Quit before you're ahead: a partial concurrence (guest post from Michael McGill)

This morning's post earned a thoughtful response from my friend Michael McGill, a musician, artist, and teacher.

I think where people go wrong is with rigid thinking: They assume that they have to stick with something even if it's not working or their gut is telling them to stop...or they don't notice that it stopped working for them a half-hour ago. And they might think, "I'm just not cut out for this," and scrap an attempt at something new instead of digging in deeply to a creative pursuit as Michael explains below.

Michael's post:

The Casey article on “quit before you’re ahead” and the discipline of stopping was well-written and thought-provoking. My thoughts:

There are certainly areas of effort in which to quit before you’re ahead. These are  activities that risk “mindless repetition” and boredom (or even injury!), like practicing music or running.

Michael and I with a pickup band at the Eclectic Music Open House Party, January 8, 2011.Areas where you definitely DON’T quit at “normal,” approved times: creative areas like songwriting. In these areas, the rules are exactly the opposite: if you don’t stretch yourself, making an effort to “get into a different headspace,” nothing new will be achieved. At best, you’ll be a mere formulaic song-factory. Tired clumsy fingers are actually good for songwriting, because slick facility is bad; and in the mental realm, you have to keep coming at it from new directions, and that sometimes requires long sustained effort, and sometimes long goofing around, bouncing the fledgling song in the air like a beach ball and batting it around. Once in a while a great song comes rolling out in a brisk and cooperative manner, and in a reasonable amount of time. But don’t be counting on that.

Areas that involve both sides of the brain, like recording and band practice, fall somewhere in the middle, because exhaustion and mistakes (downside) and breakthroughs (upside) both will occur; but beware of always stopping band practice at the usual hour, because good things happen in the realms of sonic mix and interpersonal dynamics well past quitting time. A band (if it’s a good and interesting one) is a very delicate mechanism: when this guy’s voice gets hoarse, that girl’s playing gets a little smoother to compensate; when this bassist’s fingers get tired, that drummer pushes him a little harder. The results can be magic.


Thanks Michael! Can't wait to play with you again.

Playing an instrument: a mixed-hemisphere activity

One of the great things about playing an instrument is that there are so many different strengths one can bring to the table. Some students are great with pattern recognition, spatial visualization, and music theory; some have a natural musicality in their physical technique; some have a great tonal memory and musical ear; and some have a tenacity and that allows them to make up for any deficits in other areas with sheer dedication and a great attitude.

I have never, ever, worked with a student who "just didn't have it" - everyone who puts in a bit of effort improves. Part of what allows everyone to have success with music is that playing music uses both the "intuitive" right brain and the "logical" left brain. Part of my job as a teacher is to observe which hemisphere appears to be dominant in a student and adjust my methods accordingly.

While I believe in building on strengths, there is often a need to compensate for a weakness in a particular area in order to improve overall musicianship. Right-brain, intuitive thinkers tend to see the whole and rather than the part. This means that they on an attempt to play a new song they will "feel" their way through it, looking for larger patterns rather than getting stuck on small details. While this relaxed ease is the eventual goal, the challenge is then to learn how to break things down and read (i.e., decode) individual notes when necessary. On the other hand, a left-brain, logical thinker will focus on decoding the notes individually and incorporating every detail. While this is important, this student will need to learn how to begin to let go and listen to where the music is going, without needing to control every note with a conscious thought.

Try this informal test to see which is your dominant hemisphere. For my part, I am evenly split between right and left brain dominance, which I think is what has helped me to work with and relate to a wide range of learning styles. I'm a strange bird: equal parts artist and administrator.