Too Smart for My Own Good

Origi­nally posted at sandy­maguire.me

I want to share a piece of ridicu­lously ob­vi­ous ad­vice to­day.

I’ve got a bad habit, which is be­ing too smart for my own good. Which is to say, when I want to learn some­thing new, too of­ten I spend my time mak­ing tools to help me learn, rather than just learn­ing the thing.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the first time I tried to learn how to play jazz mu­sic.

There’s only one thing that I’m re­ally good at, which is pro­gram­ming. The cen­tral tenet in pro­gram­ming is that “laz­i­ness is good,” and if you’re faced with do­ing some­thing bor­ing and repet­i­tive, you should in­stead au­to­mate that thing away.

When all you have is a ham­mer...

Ac­cord­ing to The Book, the first thing to do to learn jazz is to learn your scales—in ev­ery mode for ev­ery key for sev­eral va­ri­eties of har­mony. There are 12 notes, and seven modes, and at least four har­monies. That’s what, like 336 differ­ent scales to learn?

“WHO HAS TIME FOR ALL THAT CRAP,” I thought. “I’LL JUST WRITE A COMPUTER PROGRAM TO GENERATE THE SCALES FOR ME, AND THEN PLAY THOSE.”

In ret­ro­spect, this was a ter­rible plan. Not only did it not get me closer to my goal of know­ing how to play jazz mu­sic, I also didn’t know enough about the do­main to suc­cess­fully model it. It’s funny to read back through that blog post with the benefit of hind­sight, but at the time I re­ally thought I was onto some­thing!

That’s not to say it was wasted effort nor that it was use­less, merely that it wasn’t ac­tu­ally mov­ing me closer to my stated goal of be­ing able to play jazz mu­sic. It was scratch­ing my itch for men­tal mas­tur­ba­tion, and was a good ex­er­cise in at­tempt­ing to model things I don’t un­der­stand very well, but cru­cially, it wasn’t helping.

Or take an­other ex­am­ple, a more re­cent foray into mu­sic for me—only a few weeks ago. This time I had more of a plan; I was tak­ing pi­ano les­sons and get­ting ad­vice on how to prac­tice from my teacher. One of the things he sug­gested I do was to solo around in the minor pen­ta­tonic scale. And so I did, start­ing in C, and (ten­ta­tively) mov­ing to G.

But do­ing it in Bb was hard! Rather than spend the two min­utes that would be re­quired to work out what notes I should play in the Bb minor pen­ta­tonic, I de­cided it would be bet­ter to write a com­puter pro­gram! This time it would con­nect to my key­board and “listen” to the notes I played, and flash red when­ever I played a note that wasn’t in the Bb minor pen­ta­tonic. I guess the rea­son­ing was “I’ll train my­self to play the right notes sub­con­sciously.” Or some­thing.

I spent like 15 hours writ­ing this com­puter pro­gram.

This at­tempt was ar­guably more helpful than my first com­puter pro­gram, but again, it’s a pretty fuck­ing round­about way of ac­com­plish­ing the goal. Here we are, four weeks later, and I still don’t know how to noo­dle around in the Bb minor pen­ta­tonic.

Like I said. Too smart for my own good.

There’s a happy end­ing to this story, how­ever. Ear­lier this week, I de­cided I was go­ing to ac­tu­ally learn how to play jazz mu­sic. So I started read­ing The Book again, and when I got to the scale ex­er­cises, I de­cided I’d just give them a go. No com­put­ers. Just the bor­ing, repet­i­tive stuff it said would make me a great jazz mu­si­cian.

The book even gave me some sug­ges­tions on how to min­i­mize the amount of ex­er­cises I need to do—rather than play­ing ev­ery mode in ev­ery key (eg. C io­nian, then G io­nian, then A io­nian, etc etc un­til it’s time to play do­ri­ans), in­stead to play C io­nian fol­lowed by D do­rian fol­lowed by E phry­gian. Th­ese scales all share the same notes, so they’re more-or-less the same thing, which means I ac­tu­ally only need to prac­tice 12 things, rather than 84 (the other 250 can like­wise be com­pressed to­gether.)

If I had been pa­tient, I would have read that PRO-TIP the first time around. It prob­a­bly wouldn’t have helped me make less-”smart” de­ci­sions, but it’s worth keep­ing in mind that I could be two years ahead of where I am to­day if I were bet­ter at keep­ing my eye on the ball.

One of the scales the book made me do was Ab ma­jor—some­thing I’d liter­ally never once played in my twenty years of pi­ano. It started on a black note and always felt too hard to ac­tu­ally do. I ap­proached it with trep­i­da­tion, but re­al­ized that it only took about three min­utes to figure out.

The thing I’d been putting off for twenty years out of fear only took three min­utes to ac­com­plish.

I’ve of­ten won­dered why it seems like all of the good mu­si­ci­ans have been play­ing their in­stru­ments for like 25 years. Surely mu­sic can’t be that hard—you can get pretty fuck­ing good at most things in six months of ded­i­cated study. But in the light of all of this, it makes sense. If ev­ery­one learns mu­sic as hap­haz­ardly as I’ve been do­ing it, it’s no won­der that it takes us all so long.

What have you been putting off out of fear? Are you sure it’s as hard as it seems?