2019 Goal: Just Play Lots of Music

January 31, 2019
Confidence: likely

I promised myself it would happen by today, or not at all. Since I don’t want to not do it, I guess I’d better stop procrastinating and write about my plans for 2019.

My friend Sara challenged me to do something different this year. She suggested I become the captain of a sports team. This is too scary even for me1, but I decided to follow the spirit of the idea.

Rather than doing quantitatively more of what I have been, it’s time to try something new. And so: my major goal for the year is to learn how to play music. To be more specific, I want to be able to play piano like Jerry Garcia plays guitar.

I once met a guy noodling around on the ukulele in the Vilnius airport. I struck up conversation with him and asked how he was so good. The answer? “Never do the same thing twice. Always be pushing yourself to try new things.”

Along those lines, there’s this fantastic proverb from Art and Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Unfortunately this story is apocryphal, but it resounds pretty strongly with my experience. It’s a trap I see beginner programmers fall into all the time; they continually ask “how can I get good at programming?” and the answer is always “do more programming.” That’s not to say that some good advice can’t help steer you away from the weeds, but fundamentally, theory is only as valuable as it improves your craft. Theory for its own sake is nothing but mental masturbation.

This is a trap that I often fall into myself. Rather than just getting started, I spend lots of time thinking about the best way to get started. Sometimes if the risk of failure is particularly high, that might be the approach to go. But it’s usually not.

So I want to take this year as a case study in the “quantity over quality” approach. To that end, I’m going to learn, record and upload a new song every day that I’m not sick or traveling. I started yesterday.

I reserve the right to change the specifics of this goal if it ends up conflicting with actually getting better at music—eg. maybe the overhead of learning and recording everyday will get in the way of actually practicing more directly-musical things. But I’ll worry about those problems if I come to them.

So, here’s the plan. I’m going to learn and play and record these songs, and then every day, listen to yesterday’s. I’m going to ask myself “why isn’t this as good as it could be?” and then I’m going to spend the day focusing on whichever aspect seems like it will have the most impact. Presumably in time this can’t help but force me to get good.

Nothing big or dramatic this year: just play lots of music and give myself permission to do it badly until it starts being good.

  1. I feel about team sports the same way most people feel about advanced mathematics—abject horror.↩︎