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,

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