N: I’m going to tell you something very important, and you can’t laugh. I mean, you can laugh, if you want to. I don’t really care if you laugh.
L: Why would I laugh?
N: Because I’ve probably discovered something very obvious, reinventing the wheel kind of stuff, and when I tell you what it is you’re going to say “of course, everybody knows that.”
L: Only if it’s something everybody actually knows.
N: Right, and it couldn’t be if I hadn’t figured it out yet, but the thing is that I couldn’t stop thinking about what you had said the other day, how you told me that the real magic, as a pianist and probably as a person who was trying to figure out how cognition worked, would come when I was able to play after win without failing the next pass.
L: I still believe that’s true.
N: And I woke up at 2:30 in the morning thinking about it, and I was asking myself whether it was even worthwhile to bother, because if I was already doing something extremely efficiently would it be worth sacrificing that efficiency to find some other way of doing things, it literally takes me twenty minutes to get back to baseline after play after win, I fail every time, I can show you the data.
L: I’ll trust you on that one.
N: But then I thought about what I told you the other day, about how the reason play after win fails is either because you’re trying to recreate something exactly, which is impossible, or because you’re trying to prove something, which is ego.
L: I’m still not completely sure that recreating something exactly is impossible.
N: It obviously is, it’s physics. All of the air molecules in the room have moved around, or whatever, and it will never come out exactly the same way again.
L: What if it came out nearly exactly the same, with any differences being imperceptible to the listener?
N: What level of listener? How well is the listener paying attention?
L: How about imperceptible to the pianist?
N: I’d need to collect more data on that. But the point is that I asked myself “well, if it can’t be exactly the same way on the subsequent pass, what can I do to make it better?”
N: And asking yourself what you can do to make it better works, it breaks the fail-after-win issue, or it makes it irrelevant because you’re not trying to win again, you’re trying to improve on your win. One tiny thing, and then another tiny thing, and you can do it twenty times in a row if you have the time, and the stuff you learned on every previous pass doesn’t go away as long as you keep giving the music your full attention, it just keeps getting better and better and better.
L: I was wondering when you’d learn that. I was pretty sure you’d learned it this morning, when I heard you practicing.
N: I did! Of course I did! But why didn’t you tell me before? Is it really something that everybody else already knew?
L: It’s something that everyone has to learn on their own. If I could figure out a way to teach it, I would.
N: You just tell people. Can’t you just tell people? Can’t you say “instead of playing this five times in a row, this time I want you to get a little notebook and between each pass, write down what you’re going to improve on the next pass?” Because it doesn’t work if you don’t write it down.
L: I think it only really starts working when you can do it without writing it down.
N: No. I refuse. I’ll make a spreadsheet with a thousand different rows if I have to. My spreadsheet’s close enough already. Also — we should tell people, when we figure out a way to tell people, that they have to win first. They have to be able to play the music evenly and accurately, maybe not at tempo, but at least evenly and accurately from memory, before they can start Bx-ing it. That’s what I decided to call it, on my spreadsheet — like, I’ll write 5xCxBx, and that means five times at win condition, consecutively, with each time being your best ever.
L: That’s the important part. You can’t begin the process of incremental improvement until after you’ve got the music in your fingers. I like to tell my students that practice only really starts after the piece is learned.
N: And everyone else thinks it stops there.
more on this tomorrow…