What I’ve been doing

If anyone’s been paying close attention (and, really, there are far better things to do), they’d have noticed that I’ve been tweeting a lot less lately and have blogged well below my historical rate for some time. So, what the hell have I been doing?

Putting aside that work got busier, which is true, I have been doing something else in my non-work time. I’ve been playing and thinking about playing trumpet. A lot. Turns out there’s a generalizable lesson in this experience, which I’ll get to.

I did a ton with the trumpet growing up, starting at age 10. It was a big part of my life and opened a lot of interesting doors. I played at a presidential inaugural ball with my high school jazz band, in Carnegie Hall with a youth orchestra, and traveled to the Soviet Union (1986) with another orchestra.

Despite these appearances of success, it was my summer at Interlochen that convinced me I had no business making an attempt at a profession in music. The talent there was astounding. As good as I was, or thought I was, I could not compete. Not to do so was not a hard decision. I had plenty of other interests.

And yet, this instrument is very important to me. I feel my best playing and having played. That makes practice easy. It’s not a chore. It’s therapy. Everything else, from cerebral concerns to physical ones melt away. This is only something I’m noticing now, at least consciously. Maybe it also happened when I was younger and I wasn’t fully aware of it. Maybe that’s why I worked so hard at it.

After more than a decade of barely playing — during which I started a family and blogged my brains out — I decided to return to the horn in a serious way about a year ago. I took lessons. With few exceptions, I’ve practiced every day, as much as my feeble facial muscles could stand.

It didn’t take long to discover that the limitations I had as a kid — the ones that, in part, convinced me not to go pro — were still there. I hit the same walls.

But I’m smarter now. I know that if there is an apparent limit to how well I can do something it’s almost certainly because I’m not doing it in the right way, not because I’ve hit some natural, innate limit. This is the big lesson from Anders Ericsson’s work, what I learned from his book Peak (highly recommended). Yes, you have to put in the work (this is the much misunderstood 10,000 hours “rule”), but there’s something else required to push through apparent limits.

Part of the process of doing so is to question basic assumptions. What the evidence was telling me was that some approaches I took to playing were wrong. No amount of doing it more would help. I had to do it differently.

I researched trumpet playing in a way I never could have as a kid. The internet is a fantastic thing! I got tons of ideas, the best ones from my teacher. I experimented. I spent time in front of a mirror finding facial muscles I had trouble activating. In meetings I practiced subtly moving just those muscles. This is subtle enough that few would notice.

Meanwhile, I suffered two massive collapses of ability in the last year, playing quite well (for me) one week to hardly being able to play at all for weeks after. These were clear signs I was doing something or some things wrong.

And then finally, I figured it out (again, with help). I won’t bore you with the details, but do want to make a point about this: there are very subtle things about how facial muscles are used that are nearly impossible to discern visually or, sometimes (and in my case) even by how one sounds. You’ve got to do some pretty creative things and a lot of experimentation to figure out what’s wrong and how to do what’s right.*

That’s the bigger point. To keep getting better at something like this, and anything, really, is a creative process. You have to find ways to break through the plateaus. Sometimes it means you have to unlearn bad habits, even ones you didn’t realize were bad. At some point brute force doesn’t work. You have to find another way in. Smashing your head against a wall has its uses, but it’s not the right tool all the time or even most of the time.

This, to me, is the deeply fascinating part of the story, and the generalizable part. It starts with the simple lesson that if after substantial effort something isn’t going right, do it differently. It’s not the world. It’s you.

Naturally, which of the infinite different ways is not clear. If it were, you’d already be doing it. Very likely the right way is one of the different ways that you’ve never conceived, that you don’t even think is possible. Finding the almost unfindable is where the creativity is.

It’s also hard, which is why a teacher is important. Still, there’s a ton one has to do on one’s own. So long as your ego is not involved (i.e., you don’t judge yourself badly for not having found the secret yet), this is pretty fun and interesting … at least for me … and a lot more so than Twitter of late.

* For my fellow brass/wind players, I have to acknowledge that embouchure is not the entire ball game. Naturally, there’s a lot about breathing one has to get right too. I’m putting that aside because that wasn’t the big wall I was hitting. But, yes, I’ve learned a lot about breathing too.


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