Not Enough Music

Much of what I've learned about practice and learning came from my experiences learning to play music back in my younger days.

When learning an instrument, once you get past the very rudiments of technique, you'll be given scales and arpeggios to learn. Scales and arpeggios are pretty boring to practice, but any instructor worth her salt will tell you that they're the foundation of musical technique. They're a practice that never goes away. Even concertizing musicians work on scales and arpeggios.

Beginning musicians work on simple pieces of music, too, to begin to put technique into practice. If you played a classical instrument as a child, or if you've ever been to a little kid's recital, you know the kind of pieces I mean, the ones written by music educators and collected into books with names like "Delightful Easy Piano Pieces Vol. 14." They're tolerably inoffensive and completely forgettable. These pieces give students with limited technique the opportunity to do something that is (more or less) making music. These pieces serve as bridges to higher-level pieces, which makes them useful, but they're not something anyone really wants to listen to--again, if you've been to a kids' recital, you know exactly what I mean. You play these pieces until they stop being useful, and then you set them aside.

For some practitioners, interleaving all of this is theory. Studying the subject for underlying patterns can, when used appropriately, facilitate understanding and learning. The risk with theory is that it can "put the cart before the horse," as my dad would have said. People sufficiently committed to theory seem to forget that theory usually arose from practice. When the opposite is true, as with 20th-century serial music, the results might sometimes be intellectually satisfying, but often lack the aesthetic and intuitive grace that drove progress in the field in the first place.

Here's why I'm saying all of this: This week, I participated in an introductory certification exam run by the national certifying association for ski instructors, and I really struggle with the association's methods. For one thing, they have built an enormous edifice of theory around skiing and insist on its importance in learning and teaching. But I do not believe that a vast intellectualized structure of words is how anyone actually learns a complicated physical task. This is not my experience. For another thing, they test us on what they call "skills," which are, I deduce, meant to be the equivalent of scales and arpeggios--exercises to build and strengthen foundation. But I am quite unconvinced that that's actually true. It seems to me--though let's grant that the association's teachers are much stronger skiers than I am, so their opinion can't be discounted--that most of the "skills" they test us on arise from proper technique rather than teach it.

And when the skills do properly apply to learning to ski, the focus can be misplaced. For example, one of the skills that they test us on is the wedge turn, which is the way that beginners learn to turn their skis. On Monday, I watched one of the examiners do a series of wedge turns, and his were the best I've ever seen. He was a paragon of balance and relaxed execution in the movement. Now, the wedge turn is a simple and effective way for beginners to learn to turn, but it's also fundamentally inefficient, which is why intermediates learn to turn parallel and quickly leave the wedge behind.

To achieve such smoothness in wedge turns, the examiner clearly had devoted many, many hours to their study and practice. Now, for this to be worthwhile, the wedge turn has to be the equivalent of scales and arpeggios, that is, something so foundational to skiing technique that it should be practiced no matter how far up the ladder we advance as skiers.

But I strongly suspect that what I witnessed was not the equivalent of a concert pianist practicing scales and arpeggios as a foundation to higher-level technique. I think I was watching a concert pianist who has, for some perverse reason, committed a vast collection of children's pieces to his performance repertoire, analyzed them endlessly, then concertizes them, and then insists that anyone who doesn't do the same isn't really a pianist.

What arose from these practices was a kind of thin-lipped, mirthless approach to skiing. By analogy, I witnessed the dissection-by-theoretical-analysis of charmless children's pieces, their joyless performance, and then a dogmatic insistence that this is the One True Path.

I understand that I'm speaking of a professional certification, and thus it probably should have a certain rigor. But, metaphorically speaking, what's the point of practicing an instrument if the end result is utterly devoid of music?

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