Breakthrough #2: You gotta have a plan

Listening to: Bye Bye Blackbird. Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

About a week ago, I came across an editorial by David Brooks about learning patterns. I read David Brooks regularly, wouldn’t call myself a “fan,” but appreciate Brooks’ ability to make me think about things in a different way. Plus, after hearing him speak in Dallas several years ago about growing up in New York City, playing in Central Park as a kid, and the importance of urban green spaces, I have a soft spot for the guy.

So the editorial. Learning patterns. Brooks was summarizing an essay by Scott Young, a blogger who writes about “how to get more out of life.” In his post, Young says that there are different kinds of learning curves, logarithmic, exponential, etc. Big words that probably describe profound concepts. But the point that stood out to me, the great reminder, was that learning things that matter takes time and the process isn’t a straight line with constant, consistent progress.

I remember when I first started writing fiction and was frustrated by how bad at it I was. I had no idea how to begin a story, tended toward Lifetime Movie melodrama, and wallowed in upholstery descriptions without ever building a plot. When I moaned about this to a wise friend, she asked me, “How long have you been studying piano?” “Twenty years,” I said. “Are you ready to play Carnegie Hall,” she asked, and I told her, “no.” “How long have you been writing stories, about 3 months?” she asked. Then she told me, “You need to give yourself time to learn.”

In my jazz lesson this morning, I started by telling my teacher that I was in a whiny mood, that I’d made no progress over the week and hated my Dog Song. She must have heard the despair in my voice, because she said, “You sat at the piano and felt overwhelmed.” Which was exactly what had happened. I’d hit one of those horrible plateaus and didn’t know how to get a jumpstart. She said, “Let’s break it down. I’ll play the bass, and you do the top.” And then I took over the piano on my own and worked on using my left thumb while I improvised with my right hand.

This all sounds remedial. Ridiculous to someone who can play well. But for a beginner, a critical thing to learn is what to do when you get stuck. Because staring at the piano gets you nowhere. You have to have a plan when you sit down to practice. This is something my classical piano teacher in Dallas would tell me, that you have to know how to practice. And she would often ask me at the start of my lesson, “How did you practice this week? Show me what you did.”

That was the flash of blinding light this week. That I have to have a plan. Sitting at the piano, playing around without a specific goal in mind gets you nowhere. And if you’re like me, you’ll park yourself someplace comfortable, instead of pushing yourself to discover something new. I need to tell myself when I sit down, “For the next 15 minutes, I’m going to work on X.” Really focus on one or two challenges that can take me forward. Sometimes that means isolating. Spending time on improvising at the top while just walking the bass to keep time. So that’s the plan for this week. Working on my right hand with a simple bass, and exploring movement with my left hand by moving my thumb around.

Here’s my non-me discovery for the week: Eliane Elias. Love the Brazilian stuff. And she’s coming to Jazz Alley in Seattle in September. Eu estarei lá.

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