The Robot Boss

Jun 25, 2020
Yesterday, I was staring at a Haydn string quartet score. Trying to read it, of course, but ultimately, merely staring at it. I try and I rope off an hour each day to practice counterpoint and composition and it usually flies by; I have to make myself change gears to get other stuff done. But yesterday, I was over it after about twenty-five minutes. It was just so complicated, and that made me mad. ("Oh, you're mad? Here's a cape. You can be super mad.") The gap between getting two melodies to mesh for four bars and writing string quartets like it was 18th century Vienna is as big as the gap between knowing the notes of pentatonic scale and soloing like you were B.B. King at the Regal Theatre in 1964.

So I packed it in for the day. Really, if something that's supposed to be fun is turning into a frustrating drag, it's time to walk away. Sometimes, yeah, I try and push through, because keeping my commitment to that hour is valuable, too. Having succeeded in showing up, I'll do my best to push through so that the next day, I have the momentum that comes from knowing I'm a guy who pushes through. I do love practicing, and it doesn't generally feel like a chore. This was frustrating because it was new; I've only recently started adding this kind of analysis to my routine. I did it because studying scores to learn how to compose is like transcribing jazz and blues licks to learn how to improvise. You can know all the scales in the Slonimsky Thesaurus, but until you get down to the work of hearing, notating and absorbing how the musicians you admire and enjoy really use them, you're only getting the grammar, not the idioms or other conversational rhythms. You don't yet know how it's really done. Studying scores is the classical equivalent of digging Lee Morgan or Red Garland records to learn bebop. You're going to the source. It's not enough to know some harmony and counterpoint. What are the moves?

So I walked, and that felt not so great, until I woke up this morning with a redoubled determination to get back in the ring with Franz H. and make him dance. Having had a chance to cool off, I was able to re-consider the problem with a little more detachment, to start strategizing about ways to break down the problem, dissolve the complexities into some simpler pieces, come up with a plan of attack. And to remember these things take time. Learning to manipulate four-part voicing and learning how Stanley Turrentine plays the blues both took a lot of practice – a lot of listening, a lot of thinking, a lot of slow, careful day-to-day work done in increments of no more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time. And there were frequent hitches, days or weeks where I got distracted by life or too stressed out by other work to remember how valuable those twenty or thirty minutes were to my progress and, more importantly, my sanity.

When my kids are freaking out about technology, I always remind them it's just a machine. If the laptop is giving you grief, you're still the robot boss. Shut it down, close it up, stick it on the shelf to charge. Heck, I have to remind myself, when my technology is bugging the snot out of me, that it's a choice to continue engaging – or not. So, here's the balancing act: yeah, you want to have a plan for practicing, you want to have a time and a place for it in your day if possible, and you want to show up, plow through, do your work for the day. But – if it gets to be a drag, if you're not feeling the fun factor, if it's just frustrating and annoying that day – you're still the robot boss. Every once in a while, it's a day for walking away. And if you wake up the next morning ready to get back in the ring and school that metronome, you'll know you made the right decision.

More soon,