Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dark Adaption, Obsessive Toasting, and The Best Trombonist in Akron

"This American Life" recently opened a show with Ira Glass reminiscing about his childhood magic performances. He wondered whether he was any good. He certainly felt good at the time. But maybe he wasn't. He wasn't sure.

I have the answer: yes. You were very good, Ira. Yet you were also awful.

Quality (in any realm) isn't gauged along a linear scale. It's exponential. "Great" is like 10,000,000 times better than "very good". To ratchet up by a mere notch is to traverse astronomical distances. So with the frets this far apart, one can completely suck compared to a great many people while still being quite good. It's a little like Italian geography; wherever you are, everything south of you is Southern Italy, and everything north of you is Northern Italy.

I once spent an afternoon hanging out with Akron's best trombonist.
For those who don't know: I was a busy freelance NYC musician for 15 years or so. While I certainly was no star, New York's the most competitive market for that sort of thing. "Make it here/make it anywhere", yadda yadda.
I was cordial and friendly, but inside I yawned as he explained, with great pride, how he was the guy who was called to play in the pit for local performances of traveling shows, or holiday chamber music in church. He rehearsed with the town's only big band at the VFW once per week, though gigs were few and far between. It all struck me as unrelatably moldy and small (though I certainly didn't reveal my true reaction). And when I heard him play, he seemed horrible. Poor tuning, no range, stuffy sound. With each note, I heard a dozen problems I was dying to help him fix. I forced myself to treat him with collegial respect. Hey, this was the best trombonist in Akron!

I didn't realize it then - it took me years to wrap my head around it - but he was actually good. He was a good, solid trombonist. Compared to a sophomore trombone student at some conservatory, he was good. Compared to an amateur, he was great. Compared to a beginner, he was a trombone god. But he was so much worse than what I was accustomed to that he was completely off my chart.

He was good and awful, both at the same time. With a spectrum so vast, it all depends on where you draw the line.

Our eyes' ability to adapt to darkness is remarkable. Once adjusted, they become nearly a million times more sensitive in low light than normal. It takes 20 minutes to complete this adjustment because it's such a vast shift. This is to say: our range of light sensitivity is so enormous that we can only approach it in discrete chunks; special measures are required to distinguish beyond a given chunk.

Remember how last month I confessed that my completely obsessive approach to toasting was still slack-assed compared to top chefs? Gauging quality, given the complete lack of absolute markers, is tricky. But actually producing quality - at a level that's high up the curve of declining results - is monstrously hard (that's why it's rare).

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