Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Tautology

It takes time to get good at something.

Why is this tautological? Simple. "Good" is a contextual definition that in practical terms translates to the point at which the exponential curve flattens out sufficiently to reach a point of diminishing returns. Which is different for every context, of course.

The process of gaining a skill is an exponential curve; the most rapid "progress" is made at the start, between not being able to do a thing, being able to fake a thing, and being able to more-or-less do the thing. After that, most of the metrics you can apply (accuracy of work, time it takes, etc) show incremental improvement, with the work required to achieve each equal increment steadily increasing.

Just as jobs expand to fill (usually, overfill) the time scheduled for them, and projects expand to fill the budgets assigned to them, the definition and attributes of a skill expand to require as much time (on average) to grasp as society is willing to budget for. If for some reason society had determined that surgery wasn't that worthwhile and two weeks was long enough to spend training surgeons, then that would be the state of the art in the operating room. Mozart had to put up with violinists who wouldn't make audition into a high school band. But in the same period, any serious scholar needed to learn at least four languages (two of them dead).

Putting it a simpler way, you aren't up against immutable laws of nature when trying to learn something new; you are up against the ability of human beings to make a competition out of anything.

I just picked up a lovely set of tools. I'm into tools, you know. Been doing carpentry and other kinds of craftwork for decades. This set of tools do not look as elaborate as some. There is no polish, no tight tolerances, no machined edges. They are in fact very little changed from their natural forms; rounded river stones, bits of antler. They are, in point of fact, neolithic.

And they are beautiful. So beautiful I just had to try them out only minutes after opening the box. And I took a few trial taps. And had some small success but saw how much improvement was needed. Thus sparking the essay above.

The violin goes slowly as well. I've been taking it to work; we have two mandatory breaks of fifteen minutes during the day, so I'm averaging about twenty minutes of practice a day by doing this. Twenty minutes is also about all I can take at one stretch. The left arm and hand position is still uncomfortable.

I've gotten to the point where I can play a simple melody. I've gotten there, in fact, two or three times. That is, when I get that far, I also realize there's a problem with my position (or some other element) and I have to go back and try to fix that. Which changes everything again, meaning I'm back to scales again.

Everything interrelates and everything is evolving. I had the idea that one needed to find specific landmarks...contact points with the instrument, positions of the body, etc...and this is true but not quite in the way I thought. Instead your relationship even over a simple scale is changing constantly, and you have to remap your relationships to those landmarks on the fly.

At the moment I'm really pushing on hand position. Trying to get my fingers curled properly for just fingertips. Earlier, when I fretted I didn't care how many strings I pushed down at the same time. Now I'm trying to just have one finger in contact, and worse; to have that finger only contact the one string, leaving the others open.

And this turns out to be one of those things that "everyone knows" so it doesn't get talked about often enough. Thing is, most of the people who teach violin (in one form of teaching or another) learned as children. They learned when their bodies were more flexible. This is why I saw dozens of instruction sets that simply stated how the hand should be, as if that was all there was to it.

In fact, it is an unnatural pronation that is quite uncomfortable to the beginning adult player. I think I have a leg up here (fortunately!) in that I'm fairly flexible and have my rock climbing background. But now that I finally realize what the issue is, I've been able to track down some useful advice. And I'm now alternating stretching exercises between playing in a position that's uncomfortable enough I can only hold it for a few minutes at a time.

Related to this...yes, of course, everything relates...I'd have an easier time if I wasn't supporting so much of the weight on my hand. I'm propping up on the thumb at the moment which is wrong (and unstable). As much as I want to go without, I may have to play with a shoulder rest for a little just while I get this hand thing down.

And of course, when I'm concentrating hard on the fingers my bow is still sometimes straying from the Kreisler Highway. It all relates. It is pretty much impossible to get one thing nailed down and then never have to revisit it because the next thing you work on causes changes that propagate back.

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