What we’re taught, versus the real world

We are taught that when you graduate 8th grade, you are a 9th grader in high school.

But if we look at it like the real world, then it’s really a 2 year process.

7th Grade: You are performing at an 8th grade level, and learning to be a 9th grader.

8th Grade: After a year of performing at 8th grade, you have now earned the title of 8th grader. Now you are performing at a 9th grade level, and learning to be a 10th grader.

9th Grade: Congratulations! After consistently performing at a 9th grade level for a year, you have earned the right to be called a 9th grader. You are now starting to perform at a 10th grade level, and learning to be an 11th grader.

This is how it works in the business world. You don’t receive a job title until you prove that you can do it consistently. Job titles aren’t aspirational. You don’t get a job title because you have potential. You’re hired because you have potential, and your job title is based on your previous consistent actions.

I think the lesson here is that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, even in art. We need to prove our worth for 2 years before we receive recognition. Recognition only comes in hindsight, and you can’t wait for it. Don’t fall into the trap of letting recognition be the source of your inspiration.

Trying to learn like a child

Okay, so a deep thought here. Over the course of many years of tutoring and teaching on the side, I’ve noticed this pattern. I haven’t quite thought it all through to the conclusion yet, but here’s where I’m at.

It seems like children primarily learn in an intuitive fashion. They pick up on their surroundings and on what they’re doing, and soak it all in like a sponge. But this isn’t a deliberate action. It’s a matter of convenience. So they get really good at video games, and playground politics, and riding bikes. And they know all about what commercials are on TV, and who’s hot on iTunes, and the latest fashions. Ask a kid why or how they learned all this, and they will look at you like you’re an idiot. It’s because it’s all part of life, as far as they are concerned.

Then at some point in the course of our lives, it seems like most people start to disconnect and live in two worlds: work and life. And we have to deliberately choose what to learn about, and go and execute on some kind of plan to do so.

I don’t know if this evolution in people’s life is necessarily a bad one. Being deliberate is certainly a sign of maturity. Yet, maybe the things that matter to us should feel more intuitive, and should just happen automatically. If you have to go out of your way to learn something, then maybe you’re out of balance or disconnected. Maybe you have the wrong priorities, or maybe you’re unhappy.

Like I say, I don’t know where this thought is going. It’s just an observation.

Trying to prioritize

One of the metaphors I keep running across is the 80/20 rule. I’m pretty sure it comes from the Pareto Principle. Much like any number combination, I started seeing it everywhere. Actually, I first encountered it in the business world, relating to something only partially related: learning. If you search online you’ll see articles like Pareto Principle, and 80 20 Life, and 80 20 Learning. It’s pretty common. Of course, most simple number combinations are pretty common. Search for 70 30. You’ll find a new list of sites advocating the 70/30 ratio in life. Number pairs are everywhere in nature, and we humans just can’t help but try to seek out patterns in them.

I am more attached to 80/20, simply because it’s got an old dude’s name attached to it–and there is a long tradition of the rule in the software business. You can pick another rule. But here’s the point: it’s useful to devote resources toward more of one thing than another. Or conversely, it’s useful to expect results from more of one source than another. Not always useful, but useful maybe 80% of the time. See what I did there? The rule applies to itself. Meta.

Anyway, here are a few ways that I think it might apply to music.

Writing music by inspiration, not consensus

In the business world, you have 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work on a specific project. Then everyone gives feedback, and that completes the remaining project. Of course, the original 20% choose what feedback is included, and politics can play a role there I guess. Hopefully, the good feedback is mostly taken and, more importantly, the original vision stays in place.

In music, you often have a different hierarchy, but I have found that it’s similar. If just 1 person in the band works on 80% of an arrangement, then the rest of us won’t mess up the source of inspiration.

The reason for this, is that a consensus is only best for finding the common denominator. Consensus is where everyone overlaps. It’s not interesting. It’s not provocative or inspired. It’s safe. It’s watered down. It’s already understood. It lags behind. It’s conservative. Music by consensus isn’t going to create something visionary and exciting. If you are a kind of band where all are creative equals, then consider each of you individually writing your own songs–and then getting feedback to polish each song a little. This is already understood in business.


There’s always something to work on and improve. It never ends. So do you work on everything at once? I would argue that you focus on one thing, knock it out, feel good about it, get that burst of inspiration of accomplishment, and then move to the next. On the other hand, you don’t want to go soft on what you already know. So… 80/20. Search up how to get rid of debt–you’ll see the same advice. Pay off one card at a time, but pay the minimum payment on the rest.

Last minute rehearsal

I was asked at the last minute to sit in at The Them’s final show, at the Funhouse in Seattle. So, I applied the 80/20 rule to make sure I was optimizing the resources I was putting toward the project. I think it went really well. That show rocked! Anyway, rather than memorizing and practicing 100% of all the songs, I put 80% of my resources into 20% of the songs–focusing on how songs start, the key transitions, and the end. I had a short amount of time to prepare, and I knew I could read my notes and look for cues on stage that would help me fake through each song… and it worked out really well! Oh yeah, and I also spent 80% of my time rehearsing alone, so that I didn’t waste the time of my bandmates who already knew the songs.

Cool stuff. Have you used this rule? What other rules are out there?

Trying to change

During my recent time spent studying under Brian Oppel, I had the opportunity to learn some techniques that made drumming more efficient. I would work on my assignments, and could track my progress. It felt great.

And then I’d play a show, and would feel like a complete moron. All these songs that I had previously learned started to feel stiff and awkward. I hated the technique and inflections I was playing. I complained about this, and he suggested that I not worry about it so much. He told me to just let the new techniques slowly integrate themselves into my playing, and just play old songs however I had originally learned–and not stress out so much about it.

Since then, I’ve thought about this some more. One of the things that changes with experience is your perspective. I was perfectly happy with how I was playing old songs, up until I learned a new way to play. I also have to manage my resources: am I really going to go back and relearn every single song I might play live? That’s not realistic. It’s far more productive to focus on being a better musician in the long term and practice the more efficient techniques. Actually, now that I writing this… perhaps use old songs as exercises and kill two birds with one stone. Just make sure you are practicing correctly.

Here’s a pitfall: integrating a new “efficient” way of doing something into your life immediately. You may understand how the new thing is awesome, but you’re not even close to mastering it at the same level as the old “inefficient” way. So you’ll probably mess that up, too. If you’re going to replace a way that you do something, you better be coming out ahead. Give yourself plenty of time to practice the new way in situations where no one is depending on you or where you have low visibility.

So, I think the point is that change can’t happen overnight, and it’s disruptive to try to force it. Instead, better to allow the new techniques to just integrate themselves into your life as you move on. Otherwise, you’ll get stressed out and be unhappy, which will just slow you down even more.

Trying to choose

When I was a kid in band, my teachers would say different versions of something like ,”You have to learn the rules before you can break them.”

Recently I went through a year and a half of drum lessons with Brian Oppel to make sure I still had some perspective, and it occurred to me that there is something a little more subtle going on here. It’s not just that you need to learn the rules–it’s that you need to be able to be aware of your options. The rules are only part of the story; common tone theory, cadences, secondary dominants, rudiments, ghost notes, whatever. Even if you break those rules, you may still be reinventing the wheel. You have to listen to John Zorn, you have to listen to noise music, you have to listen to Asva, you have to listen to Classical and Country and Gamelan and Romani. Or if you listen to those things, then go and listen to Rebecca Black. And that just touches the surface. You also have to seek out all the art that you hate, and you better have a good reason for hating it other than “it’s different” or “it’s stupid”. You’re developing your pallete, so that you are aware of both the rules and the known broken rules. You have to be aware of all the options.

Essentially, the more you can zoom into every little thing that you do and turn every single note or action into a choice, the better you become as an artist. But that’s not enough. You have to practice enough so that each choice is both informed and instinctual, so that you can make choices quickly in the middle of a performance without deep thought. That’s the hard part, only borne from repetition and experience. Choose quickly, and choose often.

I’m not good at Math

I would hear that a lot when I was a math tutor while pursuing my BS in Math at Southern Oregon University. My college classmates and my private students from high school would often tell me this straight up.

But the stark reality is that math is not any harder than anything else. Now, if you came to me and said, “I’m not good at being an astronaut”–that, I could believe. You have to have a PhD, or numerous other degrees, you have to have great social skills, you have to be physically fit, you have to be adaptable, and you have to manage stress. You have to be a Warrior. You’ll probably drop out and never get selected. Genetics plays a large role.

Math is not like being an astronaut. No, you just are not interested.

I don’t know when this whole thing started. But for some reason, if you don’t like math then you get to blame your genetics. As if you have an allergy, and the only cure is less math. So, why go to a tutor? Are tutors like magic wizards that grant you a passing-grade spell?

Don’t tell me you hate all the repetition. How many times have you listened to your favorite song?

But above all else, don’t tell me you’re not good at math. And especially, don’t tell me you’re stupid.

Be honest. You hate math. So let’s find out why that is, then let’s get you a C+ in your algebra class and move on.

I’m not good at math, my ass. You know what you’re not good at? Excuses.

Trying not to fall behind

It seems like it’s a struggle not to fall behind. There’s always more to learn. More to observe and soak in.

I’ve played with musicians in the past that have been stuck. They had the chops. They had the core technical skills to rock. But they hadn’t kept up with what was going on in the scene around them.

Now you might be the type of musician that doesn’t care what’s going on, and that’s fine. You’re the type of person who we call “ahead of their time”. There are even savants like Henry Darger, who just sort of figured out how to do his thing all by himself and for himself. But the rest of us mortals have to care a certain amount about what’s happening now, if we’re going to have a conversation with the rest of the art community.

So, I saw that those musicians who were stuck were being left behind. They were hard to work with. It took longer for them to get the right sound that the song required. If you’re going to push the boundaries, you have to know the boundaries. And the boundaries are always changing, so I try to predict the changing boundaries and push that too. If you don’t know the boundary, then you are irrelevant at the moment.

That happened to me. I learned to play drums in the 90s. I built up a set of hardware in that context, and certain inflections in style particular to that time (for example, a tightly tuned snare). It wasn’t until maybe 15 years later that I realized I was still hanging on to a few things. I probably am still irrelevant in many ways, otherwise I’d be famous.

It’s hard to be that self aware. I really value the people I can trust who will be honest about that stuff. “Your snare sound sucks.” “Your high hat is way too brittle sounding.” Sometimes I don’t notice that stuff right away just on my own.

Yeah, so try not to fall behind like I did. But if you’re truly passionate, then you’ll figure it out.

Trying to figure things out

Susan encouraged me to start blogging more, so here goes. A series of posts, where I try to figure things out. It will probably be a lot of philosophy and self help and different ways to think about learning. I’ll probably digress into math, science, and, of course, drums. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to post comments and we can start a conversation about this stuff.  Thanks,


Learning by metaphor

I like to think in terms of metaphors. It’s a way of brainstorming, but also a way of learning. When I encounter something new, I like to brainstorm what metaphors might apply. If I’ve found a good metaphor, then I suddenly learn a lot more about the new thing, because a metaphor is a full concept that I already understand quite a bit.

Common metaphors

The pendulum

The pendulum swings back and forth between extremes. If it’s a magnet, then you have other attracting forces that can really affect the pendulum’s path as it swings in 3-D. It’s like the seasons, artistic trends, moods, something new that you’ve learned, and life and death.

The scale or balance

You’re choosing different options, you have two conflicting opinions, you are integrating something you’ve learned with everything else you know, you want to create a product with features and have a great user experience, you’re trying to control the volumes of all 4 limbs when playing drums (and trying to sing), you are prioritizing, you want to spend time and do a good job and use up few resources. With the scale, you can choose the weight of the things on the scale, but remember as you weigh toward one thing–the other things aren’t as heavy.


In a system, everything coexists in harmony. When you make a change, then the rest of the system compensates in some way. Or the system starts to change and then restabilizes. Sometimes the system never levels out again. Sometimes you change the system, and everything has to change to compensate. It’s like social dynamics, or your energy level, or band politics, or the arrangement of instruments in a song, or how you spend your time each day.


It’s all interrelated. Music, visual arts, dance, sculpture, film, food, your career, sports, driving. There is an art to it all, and they all have some major strategies or techniques that overlap. How you train, how you prioritize, how you make choices, how you gain perspective, how you express yourself, how you make money.

Just some thoughts I had today. Think of any other metaphors?