the grind

I am preparing to move house in a few weeks, so I have been going through and downsizing some of my things. I am very selective about the items that I choose to attach to. At least that’s what I tell myself; for the past three years I have moved at the end of the summer, and at each move I find more things to let go of. This move, one of the big changes is that I am ruthlessly culling my sheet music library. For the past 15 years, I have basically said yes to everything, and I built up a full 2X4 IKEA Kallax full of music. This has meant a lot of wandering down memory lane and revisiting all of the piano music that brought me to the present.

I am always surprised to find the pieces of music that are 80% finished. There’s a Haydn sonata that I worked on in college but I could never get the fast movement going fast enough. The last piece I worked on with my hometown piano teacher was a Clementi sonatina, and it too has piano markings that stop on the second to last page. I was so close. I was also drowning in shame, I hated the scale and arpeggio practice needed to smooth out my performance, and I didn’t know how to use a metronome.

There’s an article I like by Jacob Kaplan-Moss (I think he writes about computer programming) about how incredibly tedious work can appear like a magic trick:

I once joined a team maintaining a system that was drowning in bugs. There were something like two thousand open bug reports. Nothing was tagged, categorized, or prioritized. The team couldn’t agree on which issues to tackle. They were stuck essentially pulling bugs at random, but it was never clear if that issue was important.. New bug reports couldn’t be triaged effectively because finding duplicates was nearly impossible. So the open ticket count continued to climb. The team had been stalled for months. I was tasked with solving the problem: get the team unstuck, get reverse the trend in the open ticket count, come up with a way to eventually drive it down to zero.

So I used the same trick as the magician, which is no trick at all: I did the work. I printed out all the issues – one page of paper for each issue. […] I spent almost three weeks in that room, and emerged with every bug report reviewed, tagged, categorized, and prioritized.

The trend reversed immediately after that: we were able to close several hundred tickets immediately as duplicates, and triaging new issues now took minutes instead of a day. It took I think a year or more to drive the count to zero, but it was all fairly smooth sailing. People said I did the impossible, but that’s wrong: I merely did something so boring that nobody else had been willing to do it.

I have a very quick intelligence, but it has some limitations. When problem solving, if I find the right answer, I will find it first. If I don’t see the answer quickly, I will never see it myself. The patient work, the “grind,” is very hard for me. If I can see the next 10 steps to a fix, I get the dopamine reward. Completing those 10 steps does nothing for me.

In piano, like so many other things, doing the small patient work is the whole game. I love improvising music the most. I can sit down at a piano and play for hours before running out of juice. Yet for every one hour that I spend working through a piece of written music that is pushing the edges of my skill range, I get better and sharper in a way that I couldn’t when improvising. Practicing improvisation makes me quicker and calmer while performing, but it doesn’t make me better.

I’m still learning to love it, though.

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