Sunday, February 19, 2006

the power law theory of practicing

A recent article by Malcolm Gladwell, "Million-Dollar Murray," explores the problems of chronic homelessness and solutions based on 'power law' principles. This is a situation where a tiny minority of the population is responsible for a vast majority of the expenses and difficulties. As
Gladwell puts it "if you were to graph the wouldn't look like a bell curve. It would look more like a hockey stick. It would follow what statisticians call a 'power law' distribution - where all the activity is not in the middle but at one extreme." (The New Yorker, Feb. 13 & 20, 2006, p. 98)

I began to wonder if complex musical problems sometimes follow the same 'power law' distribution. We often practice as though our problems were broad and generalized, when in fact they tend to be localized and specific - a shift here, a rhythmic transition there, a tricky fingering somewhere else. Running whole pieces or long sections, we might gain a sense of continuity, but still never fix our 'power law' problems. And these kinds of problems can't be solved with casual approaches - they need serious, intensive, and frequent attention. Here's how Gladwell describes them in the context of social policy:
It's a matter of a few hard cases, and that's good news, because when a problem is that concentrated you can wrap your arms around it and think about solving it. The bad news is that those few hard cases are hard. They are falling-down drunks with liver disease and complex infections and mental illness. They need time and attention and lots of money.

- p. 101
In fact one homeless man Gladwell profiles, Murray Barr, costed the state so much in emergency health care expenses that "it would have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment." We all have our own 'falling-down drunk with liver disease' moments in our excerpts and solo pieces, I think, and the sooner we recognize them and work proactively to fix them, not just manage and maintain them, the better and more confident our performances will be.

Like giving free apartments to homeless people, this can sometimes go against our intuition. If we have half an hour to work on an excerpt, a conventional approach might be first to run it, then practice it slow, patch it together and run it again to test for improvement. The power law theory says that we should identify the phrases, gestures, or notes that are most problematic and isolate these, drilling them without even playing through the rest. Here's Gladwell on using limited resources:
There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.

- p. 104
These ideas of fairness are ingrained in our thinking, and difficult to resist. We feel that we should give a bit of attention to each person, each problem, or each phrase, even when that approach is clearly not the most efficient. We might not feel so morally obligated to play through an entire Tchaikovsky bass part, but it is a strong compulsion to at least run through all our excerpts each day. A friend who just won the principal horn job in Kansas City suggested to try to resist that compulsion, at least until the last couple of weeks before an audition. Running through an entire piece is just "rewarding" yourself for not getting it right, and deepening the habits that are causing those problems. He said that another successful audition candidate told him to keep a book of "places that suck" - copying out those isolated spots that just don't quite work - and focus on each of these every day.

I like this approach, because it seems to address how our memories actually work. For example, you might listen to the news while you eat breakfast in the morning. If later you try to recall what you heard, though, you probably won't remember a word or two from every sentence - you might not even recollect the point of all the stories. However, maybe one story, or a single fact, will stick in your mind - you'll repeat it to yourself or tell others as the day goes on. By the end of the day, you'll remember that fact with great precision, even if you've forgotten where you heard it or what you were eating at the time!

In musical preparation, we're not just aiming to remember, but to recreate something in minute detail, and even to free ourselves from reproduction by rote so we can attain real artistry. Still, it's always helpful to identify our obstacles and chronic problems - and perhaps find some practical, efficient ways of solving them.

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