Definition of Insanity
20 Wednesday Oct 2010
There was a sea turtle in a big aquarium tank. It swam around and around the circular tank. In one place in the tank, right on the waterline, was some kind of projection, sticking out from the wall. Every time the turtle came around, it bonked its head on the projection. I don’t know where I first heard it, but the teller of story was making a point: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
This do-the-same-thing-again-and-hope-for-a-better-result strategy shows up more than it should in music. I’ve watched many younger players attempt a passage and then, when all does not go as expected, immediately launch into another attempt in exactly the same way as the first time.
I gently supply them with a new rule for dealing with “unexpected results”: change something.
Consider that you have a tool belt and you need to fix something. If one tool doesn’t work, try a different tool.
The first tool we might try in dealing with tricky bits is simply to slow down. This gives the player a magnifying glass to examine the problem or the mechanism of its production in great detail.
Next: change the frame. Instead of tackling four or eight or more bars at once, take on one bar. A half a bar. Two notes!
At this point I sometimes ask, “How do you eat a head of broccoli?” Do you take the whole thing and ram it in your face and work your jaw and hope it goes down somehow? How about taking one small sprig and downing that. And then another. And another. Seems obvious, but it’s amazing how often it does not seem to be obvious when applies to music.
What else could we change in our quest to solve the problem?
Dynamics. Usually, playing louder helps, but in some situations, it helps to start softer.
Articulation. Switch from slurred to tongued or vice-versa.
Transposition. Learn the passage an octave lower. Or higher, depending.
If it’s a wide interval, move one of the notes so that you can play it right now. Then repeat with the other note.
The point is to arrive at a version of the problem that you can play right now, accurately and consistently.
Then change it back, one element at a time, one little bit at a time until you reach the original version. You might even go a little beyond the original for security’s sake – a little higher, louder/softer, faster.
But the point is: if something is not working, change something.
Otherwise, sticking with the turtle’s plan will give you a headache…