My bucket list is mostly filled with bite-sized candy bars from which large candy houses can be built if I collect enough bites.
One such snacky bar is: playing the synth lead from “Subdivisions”, which I’ve wanted to play since 1982, and which I’ve been able to play since a few weeks ago.
I’ve been noodling with keyboard instruments since 1985, and in that time I’ve spent about three months learning how, which ain’t enough. I am overjoyed to be figuring some things out now, but I’m also uncomfortably aware of why it’s taken so long. Owning a good synth helps a *lot*, and having time to focus, but there’s another factor.
Specifically, it’s about fingers.
The brain can grasp a basic concept and reassemble the puzzle pieces as needed, but the fingers can’t solve complex problems in real time. The fingers need to step through the process many times – repeating not only the melody, but the exact movements which produce the melody. The body needs practice even when the brain does not.
I’ve always understood that practice was vitally important, but somehow it never occurred to me that practice meant repeating the same movements in the same way to produce the same result. Practice grows *more* valuable as it feels *less* valuable. The brain’s dashboard light flashes “I’m wasting my time” at precisely the moment when real practice begins.
I’m sure this is painfully obvious to many, but it’s strangely counterintuitive for me. It’s as if my fingers were my ten kids and I was determined to let them learn to solve problems on their own. I’ve been the “parent” whose children are living in a Lord of the Flies nightmare while I assume they’re getting along fine.
They might succeed, of course, or they might adopt the worst possible habits – or they might do both, only to remain forever convinced that their terrible habits are the key to success.
So after 30x years of keyboard noodling, I’m finally identifying specific fingers to play specific keys to produce specific melodies. Turns out it works better that way.
*****
Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
This quote tells us a little about technology, and a lot about how humans learn to understand the world. When no mechanism is apparent, it’s easy to assume no mechanism exists.
Mystery feels rich and valuable. The trick may lose its charm, it seems, if we learn it works.
We’re drawn to what is unique in people. We may say a comedian is “naturally funny”, or “you can’t teach that stuff”. It feels insulting and dismissive to suggest that what the audience sees is anything but a divine gift.
So we might reshape Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently developed skill is mistaken for talent.”
Talent lets us off the hook. Talent celebrates the individual and gives most of us a convenient excuse to hide behind.
*****
Most keyboard players move their hands as little as possible. Somehow I’d always assumed that keyboard players had a sense of where each key was and could find it in the dark while jogging during an earthquake, and that I simply hadn’t practiced enough. Some players do stab at the keys, of course, but for the most part the fingers know where the next note is because neither the hand nor the note has moved since the last time they played those two notes together.
A surfer floats on droplets of water, but we say the surfer is riding the *wave* made up of those droplets. Fingers on a keyboard move in carefully shaped waves, doing together what they could not do separately. My right ring finger isn’t dexterous or self-motivated – it would fail every job interview – but I can’t play an A7 without it. The strongest individual and the weakest individual are both more useful when they work as part of a larger whole.
*****
The book “Mindset” explores the difference between “I was born smart & talented” and “I developed my skills through study and hard work”.
The book’s revelation is that those who believe they were born with a fixed level of intelligence or talent (the “fixed” mindset) naturally learn to hide their weaknesses, since even the slightest failure seems to reveal a damning, fundamental, and permanent flaw. This refusal to acknowledge one’s own ignorance makes learning impossible, and the vital habits of patience and humility are often replaced by denial and hostility when the unflattering truth is exposed.
The most extreme and dangerous example of the “fixed” mindset, and the pitiful behavior which results from it, is the current President of the United States.
The “growth” mindset, by contrast, holds that we are each only as smart and talented as our study and hard work have made us. From this perspective, failure is a learning opportunity; mistakes are natural and, in the proper context, extremely valuable.
*****
Practice might be valuable but not *feel* valuable. A habit might be valuable but not *feel* valuable. A person might be valuable but not *feel* valuable.
But it’s worth asking. If I’m a finger, what hand am I part of? What music is this hand playing? How can I contribute, coordinate, shape, refine, simplify?
How can we make better music together?
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