I was never very good at reading music.  I got very good at it in my forties.  Now I teach people how to do it.

 

Reading music is not, in and of itself, that hard.  There are very few symbols you have to know.  What makes it hard is how they are organized on the page.

 

I read a study called “How Abstract Is Symbolic Thought” by Libby and Goldstone.  In it they describe just how much of an impact the way something is visually laid out, like a math problem has on our ability to understand it.  That’s what makes reading music so hard.

 

Because there’s such a terrible disconnect between what we do with our eyes and our bodies in reading music, I would describe the learning process as actually painful.  It can make you feel worse than a failure, actually incompetent, incapable, idiotic.  The best thing to do is find an effective way to practice it, and endure that pain while you are learning.

 

Writing a book isn’t particularly hard either, from a mechanical point of view.  It’s just very, very slow.  I would describe the process this way: 

 

1) Write a little.  Repeat each day until the first draft is done.  2) Read the first draft.  Fix whatever needs fixing.  Repeat until you can no longer stand to read it.  3) Let other people read it.  Fix whatever sounds like it’s not working.  Repeat until you are sick of the process.

 

The fact is, often what’s hard isn’t the doing of the thing, but the pain you have to endure while doing the thing.  Walking on hot coals isn’t hard.  It just hurts (so I’ve heard)!

 

It’s a good idea to learn to tolerate discomfort, uncertainty, even a certain amount of pain.  Of course, the no-pain-no-gain idea is fraudulent.  Certainly you can put yourself in a lot of pain and not gain anything!

 

There’s a difference between the pain of enduring something versus the pain of being in an abusive learning situation.  You needn’t, and shouldn’t be going through that sort of pain.  If someone tries to convince you otherwise, you should probably get away from them.

 

It is helpful, though, to know what kind of pain or discomfort a certain situation is likely to require in order to get through it.  Biking up a mountain?  Expect sore legs, at least in training.

 

Knowing the extent of the difficulty, or at least the nature of it, can help with the endurance.  As a teacher, I tell my students when a particular learning situation, like scales, are going to be difficult.  All they have to do is be patient and keep returning to the task every day.

 

Playing scales isn’t particularly difficult once you understand exactly what the fingers are to do.   Getting your mind wrapped around the physicality of the task however can be the painfully boring and frustrating.  Being able to tolerate the discomfort of learning is the real skill I’m teaching them.

 

Have you found this blog painful to read?  Did you make it to the end?  Worth it?

 

 

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News From a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books

Five features this week, including a story about my wife and my songwriting in the print edition of Psychology Today.

You can see these and others on my press tab.

Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books.  Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life.  To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net

In a recent interview, I told someone that, at my age, I cared a lot less what people think of me, and a lot more about how we are interacting.  I was surprised by my own answer! 

Seasonal depression is a royal pain.  We’re supposed to be happy in all this darkness, and that somehow makes it worse.  As I’ve wrestled with my own doom-and-gloom demons these last couple of weeks, I’ve remembered three things that help me fight the good fight.

 

When young people get married, I think many of them choose their partners based on the idea that they’ve found someone they want to spend the rest of their lives with.  And that’s how they see their lives: as one thing, one big thing, that may have ups and downs but will always be essentially what they’re living now.  When old people get married, or remarried, they have a different idea.

 

As a creator I’ve always found it perplexing that I can create quality works of art and yet fail to get any attention from them.  If my song is great, shouldn’t it change the world?  What’s Bruce Springsteen got that I haven’t got?

I’ve spent the last thirty years learning how to write for the orchestra.  Considering that I’m probably never going to hear any of my orchestral pieces performed, it seems pointless to keep studying.  But it just taught me a surprising lesson.

Three Lessons Learned on Ice

 

The last time I went ice-skating I must have been 16 years old.  I never liked it, was never good at it.  I wasn’t eager to go when my boys asked me to take them on Saturday.

 

It was either that or watch them jump around at Sky Zone 45 minutes away, so I bit the bullet.  We drove down to Atlantic Station.  I got skates, put them on, and stumbled onto the ice.

 

The experience taught me three things.

My life now is better than it’s ever been.  Family, professional, personal.  For the first time in my life that I can remember, I can honestly say I’m happy.

 

It scares me.

One of the saddest facts of my life is that I do not look as cool as I feel.  I generally believe (on my good days) that I am incredibly charismatic.  Yet it’s been my experience that people who don’t know me tend to think I’m fairly ordinary.

 

Of course, once I do my thing folks tend to come around.  Doing solid, reliable work is the main reason.  Beyond that, the most important thing seems to be eye contact.

 

At some point in the last few centuries, some of us got this idea in our heads that music should be worshipped.  We started by worshipping musicians, especially composers like Handel, the first composer to be famous for being famous (he has remained famous because he’s great, by the way).  Then, because music notation improved, we began to worship pieces like Beethoven’s late String Quartets.

 

As the recording industry developed, we even started worshipping performances: legendary captured events like Robert Johnson’s first blues recordings, Duke Ellington’s performance at the Newport Festival, and then manufactured performances done with the help of the studio, from “Stairway to Heaven” to Glenn Gould’s wonderful Frankenstein-monster recordings.  A cappella choral, popular, “ethnic” music that used to be seen as “not serious” began to be worshipped too.  Is all of this okay?

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