Monday, October 31, 2011

Dress Up and Pretend

In the US, today is a big day for dressing up and pretending, Halloween.

That got me to thinking about one of my favorite learning techniques which is essentially dressing up and pretending, or more precisely, emulating. As children we learn almost exclusively through emulation of the people around us. We emulate words and phrases. We emulate actions and activities. We dress up in our parents cloths and go to work or prepare dinner or have a party.

Emulation is more than replicating an action or activity. When we emulate, we pick up on nuances of the action, voice inflection, facial expressions, mannerisms, repetitive patterns. We come to understand what motivates the action and what to expect from it.

Kids make great emulators because they have no other agenda but to emulate. Nuances missed by adults are obvious (even irresistible) to kids. As we get into our teens our sources of emulation shift from parents to peers and public figures. We learn, we grow, we change. Emulation becomes a way of fitting in and defining ourselves.

As adults, we emulate; however, emulation shifts from a rich learning experience to a simply copying what we believe to be appropriate or cool. We loose something that made emulation such a great way to learn. Curiosity? Naivety? The absence of agenda?

Channeling Jimi
When I got to music school, I noticed that there was a significant difference between the really good players and the great players. Both the groups were technically proficient and had chops. However, the great players had something else. It was as though they'd picked up all these tricks and nuances from the masters.

Noticing the difference, I asked one of my friends about how he got so good. As I explained what I saw as the fundamental difference, he chuckled and said, "Yeah, that's about it. In fact, I would say that it's exactly it."

"What do you mean."

"Well, each month I pick someone who I admire and want to learn from. Then for that entire month, I listen exclusively to his music. I learn all his songs. I learn to play all his solos. My goal is to learn the player so well that I can create something new, but do it the way he would do it."

"Wow, that sounds like a lot of work."

"Tell me about it. You want to know the hardest part. It's when everything inside you is screaming 'play this note' and you know that Jimi or Al or Joe would have played that note. When you finally silence that voice, that's when you got it."

That stuck with me. I started to learn piano that way. I started to play saxophone that way. I learned things I never would have.

Later, when I first became a manager, I often found myself over my head in knowing how to lead the people who worked for me while managing my relationships with my peers and my bosses. One day, I decided to create a list of the great managers in our company and emulate them. I started making the decisions that I believed they would make, even when everything inside me was screaming "no, do this!"

As I took the alternate paths, I began to see why each manager did things the way she did. I began to adopt elements of each manager's style into my on MO. I learned.

Dress-up and pretend is a great way to learn. Who will you emulate today?

Happy Monday,

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ya Think It'll Snow?

Two women play tug-o-war with a snow shovel at the K-Mart. A blue clad employee stumbles along dragging a half-opened cardboard crate behind him. He shouts, "I've got more shovels here!"

The contested shovel clamors to the floor as the two women simultaneously release it and bolt towards the employee who closes his eyes and goes into what can best be described as a vertical fetal position. The lady at the checkout explains to the fifth would-be payer in a row that she won't being driving down from Pittsfield tomorrow, no sir, not her.

The Carr's hardware crowd is well-behaved, but everyone seems a bit pensive. There are ample shovels, salt and sand, for now. I pay for a couple five gallon gas cans and some chainsaw oil and head for the truck.

The congestion of out-of-state BMWs and Mercedes on Main Street suggests that villages all over the great states of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are missing their idiots.

I'm thinking, "OK, so it's gonna snow. Snows here all the time. Well, at least all the time in winter. So it's October 29? What makes it so different?"

At the XtraMart the lines for gasoline extend in either direction from each of the four pumps. Some cars are in line backwards. At two of the pumps, the cars currently being serviced are facing each other. Jersey plates, this is going to get interesting.

I park over to the side of the building, walk up to one of the inaccessible pumps and fill up three five-gallon gas cans while I listen to the exchange. I grab a couple of freshly-filled propane tanks and head home. The snow is falling.

Out of town, the traffic disappears. I glide over Butler hill, down past John Andrews and up over the ridge to shared driveway that we optimistically call a road. The past year has been a bit tough on poor Gilbert Road. Looking down at it reminds me of an aerial view of the Grand Canyon. Over the past few weeks, Iris has managed to bring the neighbors to a consensus on fixing it, but the work won't begin for a week or two.

Halfway up the road, I find Iris and Scott raking out the culverts that run the length of the road and up our driveway. The air is now thick with huge flakes of snow and they're ready to call it a day.

I unload the truck and decide that I might as well put the plow on the ATV. It might just snow.

An hour later, we've got 6-inches on the ground and no sign of it letting up. Where'd I put those insulated coveralls. I wonder if I can find my helmet.

Plowing a rutted gravel road with an ATV is... I guess I'd have to say, "amazing!" Since the ATV and you (you're a relatively large component of the overall) don't have the mass of say, a truck with a heavy plow, you have to maintain speed in order to get through the heavier drifts. That's not so tough when you're riding down a smooth road. However, when the road has the occasional 12-inch wide, 15-inch deep crevice, it totally holds your attention. It's a dream opportunity for someone with ADD.

Thirty-minutes later, I back the ATV into the garage and wonder why Iris turned off the lights. Turns out she didn't.

I walk into the living room. There are lit candles everywhere. Iris has stoked the fire in the wood stove, filled a five-gallon jug of water for drinking and tub-full of water for everything else. I throw a frozen pizza on the grill and we settle in for the evening.

Six AM, the lights blink on. Whirs and hums emanate from awakened appliances. I wonder how much snow we got?

Happy Sunday,

Friday, October 28, 2011

Seventh Grade

When I entered junior high, I was five-foot-two and 128 pounds. Whenever we shopped for cloths at the Sears in Oak Brook, my mom always directed me to the "husky" section. I might have been twelve, but I knew that "husky" was code for "fat". I longed to shop in some other section at Sears.

Edison junior high school had students from several grade schools and I was glad to be in a new mix of people. My life at Whittier Elementary School in Wheaton, Illinois had been, for lack of a better word, terrible.

In the summer after third grade, my dad was transferred from Holmdel, New Jersey to Naperville, Illinois. We moved from a street where almost every household had kids my age to one where it was just my brother and me. I knew this for a fact because I'd gone from door to door asking people if they had any kids my age. As the summer dragged on, I couldn't wait for school to start.

First day of school, I got up early (read four o'clock) and put on the new clothes that my mom and I had bought at Sears the previous Saturday (yes, we were in the "husky" section). I got together all my school stuff and sat in the kitchen organizing pencils and watching the clock.

It was pretty much downhill from there (all the way through sixth grade). In addition to being husky, my mom insisted me having a crew-cut (a haircut you could "comb with a washcloth") and wearing cloths that were "practical". In addition to being about as uncool as a fourth-grader could be, I was slow and uncoordinated, I had a funny accent (I'd never known I had an accent), and (perhaps most significantly) I had this compulsion to say whatever I was thinking (no matter how many times it got me beat up).

I think my crowning moment in sports was being beaten in the fifty-yard dash by Scott Wilson, a kid who regularly needed special breathing apparatus due to his chronic asthma.

By seventh grade, I was desperate for something to change, but I had no idea what let alone a plan. My mom and I had reached a compromise on my haircut, the "princeton". Basically, it was a crewcut with bangs. My cloths weren't much better, if at all, and, well, I was still husky.

The thing going in my favor was the junior high band program ran every day. This meant that all the band students were in the same class. While other kids were in art or shop or home-ec classes, we had band. Band was the one thing I was good at, and while my ability to play saxophone didn't completely makeup for all my other twelve-year-old failings, I at least felt confident when I was in band.

Edison Junior High had both seventh grade and eighth grade classes. Band was the only class where eighth-graders and seventh-graders were together. The first week of band, we had auditions for positions in our various sections: first chair, second chair, third chair, etc. In almost all instances, the eighth-graders were in the top positions (after all, their musical experiences were nearly twice as long as those of the seventh graders).

Waiting outside the band director's office with the rest of the sax section, I begin explaining to Barbara (another seventh-grade tenor sax player) what I'm going to do after I get first chair. It hasn't occurred to me that any other outcome is possible. It also hasn't occurred to me that someone might perceive my presumption as presumptuous. What I'm thinking is her listening patiently is simply the dumbness of her disbelief. After a bit, I stop talking and she finds words.

This kid talks about being first chair as if he knows he's going to get it. Can you believe that? What an idiot.

I look around at the other saxophone players who looked peeved but at least not the type to beat you up after school.

What makes you think that you're so great. Who made you king. How do you know you're not going to be last chair.

I don't know what to say. I've never heard any of the other kids play. Why do I think that I'll be first chair? I'm not thinking that I'll be first chair, I know it.

Well, I guess I thought I'd be first chair this year because I was first chair in the eighth-grade band last year.

How could you be first chair in the eight grade band last year? You were only in sixth-grade and we don't even have an eighth-grade band.

Well, not any more. But last year they had separate seventh-grade and eighth-grade bands and Mr Fridley had me come here every morning to play with the eighth-grade band. When we had auditions, I ended up being the first chair.

Sure you did kid. Sure you did.

The taunting and teasing continue pretty much until Mr Bloomer, the new band director opens the door to his office and asks Tim Gosling to come in.

The conversation shifts. I sit quietly trying not to draw any attention. As each kid auditions, I listen. I mutter to myself. She should be using the alternate B-flat fingering for the chromatic scale. Who do I think I am. Wow, that low D was really sharp. How do I know I'm going to be first chair. He missed the E-flat in his chromatic scale. They probably all hate me.

The door opens and Mr Bloomer points to me. I walk in and sit down in front of the music stand he has for site reading.

Before we start the standard audition, I ask each student to play something that he likes to play so I can get a sense of who he is musically. So please play something that you like, something that you feel good about playing. Please try not to be nervous, this is not officially part of the audition.

I think of what to play, apparently for a while.

Mark, please don't be nervous. You can play anything you like, even if you don't know all of it.

Well, I've been working on this one piece, but it's something that was written for the flute so I had to transpose it. I'm pretty sure I know it all now.

You've learned about transposition. That's terrific. Why don't you play what you've been working on. I understand it's a work in progress.

OK, but I can't play it up to speed yet.

That's fine.

I put the horn to my mouth and launch into "The Flight of the Bumblebee" which technically should played at 160 BPM, but which I had only got to 140 BPM. As I play, I close my eyes visualizing the notes. I forget about the other kids. I forget about Mr Bloomer. I just play.

When I stop and open my eyes, Mr Bloomer is looking at me but not saying anything.

Like I said, I can't play it up to speed yet.

Mr Fridley had mentioned to me that you played in the eighth grade band last year. You play quite well.

I know.

Uh huh. Well, I don't think I need to hear any more. Thank you, Mark.

Oh. OK.

When Mr Bloomer opens the door, all the kids are standing at his window that opens to the hallway trying to see through the blinds.

No one says anything.

By the end of eighth grade, I was still 128 pounds, but I was nearly five-foot-ten. I'd finally won the battle with my mom for haircut and clothing decisions and I'd learned how to run. I still had a problem with saying whatever I was thinking, but in band, people seemed to just accept that as part of who I was.

Happy Friday,

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I heard a story once of a student, assigned to some project with a professor.  He arrived enthusuastically to do his task, and was told to sit infront of the aquarium and observe.  When he had seen all there was to see, he was to return with a written report.  Trying to keep an open mind, he sat and watched the aquarium, and after an hour, he left to write his report.  The professor, without even looking at the report, commented that he had not begun to observe the aquarium yet, and sent him back to his spot.  The story concluded with a month of aquarium watching, and many insiteful observations on aquatic life and relationships.

I often find myself with a question.  Very often, actually.  For 'what is ..?' questions, my solution of choice is google, and more specifically, wikipedia.  Yesterday, while reading a book with the kids, we arrived at the noun 'bellows'.  I didn't know what it meant.  I quickly switched to the computer, and in a few seconds, I had a picture, and a description of how a bellows works.  Later that day, it occurred to me that I didn't even for one second use the context of the story and the colorful language of the text to guess at what a bellows was!  Thinking back, I read many books as a child that had nothing to do with my normal day to day life.  Stories that represented other cultures, times, locations, both real and imagined, were aplenty.  I wasn't one of those children that checked the dictionary.  I hated the dictionary.  It was just too big.  Too many words to search through to find the one I wanted.  I often guessed at the meanings of words, holding them in a temporary space while the story unfolded.  Sooner or later, the clues came together and I figured out what different words meant.  I stayed curious, observed and inferred meaning from the context.

So I'm noticing that if I pay attention, there is a lot that I can figure out on my own.  It seems as if people in our modern context do research less by observation, and more by asking other people what they have observed, or what other people told them.  Don't get me wrong.  I love polling reliable information sources, but that cannot be a substitute to my own observations, analysis, evaluations, etc.  The more dependent I became on this polling activity, the more crude and unreliable my own  observational skills became.

So now, I'm taking time to look, to see what I see.  It's been fascinating.  Seeing isn't merely with the eyes, but with the entire body.  We have sensory receptors everywhere and as we tune in to them all, information comes to us in little drips and magnificent cascades.  Life the child with autism, we get to be fascinated with some detail, concept, idea that we hadn't quite looked at that way before, to explore it for it's own value, even before giving it a value in the bigger picture of life and everything important.

How's this for an experiment:  Spend some time this week just observing something.  Choose something you usually find puzzling.  Why does your partner leave one sock on the kitchen table?  How come the traffic on your street becomes unbearable and 11:47am?  Why do I feel tired on a wednesday?  How come the zebra finches in my cage are suddenly fighting?  Choose something specific, and become a detective about it.  Don't try to get the answers from any particular source, although interviewing is part of observation.  Prioritize observing with all your senses.  You might be surprised at what you notice, what you come to understand.

I'll tell you why the zebra finches are fighting next time.  Happy looking and seeing!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Insurmountable Opportunity

Dad, give me a call. I think I've got some really good news.

I dial Luke's number.

What's up?

Well, I'm standing in the break room at work this afternoon and the director of sales walks in. I wonder what he's doing in our break room. Turns out he's looking for me.

Why was he looking for you?

He has this big, important project he wants done and he wants me to do it. It's something he's wanted to do for a long time, but hasn't had anyone who could do it. As he explains it to me, I'm not even sure where to begin. But he seems to think that I can do it.

I'm sure you can.

But I'm not even sure where to start. It all seems so unstructured and vague. I'm not quite sure what he really wants in the end.

Did you ask him?

Yeah. I got the general gist of it, but... well, there's parts I'm not sure about.

That's kind of par for the course. Don't worry about it. People often have a general idea of what they want in the end, but they count on the developer to figure out the details.

But, how do I know what's important and what's not?

Well, just put yourself in his shoes. If you were the sales director, what would you want to know? What information would be actionable? What actions would you take if you knew this or knew that? You know how the organization works and how it's structured. Build a system that would be useful to you if you were in charge.

Yeah, that makes sense. I'll get started writing down all the possible actions and all the metrics that would help decide which of them to take.

Luke and I continued talking until Iris waved to me through the window at Bizen indicating that our food had arrived. As I thought about our conversation, it occurred to me that Luke had just been confronted with an insurmountable opportunity.

Most of us are familiar with the concept of insurmountable challenge; however, few of us are even aware of the insurmountable opportunity. In fact, the thing that differentiates us in our relative levels of "success" is not how we manage insurmountable challenges, but instead, how we manage insurmountable opportunities. You see, challenges are things that we ultimately can't avoid. We might deny them for a while. We might try to hand them off to other people. Nonetheless, the challenge ultimately does not go away until we deal with it.

On the other hand, opportunities are optional. When presented the opportunity to take a job that would put you way over your head, a band where everyone is far more experienced than you, a scholarship to a training program where you have none of the prerequisites, a task that no one has been able to accomplish, you have an insurmountable opportunity.

In those moments everything inside you screams, "What the hell are you doing even thinking about this! You're not qualified! You'll be so far over your head that you'll never get to the surface again. Who do you think you are? Run away, fast. Just say 'No!'"

Well, almost everything. Some part of you says, "Wow, this is a great opportunity. I think I know how to pull this off. I'm not sure how yet, but if I put my mind to it, I can do this."

In my experience, 99% of the us go with the first set of voices. We politely decline or feign not to have heard the offer. We breath a sigh of relief that we didn't have to take on something so scary.

Yet, when you talk to anyone who's ever had outrageous success, invariably they've chosen at one point or another not to walk away from an insurmountable opportunity. No matter how overwhelming or scary it seemed at the time, they took a deep breath and walked forward into it.

To be clear, taking the first step may not be the hardest part. Insurmountable opportunities are fraught with all the difficulties faced in insurmountable challenges. Worse, knowing that you can walk away from the insurmountable opportunity makes it much more difficult to persevere. There are times when you ask yourself, "What the hell was I thinking? I was perfectly happy where I was, doing what I was doing."

That's par for the course. Believe it or not, all the doubt and self-judgment eventually become so familiar that they're laughable. You hear it start and you just turn it off, "Oops, there I go again. Enough of that."

The cool thing is that the person who enters the insurmountable opportunity is not the person who exits. Insurmountable opportunities make us stronger, smarter and more capable. Tasks that were overwhelming at the beginning are child's play at the end. Your ability to see and understand problems grows exponentially. And of course there are the rewards of having accomplished something that no one else was able to do.

There are plenty of lies we tell ourselves that help us avoid insurmountable opportunities. I just didn't feel right about. I wasn't really comfortable with it. I realized that I am actually perfectly happy where I am. It just wasn't the right time for it. And so on. These are so commonplace as to feel "true."

They're not.

The thing is to recognize insurmountable opportunity when it knocks on your door. It feels incredibly uncomfortable. You find yourself looking for reasons why you're not qualified to take it on or why it won't work out. You start longing for the status quo, no matter how much you've been complaining about it. You've encountered an insurmountable opportunity.

Anyway, this morning I realized that not everyone knows that that's par for the course.

Happy Thursday!

Pop Your Stack

A commonly used and misunderstood concept purloined from computer science is "multitasking". We often apply it to someone who insists on being able to do many things simultaneously. Thing is, computers don't actually do more than one thing at a time and, if you've ever had a conversation with a multitasker, you'll have noticed that neither do people.

In the early days of computing, you know, like the 60's, computers ran what were called "batch" jobs; each computer ran just one program at a time. The program ran from start to finish. If you wanted to run your program, you would schedule time on the computer. At your allotted time, you load your program; it runs.

If there's an error in your program, it stops. You go back to your office and try to figure out why. You fix it and schedule more time.

In the late 50's and early 60's people started to wonder if there wasn't a better way. Would it be possible to create an operating system that would allow a computer to automatically schedule jobs and run them? Further, since much of the computer's processor time is spent waiting for things like input from a keyboard or something retrieved from a disk, why couldn't the computer do something else while it was waiting?

Researchers began working on systems that could schedule jobs themselves and reallocate resources from jobs that didn't need them to jobs that did, systems that could manage multiple jobs or tasks on their own. In 1965, what may be the first such system, MULTICS (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), was born. It was followed by systems such as VMS, UNIX and PL/1.

Multitasking systems don't actually perform multiple tasks at the same time. Instead, they switch from task to task so quickly that they appear to be doing many things simultaneously. It's like watching a fan blade spin; the blade is only ever in one place, but it appears to be simultaneously everywhere.

What determines when to switch from one task to another? At the heart of a multitasking system is a "scheduler". The scheduler allocates resources to various tasks based upon need and availability or time allocation. If a resource frees up, the scheduler allocates it to another task. If a task has used up its allotted time, the scheduler stops it, and starts another task. If an important event requires immediate attention, the scheduler interrupts whatever task was running and addresses the event.

The critical step in all this working is known as a "context switch". The scheduler can't simply stop one task and start another. If it did, then the first task would have to start over again each time it was reallocated resources. So before switching from one task to another the scheduler must store away all the information required to restart the first task at the same point; this information is collectively called the task's "state".

The scheduler sees that it's time to switch tasks. It stops the first task, cobbles up its state information and stores it. It retrieves the second task's stored state information, loads it and starts the second task.

Most multitasking operating systems simultaneously run tens or even hundreds of tasks. That's a lot of state memorization and context switching.

Most humans don't recognize these requirements for true multitasking. Many simply don't store or recall the state: Where was I now? What were we talking about? What's your name again? Why did I walk into the kitchen? Even when we do, we're often not that quick at context switching: Maybe if I retrace my steps, I'll remember. Wait, don't tell me, ummm, your name is... OK, now I remember, we were discussing...

Without these two capabilities, you can't multitask, or at least not well. The response of many to "human-multitasking" is that it doesn't work. I would rephrase that to say that almost no one does it well. Nonetheless, it can be learned. The trick is to be completely present with the task at hand and then to switch from task to task deliberately making sure to note where you were when the switch occurred. If you become good at this, you can become a good multitasker; if not, you're just kidding yourself.

As you become better at multitasking, you'll find yourself able to follow conversational threads as they roll out and to roll them back up to the original thread whenever someone asks, "How did we get here?"

Each conversational thread establishes a new context. As new contexts are created, you throw the previous context on top of the stack of previous contexts and begin a new one. To roll back to the beginning, you just keep pulling contexts off the stack until you've pulled the first one. In computer science, we call this form of context retrieval, popping the stack.

One of my favorite ways to practice context switching is to follow my friend Mark Kaufman in unaided conversation and to see how far afield he can go before I lose the thread. It's amazing how well you can multitask if you're deliberate about it.

Happy Tuesday,

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Just Add Notes


Monday, October 24, 2011

Still Not Quite Getting It

Humans experience struggle.

We struggle with walking.

We struggle with pulling on socks and tying shoes.

We struggle with communicating our desires and understanding those of others.

We struggle with math and language and music.

We struggle with physical activity.

Over time, struggle shifts from something to live for to something to avoid. Usually it's a process of displacement. The goal of tying your shoes is replaced by the goal of getting out the door. The goal of learning addition is replaced by the goal of being recognized for your performance on a quiz.

As one goal displaces the other, our responses to struggle shift; struggle goes from a good thing to a bad thing.

Sometimes, when a struggle has gone bad, you seek techniques to help you overcome it, methods and little tricks that you can apply. You learn to form two loops with your shoe laces before melding them. You learn that the lines of the treble staff can be remembered with the phrase Every Good Boy Does Fine (E-G-B-D-F). You memorize the multiplication table of whole numbers 0 through 10. You learn to establish a relationship with a potential investor before trying to sell him on your big idea.

Sometimes the goal of learning the technique displaces the reason for learning the technique. For example, one technique for learning improvisation is referred to as Chord-Scales.

Chord Scales
Most professional musicians use written forms of music known as lead sheets. A lead sheet provides the lyrics, the melody line and chords. Other than the melody, there are no written notes.

Almost all guitar players and many piano players learn to read chord symbols and to translate them into notes on their instruments. However, most don't learn how to improvise melody lines that fit with the chords they play. Players of melodic instruments (e.g., trumpet, flute, saxophone) rarely learn the chords, let alone how to improvise. Chord-Scales is a method that prescribes a stepwise series of notes that can be played with any given chord depending on the context in which the chord is played.

If you play a C-major 7 chord in the key of C, then the Chord-Scale is C-major. Play it in the key of G (where it's the fourth chord of the key) and the chord scale is G-major. The method takes something esoteric and overwhelming (improvising over a set of chords) and demystifies it. It's like finding a secret code book that lets you decipher encrypted messages.

Chord-Scales works so well that many musicians spend hours on end learning, memorizing and practicing all the potential combinations of chords and scales.

The problem is that some musicians end up investing so much time time learning the Chord-Scales that they lose sight of the reason for learning them, i.e., to improvise music. They learn to play confidently. They learn to play solos that work. However, what they play ends up sounding formulaic and sterile. At that point they have to unlearn the chord scales or at least detach themselves from the method.

This phenomenon is not limited to musicians learning improvisation. You can see it in virtually any area where people have received specific training on how to do things: a sales guy who becomes so comfortable relating to his customers that he forgets to close the sale; a therapist who gets so engaged in connecting to a child with autism that she forgets why she wanted to establish the connection. A technologist who becomes so enamored of her new invention that she forgets what she wanted to accomplish with it. A couch potato who wants to do more with his children becomes consumed with working out.

It happens all the time.

To be sure, many of us err on the other side, we become consumed with getting to the destination and completely miss the trip. However, sometimes we forget the destination completely. While this degree of focus empowers us to better acquire method and technique, it can have undesired side effects, e.g., we miss our stop.

Happy Monday,

Friday, October 21, 2011


I'm always wondering why people make things so hard. By people I mean, well pretty much everyone but me and even I do it some of the time.

I know people who make things not hard, but they tend only to do it occasionally or within certain situations. So, I'm not counting them.

Anyway, I think about it, umm..., a lot.

Iris will tell you that my most prominent listening fault is wanting to "fix" someone's problem (or for that matter, them). Once I've heard enough to get the lay of the land I move into fix-it mode. I've got better over time, but still, my attention slowly divides in two. One side continues to listen, the other starts thinking, "Why wouldn't you just..." or "Hey, how about..."

That continues for a bit. Then the solution side splits, the new division wondering, "How hard could this be to figure out? He's got to have noticed that he repeated the last statement five times, right? Maybe he doesn't want to figure it out? Hey, there's a pattern emerging here! Do you see it?"

It's the third division that maintains my attention long after the conversation has ended. I mean, how long can you think about someone talking about the same problems over and over? And who wants to spend any time on something he's already figured out? So that leaves the question, "Why hasn't she figured it out?"

I know there's the obvious: because she doesn't want to figure it out. Many of us have spent lots of time helping ourselves and others get past the denial of that fact and onto the reasons we avoid figuring out what plagues us. However, it's occurred to me lately that it may simply be a matter of never having learned to think.

In this case, I'm going to qualify thinking as the process by which we translate observed phenomena into abstract generalizations, and vice versa. The and is important, i.e., it's not or.

Let's create a shorthand for each process. We'll call the first part, abstracting observed phenomena into patterns and rules, discovery. We'll call the second part, taking patterns and rules and using them effectively, application.

To be sure, most of us are denied discovery through the process of formal education almost all of which focuses on teaching the generalizations (the rules, theories, guidelines) and then learning through their application. This is how multiplication works, now you do it. Here's the recipe, now you bake a cake. The pluperfect is a combination of past tense with perfect tense used to distinguish two events in the past, one being described in the other, now go write some sentences using the pluperfect.

There aren't many instances in school where you get to truly discover (even science experiments are conducted by following recipes), so it's no wonder you're not a very good thinker.

Of course, there are some people who take offense when told they're not very good thinkers, specially when they hold advanced degrees. Believe me, I have a lot of experience with this. Nonetheless, I can't say that I've encountered many world-class thinkers and I've hung out in organizations that ostensibly house them.

The good news is that everyone of us is capable of world-class thinking. In fact if you're able to speak or understand language you've already done it. As infants we start piecing together theories and abstractions from observed phenomena. The volume of discovery that finally yields the application "da da" is vast. We build on our discoveries and new observed phenomena until we have enough speech to ask questions, the most prominent of which become "why?" and "how?"

It's at these points that our teachers (parents, caretakers, educators) either help us continue the process of discovery and application ("how do you think it works?") or flip into the more traditional mode ("this is how it works, now you try it?") Nonetheless, each of us is capable of amazing feats of thought.

The trick is getting back to basics, to the activities that came so naturally as children but perhaps less so now.


The first step is to allow yourself to be curious, to wonder how and why things do what they do, and to ask questions.

The second step is to play, to take things apart and figure them out, to start drawing pictures on a pad of paper without instruction, to fiddle around on the piano, to not worry about getting it right or taking too long, to make something that you like, to play.

The third step is to process, to think about all you've done while playing, to catalog what you've learned, to ask new questions, to fuel your curiosity.

The fourth step is to apply, to take what you've figured out and try it, to build on what you've learned.

And so the cycle goes.

You wouldn't be offended if someone walked up to you and said, "I gotta tell you, you wouldn't be very good at climbing Everest."

You'd think, "Well of course not, I never even thought about it, let alone trained for it."

Happy thinking,

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What if...

What if you could see more?  What would you see?  The vastness of the cosmos?  The intricacies of a speck of dust?  The universe in a human being?  What would you see?  But would you see?  Would you allow yourself to see?

What if you could feel more?  What would you feel?  The extreme delight of a child taking his first and 300th step?  The amazement, the deep joy that can only be expressed by running as fast as you can?  The anguish of a father who can't find his toddler at Disney World?  What would you feel?  But would you allow yourself to feel?

What if you could imagine more?  What would you imagine?  The possibilities of life on other planets?  The next, most interactive, almost lifelike, virtual world for the entire family?  Your desk clean?  What would you imagine? But would  you allow yourself to imagine more?

If you would see more, feel more, imagine more, then you could create more.  Create more of everything you want to see in your body, in your life, in your sphere, in your world, in your universe.

See, Feel, Imagine, Create

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Necessary, But Not Sufficient

If you just believe in yourself, you can... blah, blah, blah.

Here's the thing. It's great to develop self-confidence. Without it, we tend towards self-limited. Even with it, we still experience self-imposed limitations many of which we fail to recognize. Nonetheless, self-confidence doesn't make up for a lack of competence. It's one of those necessary but not sufficient types of phenomena. If you want to optimize whatever it is you want do, you want to develop both confidence and competence.

Competence can be elusive, specially if you spend lots of time being formally educated. Competence is something that you gain through doing, not through learning about. You can read books all day long, about playing piano, about cooking, about woodcraft, about running and still have no competence. You can ace exams and become valedictorian and still have no competence. You can critique and review and grade others and still have no competence.

On the other hand, many competents have never read a book on the topic of their competency, would fail standardized tests, and would be graded as poor. Yet, they have ability to consistently do what they do well. They deliver.

When I first started playing piano, I worked many hours a day on scales and arpeggios. After several months, I felt as though I'd made little progress. I still couldn't play as fast and cleanly as I wanted. My mental image of my fingers on the keys would drift and I'd lose my place. So, I asked a friend who was a pianist at Julliard what I'm doing wrong.

He watches me play a bit and then says, "Nothing."

I say, "Nothing? Didn't you hear how I fumbled each time I crossed from C# to D?"

"Sure, but that doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong. You just haven't been playing long enough yet. You haven't become intimate with the piano. Just keep playing and the rest will come to you. Play slow enough where you're not making mistakes and keep using the metronome so you play consistently. The rest will come once you've done it long enough."

So, I kept playing and slowly the piano became more and more familiar. At some point (I'd be pressed to tell you exactly when), I crossed the boundary of incompetence and competence and everything I'd struggled with became easy.

There's something about doing things repeatedly over extended periods. If you pay attention, do them slowly and consistently, you can't help but become competent and there's no amount of self-confidence that can make up for it.

I don't necessarily buy into the 10,000 hours requirement (i.e., it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become an expert), but I'd agree that it works, that is, if you pay attention to what you're doing. In fact, the more you pay attention (the more aware you are), the fewer the hours required. This is primarily due to patterns and pattern recognition. If you really pay attention to what you do, you'll see patterns that reduce the number of things to be learned or skills to be acquired.

Self-confidence is great. How are you at self-competence?

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Keep It To Yourself

Your mom makes you your favorite meal, the one you really dislike intensely. You're not sure how, but somewhere along the way you so overcompensated for your distaste that you managed to morph the dreck before you into your favorite.

How's that happen? First time mom makes it she's really excited about her new concoction. You want to encourage her to keep experimenting with her cooking or you don't want to dampen her enthusiasm, so you lie.

Mom is heartened that someone really loves her new creation. She makes the same meal the next time you come to dinner... and the next... and then, well, pretty much any time you come by. Your lie designed to encourage takes on a life of its own; it becomes a secret. Now mom's so pleased with how much you love her cooking, that you haven't the heart to tell her otherwise.

Perhaps your life is full of secrets: big secrets that you strive to keep hidden; little secrets that you almost forget until something reminds you of them; fleeting secrets that pass as unspoken thoughts.

Keeping secrets is not inherently good or bad, but it can get expensive. If you find yourself perpetually tired, it may not be lack of sleep; it may be all the secrets you're keeping.

The secret is a close cousin of the lie, a lie that has taken on a life of its own. Most lies are said and gone. However, sometimes a lie will get stuck on the way out. It comes back, repeatedly. When it does, voila! Your lie has become a secret.

Lies are funny little creatures. You got your lies of commission (the deliberate acts of deceit) and your lies of omission (the words you simply never say). And believe it or not, all lies spring from good intentions; planning a surprise party, not wanting to hurt someone's feelings, not wanting to get into trouble, not wanting to deal with something, and so on. (Sometimes the good intentions are self-directed.)

The cool thing about lies and secrets is what they tell us about ourselves. If you dissect a lie, at its core you'll always find a judgement. In terms of grapefruits, the lie would be the tough, protective skin and the judgment the juicy fruit inside. Lies make it easy to find judgments. Whenever you find yourself wanting to lie (avoiding saying something or actively denying something that you know is true), you've tripped over a judgment.

If being aware of when you're lying is still a stretch, here's another cool indicator: every time you struggle with how to say something (that dress makes you look fat, are you undergoing chemo, your playing was way off in that last song, you are definitely not an autumn, was that smell you) you're a) precariously close to lying and b) judging the crap out of them or their situation. You might attribute your loss for words to being inarticulate, but fact is you've got plenty of words. They're racing non-stop through your mind; it's just that all them sound so... bad. When this happens, forget about finding the right words and deal with your judgments.

In the moment, your judgments make you uncomfortable so you: a) say nothing, b) say something you don't believe, or c) blurt out what you feel so uncomfortable saying. None of these approaches works very well; none resolves your discomfort; some exacerbate it. The discomfort leads to avoidance, avoidance of people, avoidance of situations. This in turn leads to more discomfort and lying.

To be clear, you're likely judging the situation and not the person. I can't tell you how many people will go quiet and not know what to say around situations that they consider dyer. Someone loses a loved, someone finds out he has cancer, someone's child is diagnosed with autism, and you don't know what to say. It's the judgment: the judgment that the situation is bad, terrible, awful.

If you lose the judgment that the situation is awful, the words will flow.

To flip all this into the affirmative, if you want to be someone who can say what she thinks in any situation and do so in a manner that feels comfortable and solid, stop looking for the right words and start working through your judgments transforming bad to good.

Happy Tuesday,

PS Sometimes asking whether or not someone is judging will lead to a false negative (i.e., "I'm not judging"). A much better benchmark is to ask someone to articulate the opposite or positive judgment, e.g., "I think it's great that he weighs three-hundred-eighty pounds". If you can't comfortably state the positive judgment, then you're still judging negatively.

Monday, October 17, 2011

You Are Not You Path

My friend Scott is an expert stucker, i.e., he excels in remaining stuck in various areas of his life. Scott's chosen method of sticking is different than that of my friend Mark Kaufman who has mastered all forms of getting unstuck yet nonetheless remains steadfastly committed to stuckedness. Scott's method is different than my own which draws liberally from Einstein's definition of insanity; I always know that if I try just one more time...

If I were going to align Scott with anyone, it would be Iris. This is a good news kind of alignment since Iris seems to have all but forgotten how to get or remain stuck. The method that Scott and Iris share is that of consistently referring to events from their past when asked questions about something done in the present. Both Scott and Iris experienced events in childhood that most of us would not want our children to experience and many would call traumatizing.

Used to be when you asked Iris a question about why she did this or that, she'd bring up something that her mom or dad or brother did or said to her when she was a child.

Ask Iris about why she hesitates or holds back when singing and she says, "When I was a small child, I loved to sing. When my parents would have parties, they would ask me to sing for everyone. People would listen, smile and laugh. After a while, I realized they were laughing at my speech impediment and that the reason my parents wanted me to sing was my flawed pronunciation."

Ask Iris why she doesn't drink, smoke or use drugs and she tells you about growing up in a household where the air was thick with smoke there were more than ample drunks and drug users.

Similarly, Scott explains hesitation, fear and doubt with stories from his past: a grandfather who berated him or missing a critical high note during an important concert where everyone was relying on him.

I gotta say that when I listen to Iris and Scott tell there stories it's hard not to buy into their logic. Their experiences have certainly influenced who they are today. However, past experiences are not the reasons they make decisions in the present. The reasons for decisions in the present are always in the present.

You might say, "That's ridiculous. Traumatic events from childhood often stick with people throughout their lives. Some people never get over them."

I would agree that some people never get over childhood events. However, the actor is not the event, but the individual. Events don't stick to people; people maintain events.

You might say, "Ask anyone and I'm sure they can come up with things that they do today because of events in the past."

I would agree that people would say that. However, that's simply a result of not fully understanding the anatomy of influence.

Let's say that whenever you fail to eat a good lunch your blood sugar levels crash around two-o'clock. So you decide to always stop whatever you're doing at noon in order to eat. Clock chimes twelve and whether you're alone or in the middle of a conversation, at home or in a meeting at work, you head out the door to get something to eat.

You leave a friend mid-sentence and he follows you out the door. "Hey, I was just about to tell you something important and you walked right out on me. What's up?"

You say, "Look, I've had these terrible experiences after not eating a good lunch. My blood sugar levels drop through the floor and I become a completely different person. Once I fell asleep in the middle of an important meeting with all the big bosses. Another time, I yelled at my kids when they were just being kids. I've gotta get something to eat right away."

At first blush, it sounds as though your motivation is based in past experience. It's not. Your motivation is to maintain your blood sugar today; it's current. You're not trying to fix your past; you're trying to maintain your present.

So what's the past got to do with it? The past contributed to your beliefs about eating and blood sugar levels. It also helped you establish your priorities for dealing with it. The past has nothing to do with your current motivation which is to... Well, that depends upon your day. You might have an upcoming meeting or a school event or a race to run: something that you want to do well. Your belief is that skipping lunch will cause you not to do well or that eating lunch will help you to do well. So, you eat.

Even if you flip everything into negative motivation (i.e., avoiding past experiences that were "bad" rather than moving toward current/future experiences that are "good"), your motivation is in the present.

Nowadays, you'll almost never hear Iris refer to her past when asked "why?" She keeps things in the present and the transformation has been remarkable. Turns out that attribution to past events did more than to keep her stuck; the focus precluded her from looking at current motivations and challenges. She now breaks through issues like gangbusters.

Indeed the path you've followed has led you to who you are. Thing is, you are not your path.

Happy Monday,

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cigars, Whisky and Discussion

One of my favorite aspects of music and musicians is that education, pedigree and even personal experience don't mean a thing (or at least not for long). Musicians are pretty quick to get to a more pure form of assessment: you can either play or you can't. Even if you have a place to rehearse or a van and are willing to drive the equipment to gigs, no one confuses that with whether or not you can play.

Once you've passed the can-play threshold, there are more fine grained metrics: sense of time, pitch, groove, creativity, repertoire, consistency, site-reading, improvisation, and so on. Even great musicians who are strong in many areas oftentimes have weaknesses. Piano players are notorious for having a terrible sense of time. Since they tend to play unaccompanied or as accompaniment, they are rarely required to keep time with others. Their lack of timing goes unnoticed until they have to play with a band and everyone is wondering, "WTF, I thought this guy was really good!"

Drummers often have poor or no pitch. For that matter, many musicians who've learned to play printed music have no sense of pitch. It's only when he's required to play by ear or improvise that you discover Bill the bass player is tone-deaf.

Even when you can play, there's plenty of opportunity for growth. Fortunately, you almost never encounter situations where you're required to be good in all areas. In a new situation, the wise musician is quick to identify his newly exposed musical deficits and then to work through them in the most efficient and effective way possible. That'd be the wise musician. The less-than-wise musician, well, not so much. He hears the deficit, tries to deny it, and finally avoids it. Retreating to his areas of strength, he tries to restructure the situation to accommodate the deficit. One strategy is sustainable, the other not.

In my experience, the musical situation that best exposes deficits is small group performances of improvised or unrehearsed material. Small Group because there's nowhere to hide; individual performers can mask a mistake as a sudden change of direction and large groups afford many places to hide. Performance because you have to do it in the moment; there are no do-overs, no pauses to work through challenging sections, no fixes in the mix. Improvised or unrehearsed because it offers a high environmental-uncertainty quotient; you have to be completely present with yourself, your instrument, your bandmates and the music.

Small group performance of improvised or unrehearsed music offers a great proving ground for theories of personal development. Oftentimes we "work on ourselves" in environments that are hospitable and accepting. We believe that we've changed (that we've learned to manage stress, that we've gained confidence, that we've become present and focused), when in fact all we've done is to restructure our environments so as to avoid things that trigger stress, self-doubt or befuddlement. If you want to put all that to the test, walk on stage with three or four other musicians and perform a song that you've never performed (as a group or individually).

It's an amazing opportunity, but also one for which I rarely find takers, that is, until recently. Over the past months my bandmates have magically transitioned from reluctant to open to cautiously engaged to enthusiastically engaged to actively seeking opportunities to stretch in this manner. It's as though everyone realized that failure is an illusion and just decided to go for it. There are times where reluctance reenters the picture, but they are fleeting.

The results are thrilling. For example, yesterday at rehearsal we worked on several new songs each of which we played just once. During that one time, we created individual parts, parallel parts, solos, harmonies, and pretty much everything that would be required to perform the song before an audience. Our first playing of the third song was performance-grade. It was amazing.

I could say that all this is due to our many hours of rehearsing or our diligence in individual practice sessions but fact is we don't rehearse all that much (individually or as a group). Instead, I would have to say it comes down to cigars, whisky and discussion. Lately, somewhere midway our Saturday rehearsals with Will Power Blues, we've taken to pausing for a discussion break.

We throw open all the windows, gather around the kitchen counter and, with a small pour of whisky in one hand and a nice cigar in the other, talk. Sometimes we talk about music, but more often we talk about philosophy, or more accurately we philosophize. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a specific topic; however the common thread seems to be: how we do the things we do, why we do them that way, and how we might change them to better build the person we want to be. Beyond that, we go all over the place from childhood to adulthood, from best gigs ever to worst, from defeat to triumph, from what we'd like to change most to what we're most happy about.

To me our discussions are a form of washing windows. Our vision into ourselves and into each other becomes clearer and clearer. Sometimes there's so much built-up mud and debris that you don't know there is a window. Other times there's a tiny little blemish that has been a huge distraction. This is just a theory mind you, but that clarity seems have made us better musicians and a better band.

Go figure.

Happy Sunday,

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Your Prime

"There's something strange about that boy. All he wants to talk about is chemistry and numbers."

Barbara, my morning companion at the Bagel Shop in Little Silver has shifted the monologue, err, conversation, from her recent bout with shingles to a weekend visit by her ten-year-old grandson.

"The whole weekend he's pointing out what things are made of...
Grandma, did you know that Grandpa's shirt is made of polyethylene terephthalate. It's a thermoplastic polymer that can synthesized by the esterification reaction between terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Blah, blah, blah...
What are you supposed to do with a boy like that?"

Barbara looks at me waiting for a reaction.

"You said he talks about numbers?"

"Oh, don't get me started! Every time someone mentions a number, he starts spouting off facts about it. Yesterday, a friend wished my daughter a happy thirty-ninth birthday. Before she could even respond, Daniel starts spouting facts about the number thirty-nine...
You know, many people think that thirty-nine is a prime number. It sounds like a prime number but it's not. First of all, the sum of its digits is divisible by three, which of course means that it's divisible by three: three and thirteen, both of which are prime. Blah, blah, blah...
I tell you there's something strange about the boy."

I'm thinking, "He's right. Thirty-nine does sound like a prime number though it's not."

Barbara, continues talking and I start thinking about numbers...

Prime numbers are the ones that are only divisible by themselves and one. Non-prime numbers can be divided by other, smaller numbers, some of which are prime and some of which are not. Fifty-one is another number that sounds like it's prime, but it's not. It's divisible by three and seventeen. The three part is easy. Any time the sum of the digits is divisible by three (e.g., five plus one equals six), the number itself is divisible by three.

It's easy to eliminate lots of candidates for prime number status. First, there are all the even numbers which are divisible by two. That's like half of them right away. The ones that are divisible by five are easy to spot. They all end in five. That leaves you numbers that end in one, three, seven or nine.

Then there's the little trick with adding up the digits which eliminates a third of the candidates. Twenty-nine adds up to eleven, thirty-nine to twelve, and forty-nine to thirteen. Only thirty-nine is divisible by three. Only twenty-nine is prime (forty-nine is the square of seven).

Yeah, thinking about numbers is fun. I particularly like multiples of eleven and thirteen. The patterns are fun to watch: 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88... or 13, 26, 39, 52, 65, 78, 91... Aren't they cool? It's like finding a groove that can grind on forever.

The patterns in number sequences are similar to harmonic and rhythmic sequences in music. Of course with harmony you have multiple multiplicative series stacked on top of one another. Any note in a chord has a relationship with each of the other notes and although the relationship is reciprocal, it's not interchangeable; a flatted ninth is fine on top, but invert it and it sounds pretty bad. And then theres the... Oops. There I go. Blah, blah, blah...

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What Albert Said...

"Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy."

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

"If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself."

"The difference between genius and stupidity is; genius has its limits."

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school."

"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving."

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

"Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler."

"You never fail until you stop trying."

"Creativity is intelligence having fun."

"It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer."

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

From Nothing

Everything you create is derivative; nothing you can do about it. Grab a couple cans of spray-paint, aim them at a canvas, flail your arms wildly in the air and the very motion of your arms will be a side effect of all you've consumed and processed.

Yet, there's something in each of us that yearns to create, to manufacture something uniquely your own, to be special. But it can't happen. Even the great ideas that we attribute to specific people, historical figures, were the result of derivative thinking. The attribution to an individual is due to her being in the right place at the right time. No doubt others came to the same conclusions, some before, some after. However, the other either didn't see the conclusions as significant or didn't have very good PR.

You might see the impossibility of creating something truly new as depressing. Why go on if I can never be truly unique? You might deny it. You might start qualifying unique (a superlative) with words like very or extremely. Nonetheless there is, as they say, nothing new under the sun.

Another response would be, "So what? What if there is nothing new under the sun? Why should that make a difference to me?"

It would only make a difference if you were concerned about being first or being unique or being recognized. However, if you find joy in the process of creating, then the only qualifier would be that it's new or unique for you. Being a finite creature, no matter how much you've created, there are always infinitely many things that you haven't created. The possibilities for personally unique experiences are limitless.

I'll often walk into a meeting and speak excitedly about my latest discovery or creation. Someone will point out derisively that it's already been done, that I could have simply looked it up if I'd just been a bit more diligent. I'll think aloud, "So what? I enjoyed figuring it out and I didn't have to look it up."

My derider might say, "But you wasted all that time figuring it out when you could just have googled it."

Then we'll both think, "You just don't get it."

Happy Tuesday,

Sunday, October 9, 2011

You Don't Know What You're Talking About

Our noses are about six inches apart, Sudhir's outstretched index finger an inch or two closer. He says, "There's no way that someone could do that. It's impossible."

I say, "Well, my dad did do it. So, I'm having difficultly accepting your hypothesis."

Others party-goers at the Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard continue their conversations; however, I notice that a circle of nothing but new, polished flooring has been created around the two of us as we continue our "conversation". Sudhir is an Economist and Mathematician from Oxford who's doing a stint at Harvard. The whole conversation began we me asking him about his work.

"I couldn't begin to explain it to you. It's involves very advanced math and as I understand it you are a musician, yes?"

"Yeah, I'm a musician. But how about giving it a try. Perhaps you could explain it to me in simple terms or at a higher level?"

"No, I'm afraid you'd never be able to comprehend my work. It would require years of study on your part."

"I don't know abou that. My dad always told me that you can explain anything to anyone if you actually understand it yourself. He would say that people who tell you something is to complex to explain don't really understand it."

"I'm sure your father's a fine fellow, but what would he know about advanced mathematics?"

"Well, when he was at MIT, he studied electrical engineering, but he used to take all the advanced math courses for fun. He'd finish three hour finals in an hour-and-a-half, and then go back to color code all the steps. Never missed a question. The professors would post his exam as the answer key."

"Well... umm..."

"Not only that, but he can tell you the prime factors for any number. He just sees them. You give him a random seven digit number and he'll tell you all the prime numbers that when multiplied together equal the first number.

"There's no way that someone could do that. It's impossible."

Over the years, I've had lots of people tell me that something couldn't be done when I'd seen it done or when I'd done it myself. Sometimes the impossible things are more extreme (such as seeing the prime factors of a very large number) and sometimes, they're mundane. It's the mundane ones that most interest me.

Yesterday during a rehearsal break we picked up on an ongoing conversation about improvisation. There are great musicians who learn everything by rote. They can play an extremely complex piece precisely as it was intended to be played by the composer. They can play it repeatedly with almost no variance in precision, tempo or pitch.

There are also great musicians who can't read a note of music, but instead improvise or play by ear. You may never know where they'll take a piece of music and it's unlikely that they could repeat what they just played.

Orchestras and formal ensembles are full of the former. Bands (jazz, rock, blues, R&B) are full of the latter. It's the latter where things get interesting. Imagine a group of five or six musicians each of whom likes to improvise, each of whom thrives on musical exploration and creativity. You gotta wonder how they'd ever produce anything but musical chaos.

Yet, there are some improvisational groups that craft in real-time, pieces that seem highly produced and polished, pieces that are performed once and never again. How's it possible?

To many, the question would be a statement: That's not possible! Nonetheless, groups of improvisational musicians regularly create one-time pieces that sound thought-out and practiced.

Scott, our trumpeter-cum bassist, says, "I just don't know. I feel as though I really need to know my part before I play. Otherwise, I'm sure to mess up."

I think aloud, "That's because you're concerned about learning parts versus learning music, or learning bass. If you have a command of the instrument, you don't need to remember parts. You'll be able to play them as they come. Even if you make a mistake, you'll be able to correct it before anyone but you recognizes it."

"I get what you're talking about and sometimes I even do that, but I'm not sure about it."

"That's because you haven't yet done what I'm talking about. You haven't learned the bass so well that you don't have to think about where the notes are. I tell you what. If you were to learn to play every major scale, minor scale, blue scale and dorian scale from any position on the bass, you wouldn't be worried about all this any more."

"I'm not sure about that. I mean, it would take a long time to do that."

"I bet you could do it in two weeks. Just spend an hour a day with the metronone doing nothing but working on those four scales."

"Hmmm... Well, we'll see."

The exercise I prescribe to Scott is one that I've seen work over and again. Nonetheless Scott, who's never actually tried the exercise (or at least not as I laid it out), asserts that it probably won't work or would take too much time.

Talking at breakfast this morning Iris bounces from topic to topic. I listen until she starts repeating herself and then ask whether or not she's taken her Adderral. She tells me no and then wormholes to the other afternoon when she forgot to take her Adderral and realized it only late in the day.

"I decided it was too late to take another pill and that it might keep me up. I ended up being distracted all night, even in my dreams."

"When I forget to take my afternoon pill, I'll just take a half a pill later in the day when I remember it. Maybe you could do that?"

"I'm not sure that half a pill would do any good."

"Have you ever tried it?"

"Um... No."

Each of us makes assertions regarding things about which we have no experience (perhaps on a daily basis). Sometimes, we strongly defend our positions even if we have no clue as to what we're saying. Sometimes we have experience in the topic area, but not specifically with the topic at hand. The results are less than optimal.

If you do this and would like to try something else, the key to changing is to: 1) recognize when you're doing it, i.e., arguing with someone to support an unfounded position, 2) acknowledge that you're doing it by saying something like, "Look, I just realized I don't really know what the heck I'm talking about", and 3) take advantage of the other person's experience to see if you can benefit from it.

What have you got to lose?

Happy Sunday,

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hormones, crazy or unregulated?

I was feeling insane.  Literally.  I'll tell you about everything that was happening at the time, but I'm fairly used to chaos.  Why would I be losing my mind about this?  PMS!  ok... maybe I didn't take enough evening primrose oil and Chinese herbs.... Oh!  It's not PMS.  It's MS.... a few more days passed... it's just S.  Maybe it's early menopause.  Low progesterone can cause.... and maybe my thyroid...and there went my thoughts for several days during the insanity.

Fortunately, I have 2 rules: 
  • If Faith is feeling insane, Faith needs a break
  • Faith is likely to feel insane at some point so plan for breaks
Our anniversary had passed without our usual getaway.  Isaiah would be attending a conference in Arizona for 3 days.  I hadn't ever been to Arizona so decided that it would be a perfect getaway.  Thankfully, this decision was taken before the real insanity erupted. 

We got to Phoenix on Monday night, had dinner and went to bed.  Because of the 3 hour time difference, I had more time to sleep!  Whoohooo!  I woke up before 8, had my green juice, a piece of fruit, went to the gym, came back, had tea, read, journaled, read, prayed, listened to music, set goals, read and started to feel hungry.  I looked at the clock.  It was 11am!  I had been awake for 3 hours and everything I had done so far was a loving, nurturing act for myself.  I did it at my pace and still had the whole day ahead of me.  It was wonderful.

At the end of 3 days, I felt human.  I came home clear and settled, having taken the time to answer some questions that had been jiggling around in my mind. 

Half way through my first day back home, I thought, maybe it wasn't menopause or thyroid....  I just need the 30 minutes of walking and 30 minutes of self care by myself every day.  But I knew that.  Part of being internally regulated is knowing what your system needs and doing it.  Doing it may need some planning.  I have good intentions, but need structure around making these activities a part of every day.  So, I'm getting back to doing these things every day.  Actually, 'day' is too loose for me.  I have to pin it down to a time of the day or else it becomes a moving target. 

I think I'll tell the kids to run me through my 'every day' checklist when they see the insanity raising its head.  They may have to duck while they read it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Best Rehearsal Ever

I've said before that my favorite night of the week is Thursday, writing night. To be clear, it's not that the other nights are bad. In fact, the other nights are great. It's just that Thursday nights are, well, magical.

That said, Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon have recently risen to the challenge posed by Thursday. Already solid performers, they seem inspired by Thursday's success. Wednesday and Saturday are band rehearsal days, Wednesday for No Room for Jello and Saturday for Will Power.

Heading out to his car after rehearsal on Saturday, Scott commented, "Wow, that was the best rehearsal, ever!" And I would have to agree with him. Indeed, rehearsals with both bands have been getting better and better and better.

So, what is it that makes it better? Hmmm...

Making Great Less Than Great
As I mentioned in my post, What I Value Most, one of the things I love about our writing group is that I am the wanna-be novice in the company of highly skilled experts. I find the novice role inspiring, instructive and freeing.

In rehearsals, although I'm with great musicians, I am the highly-skilled expert and I let that role compromise my experience of rehearsal. How? First, I let 'expert' somehow mean 'responsible'. Responsible for how well everyone is playing. Responsible for figuring out what to do with challenging pieces. Responsible for ensuring that we sound good no matter what. Responsible for educating. Responsible for all the equipment.

I enjoy all the above tasks. It's the 'being responsible' part that compromises the experience.

Second, I let my expertise limit my playing. This goes hand in hand with being 'responsible'. Rather than stretching out on a solo and wherever it leads me, I hold back wanting to make sure I don't lose the band in the process. Indeed, there are times when I let fly an out-of-time stream of notes and the rhythm section falls apart or when I stretch things out, slow and low, and the band all but stops playing.

Third is the problem of chess pieces that occasionally decide to move on their own. For the most part, my bandmates are happy to defer to my expertise, specially when it comes to arranging. We craft arrangements developing a unique sound that really works for us. We work hard and long learning parts that make a song pop. We train. We rehearse. The song sounds awesome. Then, in the heat of performance, all the practicing and training goes the way of the positions held by a kids' soccer team. Everyone forgets his role and starts chasing after the ball. I find myself thinking, "why bother?"

Why Bother?
For some reason, feeling responsible, holding back and thinking "why bother?" compromised my experience of rehearsal. Go figure!

But no more. Over the past few weeks, I've continued in my role as expert, but I've stopped feeling responsible. Halleluja! It's not that I don't take responsibility, I just don't feel the obligation of it. I've also started to stretch out and take solos wherever they lead me, and it's been great. I playing stuff that I think is really good. Finally, in response to "why bother?", I stopped bothering. We still work out arrangements, but I don't spend time on parts that take an inordinate amount of time to learn. I don't try to "stretch" people (well, at least not too much), but instead provide each person a part within his or her ken.

All the above changes have made rehearsing just as much fun as performing, even more fun than performing. We've been having the best rehearsals ever!

Happy Tuesday,

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Just do it!

Aahhh!  I'm writing!  I've missed it.  I've spent so much time recently on functional writing, on editing previously written stuff, on critiquing other people's writing, on framing writing, on thinking about how to do the writing, when to write,.... argh!  I just sat here in front of the computer and thought: I want to write!  Immediately, I thought, what about?  then I thought, let's see what others are writing about.  2 lines into Tef's last blog and I recognised the procrastination tactic.  I made another choice.  I logged in and started to write.  Whew!  What a relief.  It feels wonderful to just decide to do something and do it, not think about when, how, if, is it practical, can I fit it, scheduling,...  Not that those aren't wonderful things to do, or even things I may benefit more from.  But it's great to just do it.

I realize that I spend a lot of time staging the things that I do, internally planning, figuring...  That can limit getting to the 'do it' part.  I notice that if I hesitate to start something, it's much harder to get going.  People see me as reasonably fast moving.  I do make decisions quickly when I make them.  The slow decisions, the ones that are slow because I've hesitated, paused for some reason, maybe even second guessed... those tend to go back on the shelf for another day.

Anyway, at the risk of my own recklessness, I'm jumping in.  I'm writing again, I'm acting on my thoughts (mostly), I'm being intentionally spontaneous!  I'm jumping in.

I wonder what I'll write about the next time I get around the computer.  You will probably find out a few minutes after I do!  Have a great day just doing it, whatever the it may be.  You know what it is.  Get to it.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Nieuwe Dag

Today's a brand new day, never been used before. We're not talking about a low milage, demo day; we're talk brand-spanking new.

So, before you go loading it up with all that stuff you've been accumulating in your past days, perhaps you want to pause a moment to consider, just how much you really need to carry forward. Let's face it, when it comes to days and stuff, well, to put it frankly, you're a bit of a hoarder. I know, it's hard to hear, but I've got to believe that deep down inside, you know it's true.

Your head's shaking 'no', but you eyes are saying, 'yes'.

Let me give you a couple of examples of things you've been hoarding (or should we say, 'collecting'?), things that you really don't need to bring with you on your move into this new day.

Hmmmm... Okay, first of all, there's that thing with you mom. You know what I'm talking about. How long you gonna keep carrying that from day to day to day.

And of course, there's that time you totally embarrassed yourself in front of everyone. You realize that no one but you even remembers the event. I wouldn't except that you bring it up pretty much every time you have an opportunity to try again.

And let's not forget all the bastards who've let you down. I mean, you've a whole shelf lined with them. I swear, you must need a couple packing crates just for those memories.

Hey, I've got a great idea. How about instead of looking through the entire collection deciding what to discard, we just make a list of what you're gonna keep. I mean, look how clean and spacious this new day is; there's no clutter whatsoever! What would you like to add to it that would make it perfect?

Happy Monday,