was to cut out the crowns. These are knobby root structures that store the nutrients for the kudzu during the winter so it can come out swinging in the spring and wreak havoc and ruin everything.

After having acquired the necessary equipment, I took several hours on a Sunday and cut out all the vines I could find, just to get a little more control. Those suckers can grow more than a foot per day under ideal conditions.

Casualties of war (kudzu crowns on my deck)Then, I went out almost every day for the next six weeks or so and spent an hour cutting out as many crowns as I could find. It was like a big game of Whac-a-Mole, because even when I thought I had found all the new growth there would be more. And once I'd gotten all of it, there was more the next day.


No One Cares

Sometime in June, I started winning the war against kudzu, and it probably won't ever return (unless it comes under the fence from my neighbor's yard, because hers is a mess).

Which is part of the point I want to make here: there are very low standards for garden maintenance for my neighborhood. Some people have cute little landscaped lawns with flower beds, and some people have a packed-dirt front yard with a chain-link fence around it. Some people have a new Beemer parked on a nice neat concrete slab, others have a rusted-out 1980s sedan with kudzu growing into it (I told you, my neighborhood is transitsch). So even though I made improvements to my backyard, it was just for my own benefit - there is no peer-pressure in in my part of town.


Anything is Better than Nothing

New bambooNow, nearly three years later, my yard has some nice bamboo along the back fence (the non-invasive kind), some clematis, and a couple magnolias that are growing nicely since the kudzu was killed. However, it still needs a lot of work.

This is not a story about how my yard went from being overrun with kudzu to perfectly manicured. It's a story about how I set out to achieve a goal and, whenever I felt like it, did a little something to get closer to achieving it.

It's a story about not setting my standards too high, too fast.

It's a story about how any progress toward a goal is can be helpful.


Set the Bar Low

Yes, my friends, be underachievers - but be achievers!

For example, I wanted to start blogging more regularly. I'd been trying to do this for four years. Finally, instead of trying to do it every day or on some fixed schedule, I decided this fall to do it whenever I wanted to.

I reasoned that, just like my backyard, anything I did would be an improvement.

Penelope Trunk helped, too, by giving me permission to start before I got organized. And now I have built up some momentum, so I'm posting more regularly. I have managed to completely avoid negative feelings about not doing it, which keeps the entire experience a happy one.

When I was cutting out kudzu crowns, I made a game out of finding them. "Aha! You may have cunning means of survival, but you are no match for my handsaw!" If I had known at the beginning how much time I would spend successfully ridding my yard of kudzu, I'm not sure I would have had the happy attitude. But doing a little bit every day was tolerable and fun, and not doing it would have meant stasis, not failure.


The Neglected Backyard Approach to exercise, flossing, practicing an instrument, what-have-you

The Neglected Backyard Approach works in a lot of areas. It helps you to forgive yourself for not knowing the things you didn't know you needed to know, by resolving to do better next time.

It helps you get out the stupid free weights and start moving your arms up and down. It helps you to learn an instrument by acknowledging that any time you spend playing the thing is going to help you learn it over the long run.

It helps you to not do things, too: turn off the TV, put down the cigarette, and so on.

Think in terms of tiny incremental improvements. Kaizen. Progress, not perfection.

The Neglected Backyard Approach might even help me deal with the neglected backyard itself: it's mid-January and I still haven't raked up the autumn leaves. I can't rake the entire thing, but I might do twenty minutes worth. It's a nice day.