Thursday, June 21, 2012

Well-Practiced, Yet Terrible

Over the past few months (you may have already noticed this), I've been asking myself why it is that people who've repeatedly performed various tasks over an extended period of time are still terrible at performing them. They may not be terrible on an absolute scale, but certainly on a scale relative to the time invested in the task. In many instances, the terrible performers are well trained, even professional. Yet, their terribleness persists.

Last night I came to the conclusion that it has nothing to do with hours of practice, years of training, approach or methodology.  Sure, these all effect skill development and capability. Still, they're all insignificant relative to one thing: awareness

Let me give you an example. 

Last night as we rehearsed with No Room for Jello, I showed Butch some chord fingerings for a new tune. The chord fingerings were relatively simple as was the progression. Yet Butch, who is a capable guitar player, struggled to nail them down. 

During a break I sat with Butch and reviewed the chords one by one. Butch quickly replicated my fingerings and strummed the chords.  However, something didn't sound quite right to me. So I asked Butch to play each guitar string one-at-a-time. As he did, some strings wrang clearly, some buzzed and some were completely muted. So we slowed things down. Butch repeatedly played individual strings adjusting his hand and finger positions until every string wrang clearly.

It didn't take long. It wasn't in anyway difficult for Butch to do. In fact, it was quick and easy. Yet, it was something that he likely wouldn't have taken time to do had I not stopped him.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that Butch is a groove-player. He can lay down such a solid guitar groove that you don't need a drummer.  Groove players pay attention to rhythm and dynamics.  Pitch and note quality are of secondary importance (if any). With some tunes, Butch can place his fingers pretty much anywhere on the guitar neck and it sounds great. 

It all works until we play tunes that are more melody- and harmony-oriented. Butch can play these songs, but they sound, well, terrible. It's not a capacity or talent issue. It's a skill issue, one that can be easily remedied with time and practice. Yet, time and practice wouldn't matter if Butch's awareness were not to shift from rhythm and groove, to pitch and clarity.

As Butch and I discussed this, he was quick to pick up on what I was saying. He seemed to be aware of his lack of awareness in certain areas of playing. He described himself as a pattern player. He learns patterns (lots of them). If the pattern fits, it sounds great. If it doesn't, well...  

After rehearsal I thought, "Lots of patterns with limited awareness."

I think that's the core of it. Many of us learn by imitating patterns. Unfortunately, most teaching pedagogy involves explaining patterns to the students rather than providing opportunities for students to discover patterns. An explained pattern easily becomes one that's performed without awareness; a derived pattern requires awareness.  Sure, you can be aware when performing a pattern that's been taught to you, but you have to do so deliberately.

You can see this phenomenon of pattern-without-awareness in almost everything we do: making coffee, driving a car, jogging, performing math, counting change.

Without awareness, nothing else matters. Well, it can matter if your goal is to pass a class or get a job. It doesn't matter if your goal is to understand.

Happy Thursday,

P.S. Our band Will Power will be performing tonight in Manhattan at Otto's Shrunken Head, 538 East 14th Street. We go on at 10:30.

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