[Miles] Davis dropped out of Juilliard, after asking permission from his father. In his autobiography, Davis criticized the Juilliard classes for centering too much on the classical European and “white” repertoire. However, he also acknowledged that, while greatly improving his trumpet playing technique, Juilliard helped give him a grounding in music theory that would prove valuable in later years. (yes, its from a wiki)
Whatever you are trying to learn don’t panic, swords wo/man. Break it down into the simplest moves, repeat, refine. Then play. No mind. Find the level between learning technique and improvisation. Learn your scales so you can improvise. Learn your scales so you Miles Davis-ize your life, your instrument. Play around so you want to learn the scales. (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course) Go back to the basics at any point in your journey. Push so you can let go. Play around and find the areas where you need to push.
Despite all my best intentions, I have returned to thinking about Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. Tom, I just can’t quit you. In this cinematic tour de force, Cruise is captured by samurai. His character, Algren (?) is a veteran of the Indian wars and a disillusioned warrior. Eventually, he buddies up to the samurai and they let him learn how to use a sword. They show Algren learning all the basic thrusts and parries and eventually he learns how to spar. Eventually, he spars his nemesis and loses several times.
Algren is frustrated. A samurai buddy comes up to him and says, “Algren buddy, you’re overthinking this.” He explains that he needs to get to a spot in his swordsmanship where he has, “no mind.” This is a place beyond thinking, a relaxed fluid place between pushing and completely letting go. A place of flow. Repeat in a cinematic voice with a stirring soundtrack in the back, “No mind.” (If you want to know more about the connection between samurai and Zen pick from the fluff, junk, and gold here.) Of course Algren masters “no mind” and Cruise gets the opportunity to do cool swordplay, slow motion moves, and bends would ensure that my chiropractor would have a lot of return business.
Of course, without technique and the basics, Cruise’s character would just be “No mind” mince meat. And so it goes that in any field that you want to master/play there is an interplay between technique/basics and mastery/play/immersion. You could just remember all the scales and wait until you play a real song. You could just start playing songs and never think about scales and the logic behind music that could take you farther. But both are limited in their own ways. It’s great when basic knowledge opens up the possibility in play. It’s great when “playing around” opens up a thirst for knowledge of the basics.
I came to think about this week as I was studying Japanese. I’ve been immersing myself in Japanese podcasts, music, movies as much as I can and trying to stay in the play mode with the language. I also consciously study Japanese by doing online flashcards that I have created and a host of other activities. The other day I was listening to a beginner lesson on Japanesepod101.com when I heard a great grammar explanation of “te shimau.” Something finally clicked and I realized that I had heard that over and over through all my fun immersion. That grammar lesson stuck because I had real-life exposure to it.
Khatzumoto, over at All Japanese all the Time, is fond of saying eat your dessert first. Do the fun part of Japanese/your desired skill first. He explains that it 1) makes you happy 2) helps you do the learning activity for longer and more frequently and 3) helps you get to the boring stuff.
There’s an interplay between the “hard work” and basics and the free jazz of jamming in real life. Miles Davis came to his classes after long nights of jamming in clubs. He quit Juilliard but some of the basics and theory stuck with him. Hours of practice and play. Mastery. Fluency. Mind. No mind. Cue corny music and have a great day!