Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Incompetence is the Father of Skill

Once again I'm getting back into shape on trombone after a lengthy pause. This is the sixth or seventh time since leaving Chowhound (the first, repairing a ten year gap, was a massive undertaking). Deja Deja Deja Deja Deja Deja vu.

The problem is that in the old days, I'd play ten hours per day - gigs, rehearsals, jam sessions, private study. So I was perpetually ready. Now, I'm perpetually unready, i.e. perpetually striving to restore myself to some semblance of what I once considered good form. One of the central themes of this Slog is the ultra fine line between artistic commitment and obsession. If people knew the excesses that go into producing inspiring results, they'd be less inspired and more disgusted. Beethoven composed in a diaper. That's really all you need to know.

I'm no longer awed by the diaper thing, and I've danced till I've dropped in the red shoes...and I've also not gone to such lengths. I've bounced my whole life between rediscovering the benefits of investing ungodly care....and wondering why my results aren't so great. Even at this late date, I still must constantly be reminded that mere superhuman effort is for pikers.

As a trombonist, I exist in an awkward state of ambivalence, wanting to be a musician but unable to sustain the absolute single-mindedness that made me the player I once was. I'm always aspiring to a comeback; always dragging the boulder up the hill, only to watch it inexorably slide back down.



But there are benefits to finding oneself in a constant state of overhaul: you learn how it all works, and are gifted with recipes for the secret sauces. An example:

It is not natural to press a narrow circle of metal against one's mouth for many hours per day. It can cut into the flesh and push back the front teeth. You must apply enormous strength, wind, and force while holding this large hunk of metal like a delicate lily at one's chops. It's hard.

One of the essentials is that you need to "plant" the mouthpiece on the lower lip. This frees up the upper lip to stay delicate and do lots of free vibrating. To anchor on the top lip is self-defeating. It squelches those all-important vibrations. The instrument becomes hard to play, and you lose your high range.

So for the past week the instrument has been hard to play, and I've lost my high range. Low and behold, I noticed that I'm anchoring on the top lip. If I were a computer, I'd reprogram and be done with it. Stop doing the bad thing, start doing the good thing, voila. But alas, we sloppy meatbags are logy on the uptake. So I've had to correct myself 10,000 times. Not the top lip, the bottom lip. Nope, that's top lip. You're doing it again. Bottom lip! Nope, that's top lip again. By hectoring myself day and night, eventually I'll learn.

But why do I do it the wrong way in the first place? It's not comfortable, and it doesn't work. How does the habit creep in? There's a clue: any musician (or anyone who's perfected a skill) can tell you that under stress, bad habits come flooding back. Put me on a big stage in front of 1000 people, and I'll have an especially juicy inclination to anchor on the top lip, kill the vibrations, and sound like crap.

Why? Because it feels like comfort. But why would an uncomfortable and ineffective method feel like "comfort"? Should't "comfort" stem from the choice that brings the happy result? Isn't that how human psychology - positive reinforcement, etc. - is supposed to work?

No. "Wrong" is comfort. "Wrong" is home. "Right" is what we do when we're dressed in our starchy best, with rigid good posture, while "wrong" is the spine-harming slouch we assume when allowed to stand "at ease". The choices that hurt and that don't work are the soil our ambitions must fight and grow through to fulfill themselves. Just as the child is the father of the man, incompetence is the father of skill.

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