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,

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