Tuesday, April 26, 2011


"The problem is that I cannot coordinate my right and left hands", he said, holding his hands at eye level just in case I didn't know to what he was referring.

"Sure you can", I replied. "You just haven't figured how to do it yet. The thing is to start simply, really simply."

I walked over to one of the display pianos and began playing quarter notes with my right and left hands, the index finger of each hand on a C an octave apart. "You see, very, very simple."

I then altered my left hand, playing every other note. "Once you're comfortable coordinating the two hands, then you make simple changes like this."

I then doubled the speed of my right hand, eighth notes against half notes. "You continue slowly making the rhythms more complex, but never doing so until you're comfortable with the current rhythm."

Jung, a sixty-something engineer who emigrated from Korea to the US in the 60's responded in heavily accented English, "But I must learn Fur Elise by next week. That is when I must take exam."


"Yes, I take piano course at community college. It only one credit. Exam require me play two pieces. I must get good grade."

If it had been anyone else, I might have thought him kidding, but Jung looked so earnest. Here he was, an accomplished engineer with advanced degrees in math and science, and he was concerned about his grade for a one-credit piano course at the local community college.

"Jung, I don't know about your course, but if you really want to learn to play piano quickly and to become comfortable playing, you want to take the approach that I'm describing."

He paused, considering what I'd said, and then responded, "The other problem I have is remember all the notes to Fur Elise."

I sighed, hesitating to enable his grade-addiction, but couldn't resist. "OK, here's your problem. Each time you play, you probably start at the beginning of the song. So you remember everything in order. The problem is when you get lost, the only way you know how to get back on track is to start again from the beginning. Practice starting at arbitrary points in the music, bar 8, bar 20, bar 31, bar 16. Then you'll be able to remember it without even trying."

He paused again, considered what I'd said, and then responded, "But it very short piece."

"Not short enough that you can remember the whole thing, right? Look Jung, I guarantee you, if you do what I said, you'll have no problem remembering."

He shrugged and then asked, "So, what you think of this piano?"

I frequently find myself in situations where people are asking me, How'd you do that?, and the answer is consistently what we engineers refer to as the K.I.S.S. method, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Whether you're trying to learn to play piano or to program a computer, whether you're trying to lose weight or run a marathon, the quickest and most reliable way to do so is K.I.S.S.

Unfortunately, most explanations of K.I.S.S are quite complex: what exactly do you mean by simple? Who you calling stupid? So, let me see if I can explain K.I.S.S. simply.

To apply K.I.S.S. is to limit the number of things you try to change at one time, preferably to one thing at a time. If you're trying to get healthy, don't simultaneously start to diet and exercise. For that matter, don't cut out more than one food group at a time. In fact, don't cut out anything; start by adding new practices (one at a time) that displace the old ones.

For example, consider my buddy Mark K who has the ability to overly-complicate tasks such as car-parking, shoe-tying and sleeping. When he was told that it's lose-weight-or-die time, he concocted elaborate schemes by which he could continue to eat well while satisfying the conditions of his temporary stay of execution. He bought gadgets to measure and weigh food. He downloaded calculators to compute sugar levels and calorie counts. He ordered special foods from all over the Internet. He created extensive menus and consulted with a variety of experts. He made the process about as complicated as one can and not surprisingly, found it difficult to maintain.

Were he to have applied K.I.S.S. he might have started by juicing every morning and doing nothing else. Once he got the juicing down, he might have added grilled fish every afternoon at 2:00 or eliminated wheat products. One thing at a time, each step building on the success of the previous one.

Now you might be thinking, "His situation is too dyer to do just one thing at a time. He needs to cut out sugar right away. He needs to exercise, now! He needs to start a program of vitamins and supplements."

Ideally, you'd be correct, but it ain't an ideal world. What you're really saying is, "But he has to play Fur Elise by next week."

The problem is that he might sustain the all-or-nothing approach for a bit, but eventually it would degrade to nothing.

If you really want to change, to learn, to understand, then break down the task into small incremental steps that build upon one another and then pursue them one step at a time, never proceeding to the next until you've nailed the current one: K.I.S.S.

Happy Tuesday,

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