In Which My Problem-Solving Skills Turn Out to be Cross-Disciplinary

Nicole Dieker almost called this one “revising a novel is the process of going from guessing to knowing.

The thing is that I don’t think I’d be able to revise this novel — or any novel — if I hadn’t spent the past year learning how to solve problems at the piano.

I’d always had a top-level problem when it came to novel-revision, and it’s that I did the majority of the “work” before I ever started writing any of the story. I’m the kind of writer who will create a very detailed chapter breakdown and a character breakdown before starting the first draft, which is to say that I write the book before I write the book, which means that if you were to tell me “I think you need to rework Chapter 2,” I would say “you mean I need to rework the entire manuscript, because every individual element in Chapter 2 is there for a reason and is connected to everything that comes before and after it.”

There is very little waste, in my prose.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems.

The problems, in this current draft, are similar to the problems I’m experiencing in the third movement of Mozart K332. It’s not the problem of getting words on the page; that’s the problem I’m dealing with right now as I learn the Bach Ricercar a 6 (“getting words on the page” being roughly equivalent to “getting notes in fingers”). It’s the problem of having many, many good words on the page and several words that are just good enough.

Which, if you heard me play K332 right now, you might say “good job.”

But if you heard me play that Chopin Nocturne that I’ve been working on for twice as long, you might say “wow, you had absolute command of your performance and were making specific, distinct choices throughout the entire piece.”

I mean, you probably wouldn’t say that. L would, because he’s a piano teacher. You might just say “wow.”

The difference between good job and wow comes down to problem-solving.

And the thing is — and this is what I didn’t understand, before this year — is that you can actually solve every problem in a piece of piano music, as long as you are willing to put in the time and the effort and don’t have an external deadline (like a recital) pressuring you to cut a few corners.

I always assumed that there would be a few measures in each piece that would always be clunky or awkward or nerve-wracking, simply because the music was “hard” or I had “small hands” or whatever.

This has not turned out to be the case. L and I have come up with a solution for every problem we’ve found in Mozart K332, whether it’s changing the fingering or making sure the fourth finger doesn’t collapse at the first knuckle or shaping the phrase towards its final note.

Which means that I can also come up with a solution for every problem I have in my current draft, whether it’s a clunky sentence or an awkward transition, without having to rework the entire plot from scratch.

I mean, we don’t rewrite Mozart just because we can’t play one of the passages.

And I don’t have to rewrite my entire book just because one of its passages isn’t as solid as it could be.

I just have to figure out what the problem is — not a general “this doesn’t work,” but a specific reason why it isn’t working, just like I do at the piano — and then fix it.

Which I can do, because I’ve spent the past year learning how to do it. ❤️

p.s. in case you’re having trouble deciphering that header image, it reads “truth in a novel is the same as accuracy at the piano,” and the reason I crossed it out is because that’s my way of identifying that I’ve taken an idea out of my notebook and put it somewhere else.

Form Check

Last night L and I were talking about cross-disciplinary work, and how committing to multiple practices (that is to say, polymathery) can strengthen everything you practice.

Which, naturally, got us talking about Stronglifts 5×5.

“Lifting weights feels a lot more like practicing the piano than doing those online chess lessons,” I tried to explain. “With weights, it’s the same kind of physical work — you’ve got this movement that you want to execute, and you need to focus on precision and form and specificity and breath and hand position and everything else because otherwise you can hurt yourself.”

I am sure I took a breath at that point, and then made another one:

“I mean, you can be a lot less precise about form on the piano, and a lot of us are sloppy about form because we aren’t in quite as much danger of hurting ourselves, though you could still damage your wrists and everything else long-term if you aren’t careful. With weights, you have to try to achieve perfect form every time.”

And then, of course, the obvious realization:

“What if I tried to achieve perfect form on the piano, every time?”

So that’s what I did this morning. It was, as you can expect, a completely different practice. Committing to perfect form — not letting my wrists gank up, not letting my fingers flatten, avoiding that first-knuckle collapse that always happens if you aren’t thoughtful about key-strike and follow-through — made an unbelievable difference in my playing.

Here, you can see it to believe it:

This Chopin performance is the most specific I’ve ever been, and because of that it’s also the most emotionally compelling. Every note lands because I am focused on landing it with perfect form, and I’ve kept just enough of the “playing the piece as if I were discovering each note for the first time” (which I kind of am, since I am essentially discovering a new way of playing each note) that it sounds fresh and — pun intended — striking.

There are a few situations in which my first knuckles still collapse, but those are rare enough that you’ll have to watch very carefully for them. Compare this Chopin to the one I recorded last month, which is a decent performance but, like, half of those top knuckles are weebling and wobbling and falling down:

Working towards perfect form makes a difference.

It all makes a difference.

Which means that I’m going to have to — gladly, willingly — work at making that difference every time I practice the piano.

And, since I’m committed to multiple practices, figure out what the equivalent of “perfect form” is when I play chess. (My guess is that it has something to do with “always knowing the best move,” though I’m nowhere near that level of play yet.) ❤️

Art Is Where Knowing Meets Not-Knowing

Nicole Dieker is struggling with her composition work — it’s all guessing and fumbling, right now — but she knows that once she identifies the specific problems with her current draft, she’ll be able to start solving them.

Last night, L and I were talking about a hypothetical computer program that could use neural nets and machine learning to compose music that would sound both “organic” (L’s word, I take numerous issues) and satisfying.

The kind of music that keeps you engaged the entire time, because it’s got the perfect balance of tension and release, exposition and development and recapitulation.

The kind of music that could be customized to your personal tastes and previous music-listening experience, since it’s fair to say that people who have spent years listening to a lot of different kinds of music occasionally prefer more complicated compositions than people who haven’t listened to as much music (or as many varieties of music).

The kind of music that could be programmed, if we so chose, to amplify or quell whatever emotion you are currently feeling.

So, all right, let’s create ComposerBot.

(Let’s also acknowledge that this is in no way an original idea; the machine that can generate original music to please every unique listener has appeared in more than one book, and I’m trying to remember if it appears in the Magicians trilogy.)

If ComposerBot exists, what becomes of human composers?

The most obvious answer is that any humans who want to take up music composition do so on a strictly amateur and home-based basis; it’d sort of be like painting a picture for your sweetheart, even though you know there are hundreds of professional artists (and, if we’re taking this sci-fi future to its obvious derivation, an ArtistBot) who can do what you’re doing way better than you can.

Or it might be like baking a loaf of homemade bread.

Or learning how to play chess, even though the computers will always play chess better than us.

The point is — as L and I argued — that there would be no need for professional (that is, hired-and-paid) human composers if ComposerBot existed. Pop stars and symphony orchestras and film directors could all give their specs to ComposerBot and immediately receive the perfect composition for their needs — and yes, there would still be pop stars, there’s still value in “everyone singing the same summer jam” even if you can simultaneously ask ComposerBot to create your own customized summer jam, plus pop stars aren’t just popular for their musical talent.

(Arguably there’s a sci-fi-future in which PopStarBot would create some kind of AI that was, like, a customized pop star who met every single one of your emotional and parasocial needs, and also you could hang out with that pop star in your house the way you’ve always dreamed about hanging out with Taylor Swift or whatever, but if everyone has their own pop star then there’s no value in having access to a popular person.)

So we kept talking about this, what would exist and what wouldn’t exist if ComposerBot existed, and then I said something that I’ve been thinking about ever since:

“So this computer program would, like, know everything. It would have the entire history of music, from all eras and cultures, at its disposal — I mean, if you did it right, it wouldn’t just know music, it would know everything there is to know about people, too. And the world.”

And then I literally shouted, in the car:

“IS ART BECAUSE PEOPLE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING ABOUT THE WORLD YET, AND THEY’RE TRYING TO SHARE WHAT THEY’VE JUST LEARNED?”

I mean, people have always created art at the edges of their abilities, and art that pushes at the edges of what we have seen and experienced before, and art that attempts to try to communicate a new idea.

People have also created “art” that is well within their abilities, and we often call that art “tired” or “hackneyed” or “derivative” or “not as good as their previous work.”

Art, perhaps, is where the knowing pushes up against the not-knowing.

Where the cliff meets the leap.

Where the new idea is shared, because it’s so new and exciting and never-thought-by-you-before (or by-anyone-else-you-can-think-of) that you can’t not share it.

Where a new problem is created and then solved, with the acknowledgment (as is always the case, when you make something new and very close to the limit of what you can do) that it isn’t necessarily the definitive solution; that there’s still something left for the artist and the audience to consider together.

The art that pops out like “oh, here it is, here’s exactly what you were expecting,” is closer to what ComposerBot might make.

Because ComposerBot knows everything already, so it doesn’t have to create anything. ❤️

On Mozart, Memory, Confidence, and Dreams

Nicole Dieker isn’t sure “original” is the right word to use at the end of this blog post, but she can’t think of a better one.

Yesterday morning, I recorded the Mozart Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332 in full, so here you go:

Here’s what you might notice, if you watched the whole thing:

It’s obvious that I have the technical capacity to play this sonata. For better or worse, it is learned.

The next step is to work on the mental capacity. If you paid attention to the kinds of mistakes I was making during the piece, you might have noticed that they were either memory glitches, which can be warded off with continued practice, or confidence glitches, which can’t.

What do I mean by “confidence glitches?” Basically, anything my brain does that actively gets in the way of my performing with confidence. For example:

  • Awww, that didn’t come out the way you wanted it to, now you aren’t going to get a perfect performance! LET’S THINK ABOUT THAT INSTEAD OF EVERYTHING YOU’RE PLAYING RIGHT NOW
  • Wow, you played that really well the first time, here it comes again, bet you’re going to mess it up! OH LOOK, YOU DID
  • Here comes the ending, better not mess up the ending, you always play something wrong right at the end! GUESS WHAT YOU JUST DID IT AGAIN

There is only one thing I’ve figured out that actively works against confidence glitches, and that’s playing as if I were pulling the music out of my dreams. Yes, I am 100% borrowing that phrase from Maggie Stiefvater’s novels, the idea was all hers, and the way I am choosing to interpret it as I play the piano is essentially “This is a piece of music that I am creating, from its point of origin, that will now exist in the world for the first time. I will imagine every detail, exactly as I want it to sound, exactly as I want it to connect with the audience, before I manifest it. Anything could happen, but as long as I stay focused on each individual detail in turn, each new, original choice will come out exactly the way I mean it to.”

So, because I was extremely dissatisfied with yesterday’s recording, this morning I recorded the second movement of Mozart K332 as if I were pulling it out of my dreams.

Here’s what you might notice about this performance:

There are no memory lapses.

There are no confidence glitches.

There are three clunkers; that is, three moments in which my fingers don’t land precisely where I intend them to, but the reason behind each error isn’t memory or confidence or lack of knowledge or unsolved-problemry. It’s more like having your fingers slip on a doorknob, and no, I don’t know how to solve for clunkers yet. (Probably more practice and more performances.)

My interpretation might be a bit indulgent. This performance balances focus and feelings, which is probably a good thing, but you know at least one person is going to sit there and think “Well, Mozart never would have played it like that…”

To which, I mean, we don’t really know how Mozart would have played it.

Also, I just finished that Charles Rosen essay (in Piano Notes) in which he argues for the merits of original interpretation over historical recreation.

But sure, anyone who lingers on a note because they like it, or because they’re deep within their dreamspace and haven’t fully manifested the next musical phrase yet, is going to be called indulgent.

I’m not sure why.

(Probably something to discuss with L this evening.)

Now you can tell me which of the recordings you liked best, and how you deal with confidence glitches or memory lapses or clunkers, and whether or not you think Mozart would have played it any of the ways in which I am currently playing Mozart. ❤️

On Music, Memory, and Stamina

Nicole Dieker is writing this before she records the Mozart, and has no idea yet how it’s going to turn out.

I don’t know if you’ve gotten to read RW’s comment on the different types of memorization, but 1) you should and 2) here’s an excerpt:

In a martial art I used to do, first I learnt the shape of the kata, and then the detail of the kata and then the feeling behind the kata. And maybe one and two are memorisation, but then how does that explain the gap between knowing what I should be able to do, and being able to make my body move in the way that I wanted? The feeling behind the kata is something more intuitive, and related to understanding (memorising?) the application of the kata, but not quite the same.

I recently started reading Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes, and he describes a similar process — first you do the “where do fingers go” work, then you solve the technical problems, and then you begin to turn the piece into music.

That last part is intuitive, though it is also based on skill; knowing how a specific gesture translates to the audience, for example, both in terms of “how it changes the shape of the musical phrase” and “how your body language contributes to the musical experience.”

So.

I mean, yes.

But.

The trouble I’m having right now, especially with my 30-minute Mozart sonata, is sustaining the music-making through the entire piece of music.

It takes a lot of effort to play something, not only in the technical sense but also in the “feeling behind the kata” sense — you might remember that a while ago I wrote a blog post about the idea that you have to practice playing, and that’s what I keep trying to do with Mozart K332 and that’s what I keep not completely doing.

I’ll start out playing — that is, I’ll start out trying to make music, create an experience for the listener, draw a line from Mozart to me to you, make sure you hear every note as it is played, manipulate each element until it becomes magical, etc. etc. etc..

Then, without even realizing it, I’ll drop out. My hands will keep going, because the music is technically memorized (emphasis on technically), but I’ll have started thinking about something other than the experience I’m trying to create.

In some cases, I won’t be thinking about anything at all; the old “I just drove home without noticing or remembering any part of the drive” thing.

And the thing is that THE AUDIENCE CAN TELL.

I know, because they’ve told me.

So I’m working on stamina right now — and since I like to show my work, here is the second movement of Mozart K332:

A few notes (pun always, always intended):

  • Yes, that skirt is vintage.
  • I picked this movement to record because it was the shortest, and because I was hoping that I would successfully be able to sustain my music-making focus for the entire piece.
  • I did the full-body recording (as opposed to my usual method of recording in which I put my phone directly on the piano) to see if there was any difference in my posture, gestures, etc. between moments of strong focus and moments of weaker/absent focus.
  • There does not appear to be any significant physical difference between my strongest and weakest focus moments. In fact, there were only about four seconds in which I considered myself “unfocused,” and I dare you to find them.
  • That said, the performance seems to lean more towards focus maintenance than it does towards play. I’m having a very intense time, as you can probably tell.
  • I do think I was successful at “playing the music as if I wanted to create an experience.” I was about to say that I thought I was successful at actually creating that experience but you’ll have to tell me if that’s true (since the only thing that’s real between two people, including performers and audience members, is what they create together)
  • There are two technical errors, which you can probably find without my daring you to, and I know exactly why I made both of them. Each time, I was focusing on something besides “playing the ornament as cleanly as possible,” and since those two problems aren’t fully solved yet, my brain wasn’t able to provide the Level 2 Memorization required to execute the ornaments accurately.

That said, I’m very happy with what today’s performance is — and very interested to see where I could take this sonata over the next month or so, as I continue to work memorization, problem-solving, specificity, focus, experience-making, and play. ❤️

Thursday As

On Tuesday, I listed a handful of Qs — I don’t have all of the As yet (and don’t expect to have anything close to them for a while), but this quote from Virginia Woolf (via James Clear’s newsletter) seems like a good place to start:

There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.

As you might remember, my two big Qs for Tues were:

When do you share your art with others, even though doing so could mean accepting that part of it isn’t where it should be yet? Does it make a difference if your creative art is fixed (a book, a painting) vs. created anew each time (a performance)?

Is the experience of reading/viewing/listening to art a process or a product? Is it a process from the audience member’s end and a product from the creator’s end? Can it be a process from the creator’s end, even if the created item is fixed (a book, a painting) vs. created anew each time (a performance)?

After reading that Virginia Woolf quote, it might be reasonable to hypothesize that:

Real works of art are process-based, in the sense that you go through the process of experiencing them every time you interact with them. Real works of art are also process-based in the sense that there is always more to process; if the artist and the audience are both bringing their best to the work, then the possibilities of experiencing something new during each successive interaction are close to infinite.

This means that real art is not complete until every part of it is precisely where it should be. You can share your art before it is complete, and you can use what you learn during that sharing to complete your art — but if you are trying to create the kind of art that remains alive through subsequent interactions, there can’t be any dead spots in it.

Those are the As I needed to give myself today.

How about you? ❤️

Tuesday Qs

It’s Tuesday — and, since despite the four-day workweek (for some people) I still have six freelance assignments to complete by Friday, we’re keeping today’s blog post relatively short.

Here are a few of the Qs in my queue:

When do you say I’m ready to share this with people, even if it means also saying I accept that I’m giving up the possibility of these trills being as even as they could be?

With music, at least, you have the option of saying I’m ready to start sharing this with people, with the understanding that a hundred performances from now these trills will be even more even.

What about with writing? I’m ready to share this with people, even though I accept that I’m giving up the possibility of that one paragraph communicating precisely what I want it to?

Or visual art? I’m ready to share this, even though I accept that the perspective is still a little skewed…

Back to music again: IS A MUSICAL EXPERIENCE (between a performer and an audience) A PROCESS OR A PRODUCT?

Okay okay okay, might as well ask the same question another way: IS A STORYTELLING EXPERIENCE (between an author and a reader) A PROCESS OR A PRODUCT?

And fine, here we go: IS THE EXPERIENCE OF VIEWING ART A PROCESS OR A PRODUCT?

I also had two question-comments on Facebook in response to my post about learning and memory; the first from my mom and the second from my grandpa:

Mom: Do we memorize the alphabet and numbers? Do we memorize our name? (My response, btw, was “…yes?”)

Grandpa: We memorize by repetition, we learn by experience.

Consider this your cue to discuss. ❤️

Is All Learning Necessarily Memory Work?

Nicole Dieker wrote this last night and has already come up with all kinds of ideas for the next installment. (A few of those ideas came from L, gotta give credit where credit is due.)

L and I have recently started watching (or, in his case, rewatching) Silicon Valley on HBO — which means that every episode begins with the HBO logo and that WAAAAAAAHHHHHHH sound.

(You know that sound.)

(I know you know that sound.)

Anyway, I used to go WAAAAAAHHHHHHH along with the HBO logo, except I was never quite on pitch; I was guessing, essentially, at what the WAAAAAHHHHHHHH should sound like.

And then one day I decided to pay attention to the pitch and memorize it.

Now I know what it is.

(It’s a C, if you want to know too.)

The funny thing is that L was the first person who showed me that I could listen to a pitch and memorize it — back when we first knew each other, twenty years ago, we were in this production of Into the Woods and I was playing Little Red Ridinghood and I had to pull a pitch out of essentially nowhere in order to sing “And perhaps a sticky bun… or four…”

I asked L, who was subbing for the rehearsal pianist, if he could help me find my starting pitch. He played the ridiculous pianissimo tremolo completely unhelpful chord cluster that came right before I had to sing, then the single note that was meant to be mine — and I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t have to bother with picking it out of the chord cluster.

I could just memorize it.

Or, you know, learn it.

(It was a D flat, by the way.)

And now I’m trying to figure out whether those two actions are always, necessarily, the same thing.


The thing that I can’t figure out is why I can memorize some pages of music the first day I look at them and other pages take, like, a week.

If learning = memory, and if memory = going from guessing to knowing, why can’t I get to know one measure of music as quickly as I know another? It’s all the same stuff, just notes on a page, extremely limited options within a system that relies heavily on patterns.

Either certain combinations of notes are “more difficult” to memorize, perhaps because they don’t follow the established patterns for some reason, or my ability to memorize things varies based on — I don’t know, sleep? Motivation/willpower? The number of other problems I have to solve that day?

While we’re on the subject of problem-solving: the blog post where I coined the phrase “going from guessing to knowing” was about problem-solving, not memorization. Does that mean all problem-solving is necessarily memory work? No, it can’t be, plenty of people solve problems on whiteboards and stuff, they don’t memorize all of the numbers they put up there (and they certainly don’t keep all of the individual datums in their heads while they’re doing the solving), but they might have to memorize the process of solving the problem before they can do the work of putting all those numbers on the whiteboard.

(When I read this to L, he’s going to tell me that he loves me for using the word “datums.”)

Okay.

Where was I?

It could be that learning has to come before memorization, and the reason that I can’t memorize a page of Ravel or Bach or whatever is because I haven’t learned it yet. I’m still in the “where do fingers go” stage (especially with the Bach, that six-voice fugue has a lot of tricky finger work).

But when you read books like Peak and Moonwalking with Einstein, you read about these people who have rock-solid anchors in place that allow them to memorize music or strings of numbers or city grids very, very quickly.

So it could be that I haven’t got my anchor system on lock.

You might remember — and if you don’t, I have an 18-minute video explaining it — that the four steps to memorizing something are:

  1. CHUNKING (picking a section to memorize)
  2. ANCHORING (using anchors to help you get from guessing to knowing)
  3. CONFIRMING (proving that you can reproduce whatever it is you just memorized)
  4. OVERLOADING (adding something [like a previously memorized section of music] to see if what you just memorized made it into long-term memory or if you lose track of it as soon as you give your brain something else to do)

Which means that if I am failing at memorizing a particular section of music, I’m either failing at the CHUNKING section (picking too much to memorize at once, maybe I need to go two measures at a time instead of four) or the ANCHORING section (very, very likely, especially since I recently started to try to anchor without writing my anchors on the music).

Either way, I need to pay better attention to what I’m doing.

Well. That problem seems solved, or at least hypothetically solved, which is to say I think I know what I need to do next. I’ll have to test my hypothesis in tomorrow’s practice session.


But back to my original question.

Is all learning necessarily memory work?

Can you learn something without memorizing it?

Can you know something without committing it to memory?

Why is it that the last question seems like an obvious NO (you can’t know something that isn’t already in your memory somewhere) but the first two questions seem like an I’M NOT SURE YET?

Maybe because I’m getting confused by the idea that you can learn a process (e.g. how to make cinnamon rolls) without having to memorize every detail that goes into that process (how much flour, how many degrees to preheat the oven, everything else Betty Crocker included in her recipe).

But the process itself — the knowing of how to do (or, in this case, how to dough) — is memorized.

I’ll stop there for now.

More on this next week. ❤️

How to Become a Magician

Nicole Dieker isn’t a magician yet — but she’s working on it.

Start by asking yourself what you ought to wear.

No, seriously — you need to be comfortable, but you also need to look like you, displaying the kind of appearance that you value, and if you’re the kind of person who values displaying that same sort of appearance every day it helps if you can buy the same outfit seven times over.

(In either the same or different colors.)

Eliminating the “what to put on your body” decision, whether you go the full-on uniform route or the “everything in my closet is something I like” route, gives you that much more mental space to devote to the pursuit of excellence.

Plus, it makes getting dressed feel like a decision you are making to support your art.

I’m not saying that every decision should be made in support of your art, or in support of whatever excellence you are currently attempting to pursue (in work, in life, in a relationship), but — well, as soon as I used the word CURATION in yesterday’s post I knew it was the right one.

You are curating the experiences you want, in order to have more of them.

And in order to give your mind as much space as possible to think about what you really want to think about.

So.

Clothes that don’t suit get in the way.

Not enough sleep gets in the way.

Not enough exercise, rest, food, touch, time spent outdoors — whatever it is you need to be your best self, to feel comfortable in the world instead of at odds with it, you need to make sure you have it, as often as you need it, or the lack will keep you from doing your best work.

Too much also gets in the way. Too many clothes in the closet; too much food in the belly; too much time spent dilly-dallying.

It really does start with balance; the foot on the high wire, the plate on the stick, the card placed carefully at the top of the castle.

Knowing instead of guessing.

Acting instead of reacting.

Choosing instead of letting the system choose for you.

Can you pursue magic, excellence, artistic merit, etc. etc. etc. without simultaneously pursuing agency, balance, specificity, and discipline in your own life?

Of course you can.

Can you create magic — can you become a magician — without also curating a life that supports the work and the person you are trying to create?

I don’t know. Mastery and self-mastery seem to go hand-in-hand, and to not pursue both feels like a slight.


That’s all very well and good, Nicole, but what are YOU currently doing in your attempt to become a magician?

Boy howdy.

Right now I have three big things I’m working on:

Making sure that the balanced life is prioritized. Sleep, exercise, outdoors time, rest, etc. etc. etc. are just the beginning. One of my goals right now is to figure out how to indulge in something I particularly like — a cup of coffee, a square of chocolate, a finger of bourbon — while still remaining in control of the experience. To take the pleasure without getting wired or overstuffed or tipsy.

If magic is the ability to manipulate the elements around you, then I want very much to be able to manipulate these kinds of elements — because the only other reasonable route is the abstainer route, and to say no to something that has been crafted with excellence in its own right (these are very high-quality bourbons) because you are afraid you won’t be able to stop before you slip out of equilibrium (which will then in turn make it more difficult to complete tomorrow’s work) feels decidedly un-magical.

Mastering my meta-emotions. L doesn’t know this yet (though he will as soon as I read this to him), but I just bought a tiny ceramic marshmallow to put on my desk. We’ve been talking about how to be mellow, and at first I resisted the concept because I thought that mellow meant losing my edge, but I finally got it this past week, when I realized just how much my meta-emotions were getting in the way of my doing my best work.

Remember: emotions are responses to situations, but meta-emotions are responses to emotions. In my case I’d have an emotional reaction to something which would prompt a physical reaction (speaking more harshly than I wanted to, eating more candy than I wanted to, spending more time doomscrolling than I wanted to) and then I’d agonize and dwell over why I acted that way and how I could have made a better choice, and all of that agony would keep me from doing literally anything else.

Being mellow, in my case, starts with letting those meta-emotions go. Eventually it’ll transition into mastering the reactions themselves (magicians choose action over reaction), but I’m still in the “people make mistakes” stage.

And you can be mellow while maintaining your edge — that is, you can let everything you can’t control swirl around you as you walk calmly towards the excellence you are pursuing.

Which brings me to:

Increasing my ability to focus/learn/memorize. On Thursday I’m going to start digging into the “is all learning necessarily memory work” question, because I’m in no way sure about the answer yet. All I know is that a good half of my piano practice time is still wasted, because I get stuck doing the whole “maybe if I repeat it again, it’ll get better on its own” thing — or, in some cases, the “let’s play this whole thing on autopilot while I think about another open loop in my life that hasn’t been resolved” thing.

I’m also wondering how much of the ability to focus at the piano comes from doing prep/percolation work prior to sitting down at the piano. Basically, I started asking myself why I found it easier to focus on my freelance writing than on my piano practice, and the obvious answer was “because I do a ton of mental prep work before I ever sit down to write.”

So I think I need to start doing that kind of mental prep work before I play, too.

Which might mean setting aside time to break down my piano work into unique assignments (like freelance gigs), understanding the specs of each assignment (what needs to be accomplished before I can turn in the draft, what questions the piece needs to answer, how many keywords need to be included, how many subheds, etc. etc. etc.), and letting all of that churn in my brain until I can sit down at the piano ready to tackle the job.

More on all of this as we continue this journey towards mastery and self-mastery and magicianry, I am sure.

And now you can tell me whether you liked the first half of this blog post or the second half best. ❤️