Focused Practice in the Digital Age – Jason Haaheim – XPol #8
Hello Jason and thank you for being here. You are adamant on your blog that to practice effectively, it is necessary to continually refine one’s process – so to say it differently, it’s necessary to “practice” practice – and you state that deliberate practice “is and should be hard”, and in fact you describe it as an “excruciating joy”, meaning that it’s often not pleasant in the moment, but that it’s deeply rewarding in the long run.
You also have this article on your blog called “Unless your phone is in airplaine mode, you are practicing like a Nazgul”, and besides you mention the fact that you’re interested like “Deep Work” or “Digital Minimalism”, that you use to approach practice holistically.
As a musician, it is relatively clear that the hyper-connectedness of the world we live in can have adverse effects on the quantity and on the quality of our musical practice, and that’s why I would like to have your thoughts on digital hygiene.
Jason Haaheim: (beginning was cut off, Jason started off by considering the relationship between humans and technology through a historical lens)
… human history. In terms of how humans are being required to interact with technology, and how that that impacts our lives and our work processes.
And, you know, with my background as a trained scientist, I will be the first to cheerlead a lot of the benefits of technology. So on the one hand, nobody can disagree with or doubt that, in general terms, sort of capital “T” technology has had a huge, huge positive impact in human civilization, standard of living, all of this stuff, curing diseases, … This is not arguable. On the other hand, it is also equally true, that we, as a species, and then as a part of societies, have always had a difficult time figuring out how to incorporate new technology effectively, and how to do so in ways that don’t really disrupt or negatively impact our lives.
You could find examples of this throughout history, but looking at the mid-nineteenth century industrial revolution and how Europeans cities had no idea what to do about coal burning, and the smog that took place, and you know … Now, in the past several decades they’ve spent all this time and money in London cleaning up the facades of all these old buildings, that were polluted by the impacts of the early industrial age.
And so this is all a way of saying that, we now all have these devices in our pockets, that are truly some of the most powerful double-edged swords in the technological development of human history. And it has some very specific impacts for how we try to practice, and how we try to go about music.
The couple of books that you mentionned – I alluded to them in a recent post – and I haven’t really written about it yet exstensively, but I’ve noticed that there is a growing sentiment and sort of train of thought among a lot of writers, and academics, and intellectuals, … in the United States, and certainly worldwide too, of people who are looking at these early impacts of new technology, and trying to figure out: “What does this mean, and what is this doing to us? And what are the pros, and what are the cons?”
And the specific book you mentionned, Digital Minimalism, by the author Cal Newport, it’s one I read over the summer because I was really interested in this question because, for myself, you know, I had throughout my own auditionning experience, I had beneficially incorporated a lot of technology, which had the impact of amplifying my efforts, it made me more efficient, it made me able to do more in less time, it made my practicing better, it made my learning better.
But I’ve also seen some really, really consequential downsides of this, and Cal Newport’s book put as fine a point on it as, really, anyone has yet that I have read. And the fairly – I mean it’s sort of obvious in retrospect – but the thing he stated very concisely was that the new incarnation of the internet, which is to say, everything after the advent of the smartphone … We have this enormous economy now, with companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple, Google, … – just the litany of techn companies out there – who have figured out that you can monetize attention. And what I mean by that, is that Cal Newport has this very kind of profound thing he talks about in the very beginning of the book, which is to try to understand the definition of solitude.
And if it seems like we’re getting a little to far afield or abstract, I promise, we’ll tie it back to music in just …
BW: No, no, absolutely, actually I read it myself and it’s probably my favorite part of the book, so I’m following you completely here.
JH: Wonderful. So he talks about how we define solitude, and what that has meant at different points in human history. And he kind of starts off by saying that a lot of people would think naturally of definining solitude as being physically alone. You know, the classic Thoreau, Walden go-off-in-the-middle-of-nowhere and be by yourself.
But in the age of the smartphone, and ubiquitous WiFi, that’s really not enough, because you can be physically by yourself and utterly, perpetually distracted, constantly, and unable to think straight. By contrast, you can also be in the middle of Time Square, in New York City, and if you are sufficiently focused and concentrating, and wearing earplugs, and noise-cancelling headphones, you find you own little spot to sit and meditate, you can define that as solitude.
And so what he does is to define solitude as freedom from inputs from other human minds. And the combination of that idea along with the thing he draws our attention to in the book, which is to say that whether you like it or not, whether you’ve consented to it or not, you are now part of an economy that monetizes you attention. And your attention, your focus and concentration are an economic quantity that is being basically taken away from you without your knowledge, or oftentimes without your awareness or your consent. And so a lot of the rules he talks about in this book – and pointing back to your question of digital hygiene – are guidelines for how you can start to take that back, and how you can establish boundaries of technology for yourself, to use the positive parts of it and not fall victim to the negative parts of it. How you can create spaces in your own life to embrace solitude, because I think one of the things … You know, I haven’t explicitely written about this yet, and this is not … Frankly, when a lot of the people were doing the research on deliberate practice, smartphones didn’t even exist yet, and so we’re only starting to see these devices are, or can be, for the solitude that’s required for deliberate practice.
And I think, you know, any musician worth their salt will recognize immediately that it is really impossible to get productive practicing done when you are in a distracted state. Now, couple that with the fact that we live in this new economy where a distracted state is the norm, and actually something that a lot of very sophisticated companies are trying to keep you in all of the time, and you’ve got a pretty toxic combination. And so it’s basically on us to push back in these individual ways and establish good digital hygiene.
BW: Yeah, fair enough. I feel that it is even worse for my generation and the generations that follow, because a lot of us are “YouTube musicians” and there is this depth versus breadth problem, where you have a thousand and one different videos that you can have that will teach you this and that, but you never have time to, maybe … it can seem to a young musician that you don’t have time to sit and actually practice, because there is so much to see and to experience, and maybe you don’t know what practice should look like yet. It can be a very alluring trap.
That was another question that I wanted to ask you, actually – that I called “Bruce Lee and the 10 000 kicks”, because Bruce Lee said that he doesn’t fear the man whohas practiced 10,000 kicks once, but that he fears the man that has practiced the same kick 10,000 times.
So I wanted to ask you – maybe that’s a bit extreme – about practical strategies that one can enact to allocate one’s time and attention to, one the one hand discovering new ideas and taking advantage of the internet, and on the other hand, taking some time alone to pratice these ideas and to allow them to cross-pollinate with other ideas that one might have.
JH: Yeah, all really good questions. So, maybe the best place to start with that is … some of the pratical guidelines in a way that Cal Newport talks about, they segue right in to how you adapt this for your practicing, and how you navigate this problem of depth versus breadth.
There’s a couple basic ones that he talks about, which is right in line with the kind of things I’ve written before, like: don’t keep your phone with you in the practice room, it is a device designed for maximum distraction. And even if you follow his guidelines, which I recommend, which is like, take all the apps off of your phone that you don’t absolutely need, turn off notifications, … you know all of these general things, the device still exerts a measurable psychological pull that is distracting you and taking up mental bandwidth. That’s one aspect of it, and I’ve written about how I encourage students to take an old phone that’s basically dead – it’s not connected to the internet, it’s not connected to anything – and you can still keep your tuner app on there, and all of the other useful tools, but absolutely delete and disable everything else. And then, it can be a tool that you use proactively and with intention.
And in a way, it’s that same sort of mindset of focussed intentionality, that I think needs to govern the way we interact with the internet, and the way we interact with what is essentially infinite content because, you’re right, an individual now, a young musician in the year 2020, has the ability to sit at their laptop or on their their phone and peruse YouTube, every minute, every waking hour of every day, and they would still have more to learn. And so, clearly, there has got to be some sort of framework for saying: Ok, I’m not gonna learn everything. That is not possible, nor is it even necessarily benefical or helpful. I want to learn the things that are relevant to me, to my values, to my process, and ultimately toward the trajectory I want to be defining. And if you actually just sit and write down for yourself what those things mean, and what they are, you can start be a lot better about enforcing and self-policing, so that you don’t spend three hours on some deep-dive data rabbithole where, yeah, you might have watched a bunch of funny videos, but like, truly, do you think hamster singing and four-part harmony have anything to do with what you’re really trying to do to refine your craft?
That’s the depth part, you want to practice something and get really, really good at that thing. Now, of course it’s not … here is a simplified analogy because in music we don’t just have one kind of kick, and obviously in the martial arts you don’t have one kind of kick either, but his point remains that you decide a thing that you really want to improve, and you do that, and you try to not get yourself too distracted and pulled away by all the other infinite sort of myriad variations of different mixed martial arts and dancing, or, in music: “I wanna learn a new instrument!”, or “I wanna learn how to compose 12-tone serialism”, or whatever. It’s a totally endless field, and so at some point, you want to decide, yeah, this is kind of my thing, this is what I want to be doing.
I think the problem is that that can be very difficult, especially now, especially when you are, you know … I’m sort of using the “royal you”. The mass of people, possibly young musicians, that our out there, struggling to find their place, and trying to figure out, you know: what is your thing, what is it you want to be doing? And I firmly believe that this is not a process than can be rushed, nor can it be faked. And what I mean by both of those, is that … I think a lot of people will say, they will be like 12 or 13 years old and they’d be like: I know for certain that I want to do X, Y and Z for the rest of my life, and, as much as I applaud this kind of ambition and self-knowledge, and while it may be true in rare cases, it’s usually not.
It’s really difficult, when you’re in your mid-teens, to have the kind of self-knowledge and sort of self-possession that’s required to make these kinds of big, long-term commitments. I certainly wasn’t, not remotely. And to a certain extent, this is actually verging in to territory that you didn’t exactly ask me about, but it is, I think related to the range … the depth versus breadth idea. It is also, I think difficult … it’s certainly more this way in Europe than it is in the United States, where you are asked at an early age to make these decisions and then stick to it. I know a fair amount about the European, especially the Northern European education system where, you know, you end up taking these tests when you 8,9,10,11,12, that are sort of deterministic for … okay, well, now you’re in this track, and now you cant really change tracks, or okay, you have to decide when you’re 14 and you’re gonna be a musician, or you’re gonna go to trade school, or you’re gonna go and do physics, or whatever else it is, right.
Yes, and I can also attest to that. Maybe the UK would be the notable exception, but definitely in France and Germany, and especially in Germany, you have that for sure.
JH: Yeah, Scandinavia too, to a certain extent, I’m working with a few students there. And, I mean, I don’t have a lot to say about that other than, I think what we are experiencing is that, as … so you can sort of set up this system, where, back in the day – and I’m talking about 60, 70 years ago, pre-computer era – you were … you know, any individual person was exposed to so much less, that it was just a lot easier to decide what you wanted to do. You didn’t have this existential problem of self-discovery and self-determination, when, if all you knew was, you know, ranching out in eastern Wyoming and that’s what your family did and that’s what everybody did and that’s just what you knew, it was easy to make that choice. Some would argue that, well, that was not really fair to the people back then, because they didn’t know that they were missing, and maybe that’s true … but I think on the other hand we’re living through, almost the paralysis of too many options. And in a way, what the internet affords young people, especially in Europe, is seeing the endless cornucopia of things you can do and be, but you’re asked to make decisions about that before you’re fully mature, before you’re anywhere near adulthood, before you have, again, the emotional maturity to know what it is that truly interests you, and what you’re going to be able to sustain, the kind of energy and willpower in for the many, many years it takes to really achieve mastery in anything, and that’s though.
I don’t really have a specific prescription for that, other than to be aware that that’s a problem, and – for myself, the way I dealt with it – was that I didn’t go to a conservatory. I needed a liberal arts experience, where I can go and get breadth, I wanted that for my education.
You mentionned in one of your previous email questions, this book, Range, by Epstein, and I think it’s interesting, because some people point to that work and point to his book and some of the statements in there, and it’s tempting to say: well, no this is a complete repudiation of the idea of deliberate practice, you shouldn’t focus on something, what you need is range and breadth, and I read all of that, you know I was reading about the book, and what he wrote in it, and I was like: Wait a minute, no, not a at all, these things are not mutually exclusive, their not antagonistic at all. I think what it is, is chronological. For me, and I think for many people, breadth precedes depth, which is to say: you get exposed to a lot, you learn about a lot of different things, this helps inform your worldview and make, you know, connections among different ideas and different disciplines, and armed with that, and then comparing it to your own sense of identity, values, and what you see that you want to contribute, you start to make decisions about what it is you’re gonna go really deep on. And I think that regardless of the educational system you’re in, regardless of Europe versus the U.S., regardless of liberal arts versus conservatory, there is this basic dynamic that can helpfully and sort of healthily exist, which is to say: breadth precedes depth, don’t rush to depth if you’re not sure about it.
I think the consequences of that … you know, we see them all the time, especially in the U.S, our American orchestras have people in them where, they had parents that were really, really pushing their kids to go to music, basically from the age of five or six, saying okay, this is what you’re gonna do, this is what our family does, you’re gonna be a musician too, and you need to go practice and do all this … and, you know, with sufficient sort of tyrannical helicopter parenting you can force a kid to get really good at an instrument, good enough to win a job. That certainly happens. I think the problem is that we all see that it’s not very sustainable. Because people get in there and realize: wait a minute, I never wanted to do this in the first place, and then, they’re adults, on their own, and they have landed in a place that they didn’t get to through their own volition or without defining their own agency in the process, and then things can get really complicated. I think that’s why you see certain example of people …
JW: Yeah, sort of: maybe a midlife crisis, maybe an early-life crisis, but anything where they’re like: oh my god, forget all of this, I’m dropping everything and going back to do something completely different. You know, and it’s also … in a way it’s ironic for me to say this, because I think some people that don’t know me or don’t know the context of my story would say: well wasn’t that what you did, you went into this one field and you totally jumped and did the other thing!
And my answer to that is: actually no, it was much more linear and seamless than that, pretty early on in the process, I knew what it was that I wanted to be doing, I knew what it was that my values and my process were urging me to do, and then it was just a matter of actualizing it, and that takes time, and the only sort of exceptional difference is that I managed to have a day job. All musicians get to a point where they’re out of school and they have to pay the rent somehow, it’s just that mine happened to be at a nanotech company and not like, Starbucks, but my guiding principle remained the same, which is: I want to do this if I can, there wasn’t crisis involved in that.
BW: Well I’m really grateful to be able to hear your answer to that question because I was really wondering how to reconciliate maybe … Peak and Range, and actually your story sounds a lot … to me it sounds like the anti tortoise and the hare. In the sense that you really took your time to – in some ways – to figure out your “why”, and why you wanted to go in the field, and that’s the first article on your blog if I’m not mistaken, and then you started to run faster and faster, you talk about three inflection points towards your goal, and that worked for you. So it’s really interesting how … that is in direct conflict with the idea that we have that you have to start early and hard, and that it’s gonna take pretty much the same amount of time for everybody, and that you cannot really work on F’, if I can say, that you can only work on putting in hours, and that an hour’s an hour, and stuff like that.
JH: I love that you said F’ because it’s exactly right. I think what a lot of those adages or pseudo-truism or received wisdom, what all that stuff is getting at is not exactly wrong, but it’s … again, it’s an incomplete picture, it’s not the full story. Like, it is true that getting an early start can be helpful, but what’s that really proxy for saying is that it takes time. And it takes smart time. And what that neglects is that exactly then where you start is not as important as putting in that time, but then, actually doing it really smartly, because if you do that, you know, somebody who practices really efficiently for 2000 hours can achieve far more than someone who practices really inefficiently for 20 000 hours. Right? And that’s exaclty the F’ concept you’re talking about. For any listeners that are not hip to this jargon, we are basically talking about calculus, but it’s trajectories and slopes and all that stuff.
BW: Yeah, I mean the way I see it it’s, on the one hand – and that’s actually the question I want to ask now – what I called in my email the “Dull Axe Dilemma”. How much time do you spend actually practicing, and how much time do you spend “practicing practice”, how much time do you spend refining your craft. So metaphorically it would be how much do you spend hitting the tree trunk versus how much time do you spend sharpening your axe. And I don’t know if the metaphor really holds, I don’t know if you do both at the same time or … Yeah I would like to have your ideas on that.
JH: Yeah, another very excellent question, and in fact here I am gonna pause because there was a quote about this that – it’s gonna take me about 20 seconds to find it, but it’s directly relevant – in Cal Newport’s other book, that I read this past summer, the summer of 2019, this is his book Deep Work. And on page 216, he actually gets into and documents this concept that I have written about a little bit and also discussed exstensively in masterclasses and talks when I give them, because I think a lot of people, they sort of naturally look at my story and again, the sort of trajectory involved, and they’re like: well, wait a minute, how is that even possible, you had a full time job at a nanotechnology company, you’re a titled principal scientist person and you’re going around and giving talks on that and had this fairly demanding job at the same time that you were playing in the civic orchestra, and auditionning, and freelancing and doing all of the stuff, like, how is that even possible?
And my response to that has always been this exact same thing that Cal Newport cites, which is that tech workers, like people who work in offices, in cubicles and with computers, they might be physically present in an office 8 to 10 hours a day, but they’re not doing nearly that much work in a given day. My estimate was that in any given day, my coworkers and colleagues at the company were doing about 2 to 3 honest hours of work. And the other 7 to 8 hours were messing around on social media sites, and hanging out and chatting at the water cooler, and going on a long lunch, and you know, all of this other stuff … which is not bad, and to be clear, this is fairly universal, this is not just the tech sector, this is finance, this is marketing, this is advertisment, this is like everything. And what it really points to is that most people are just really, really inefficient with their time, they’re not focussed, they’re not disciplined, they don’t … they’re not really consciously aware of how they’re spending it and so it tends to just get wasted in all sorts of different ways, and … So what I did for myself is that I said okay, well, if all it’s gonna take is about 2 to 3 hours of really focussed work time for me to keep up and, or exceed what the rest of my colleagues are doing, I can do that, and still have 7 to 8 hours a day left over for sharpening my axe. Right?
So the idea was, I was gonna put in the maximum amount of actual practice time a day that I could, which, as I’ve written about, is I think, increasingly understood to be governed by some hard and fast physical limits: how much you can sustain focus and concentration, how much this may or may not relate to the biochemistry of myelination, some of these other things. But we all now that practicing 3, 4, 5 hours a day is a lot, and then beyond a certain point, it’s just diminishing returns. And this is all the more true for brass players, where you can really start to hurt yourself if you’re blowing too much any given day.
So all that being said, I was basically challenging myself to say okay, you can practice as much as possible every day and you’re still going to have a lot of time left over, so use that time really effectively to sharpen your axe. Which is to say, your initial question, I would argue, was a flawed concept, it was a flawed premise that you have to choose between one an the other. No, it’s both: you put in the maximal amount of practicing, and, as long as you can be efficient and disciplined with your time, you’ll still have many hours a day to go about this task of – I like the analogy you made – sharpening your axe and really improving your process so that the time you spend in the practice room with your instrument is the most efficient it can be.
BW: Ok, so if I understand you correctly you’re saying that, actually, you are spending as much time as you can just completely focussed on your instrument, and once you’re, not burn out, but once you’re reaching the point of diminishing returns, you stop and the other hours in the day are used for normal activities, and also sharpening your axe, thinking critically about practicing, and so on. Is that right?
JH: That’s basically it, but it’s like one and then the other, I mean it’s very much interleaved. So for example, even before I won the MET audition, my daily schedule would be something like: I get up at 5:30 or 5:35 in the morning, have some coffee and a light breakfast, practice for an hour, take a 10 or 15 minute break, maybe do some quick stretches, or you know, something like that, do another 45 minutes to an hour of practicing, and then go to work, and I’d be at work for 8 to 10 hours, and in that 8 to 10 hours, I would have, again, you know, 6 or 7 of them available to do the axe sharpening.
And the axe sharpening could range anything from listening back to some of the recordings I made from the practice session that morning, to listening back to and transcribing the lesson I had with a really good teacher the week previous, it could be listening back to the mock audition I played with a group of people a couple days before that, it could be listening to 20 different recordings of the same symphonic portion for an exerpt that I’m studying, it could be score study, it could be reading more articles about deliberate practice, again, the sky is the limit there. It was whatever I was focussed on doing that was gonna make my time in the practice room better and more impactful.
And then I would get home from work, and pick up where I left off, and say okay, I’ve done this other stuff, I’ve gotten even more refined in my process, I’m even more targeted in what I’m doing now, now I’m gonna practice another couple hours, make dinner and jog for a few hours in the evening, and that would be a day. So again, it’s not one or the other, it’s a lot more interleaved and interspersed.
BW: Okay, well, that’s much clearer, thank you.
I would like to maybe change subjects a little bit and ask you questions about the social aspects of deliberate practice. Actually … I don’t know if it’s in the Talent Code or in Talent is Overrated, but I read this statistic that … I think – I will link and find correctly – but it’s something like competitive runners have on average 4.1 brothers, big brothers or big sisters, or something like that. And so there seems to be this component of emulation and sometimes of competition that takes place between people and besides you also mention the book: The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross, in which he describes couples of frenemy composers, and in general people seem to be more driven by immediate competition rather than by long-term goals. And in the same vein, Eric Weinstein makes it clear that in his opinion it is very important for one to find his or her own arch-nemesis.
And so I’d like to have your thoughts on this subject: the collective aspect of deliberate practice.
JH: Yeah. So I think the interesting this is that this stuff all revolves around the same basic idea, which is that virtually all of the deliberate practice research at this point across a variety of different disciplines points to this thing that the researchers, in various ways, call the supporting environment. And the supporting environment is essentially everything else beyond you, your instrument and the practice room that you are cultivating and sort of architecting to enhance your project, which is your process and your trajectory and everything else.
And I think all of the different examples you cites are sorts of different manifestations of how that can work. But one of the underlying caveats, or admissions I suppose, in all of this is being honest with ourselves as human beings, which is to say that we can aspirationally hope to do a great deal, and we try to make plans and it’s a good thing that we’re often really optimistic and all of this, and then reality intervenes. And then it’s a lot harder in practice to get stuff done on time, or learn as much rep as you’d wanted to, or get as many practice hours in before this audition as you were hoping, and on and on and on. And to be clear, that never ends. I still struggle with this on a daily basis in my position at the MET.
And so what the supporting environment accomplishes is a variety of safeguards, it’s almost like checks and balances, you know, guard rails on our behaviour and our decisions, to keep us as positively focused on our original intentions as possible. And sometimes, in the example you mentioned, it can be identifying an arch-nemesis, somebody with who you can compete, so that it’s like this competitive drive is what is fuelling you to get more work done. Right?
Now, I think there are pros and cons to that approach. I think it can vary by discipline and by field, but to be perfectly honest one of the things I try to encourage my students to think about is getting away from this idea of competing with other individuals. Because so much about, I think, high level music performance and the the sort of related performance psychology is recognizing that you’re only really competing with yourself. In a given performance, in a given audition, you a going there to do your best job. And you’re not really so much worrying about what other people are doing. You can’t control that.
You know … certain sports frameworks can be useful in making this analogy. I think the idea of the arch-nemesis is like, for tennis aficionados, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, these are 2 incredibly skilled tennis players who continue to see themselves in the quarter and semi-finals and finals of the Wimbeldon, the U.S. open and all this other suff, they are competitors directly, and one’s performance impacts the other, and a the end of the day it’s a zero-sum game.
I don’t think music is like that, music is a lot more like golf: you’re going out there and you’re just trying to do your best, and you’re not directy interacting with the other people against whom you’re sort of “competing”. And so again, I think the arch-nemesis thing is variously useful in different contexts, what I do think is a lot more relevant to musicians is this notion of like, runners coming from families of other people who do this, you know, it’s exposure and it’s an environment that creates a lot of incentives to do the right thing and creates disincentives to not do the wrong thing. And to a large extent, as musicians, we get this in school. School is sort of our first major supporting environment, when you are now surrounded by other reasonably like-minded individuals who have similar goals and with whom you can share ideas and practice strategies, and musical insights, and you can socialize with them and you can be sort of an emotional support network, and all of this other stuff. And that is really, really, essential. I don’t know of major examples of people who were able to make incredible progress in a discipline without having that sort of environement.
JH: And there’s a couple interesting parts of the same book Deep Work, that examine this idea: because there’s the myth of the isolated mad scientist, that like you get somebody who’s just like so completely dedicated to the thing that they go off to an island and they live by themselves for 10 years and they come back and they’ve cured cancer, or something. And that doesn’t exist. That’s just never a thing that’s happened, and what he talks about in the book is that people have looked for this, they tried to find case studies of, okay, can we find somebody who has learned an incredible amount and really made sustantial contributions to the field and done all of this sort of like a solitary monk on top of the mountain without interacting with anyone or cross-pollinating, or having the supporting environment, and the answer, so far, is no, they can’t find examples of people who do this.
Now, of course there’s a subtlety to this, which is you need both, again it’s sort of like the idea of breadth and depth, all over again. You need a network of people, you need a supporting environement that you can learn from, rely upon, interact with, get inspired by, learn from in a sort of amplifying context, but then you need obviously a lot of solitary time by yourself to just go and do the work, and you know, composers like Mahler, and his frenemy Strauss, were great examples of this. Mahler had his little composing hut in the woods in the mountains, but he was also like very much a man about Vienna, you know, he would interact with other people, and he was conducting, so he had both the breadth and the depth going on, and that was what was kind of fueling his project.
BW: Okay. I have a bit of a – maybe more practical and slightly different question now, going back to Epstein’s book Range, he has this idea of wicked environement versus – I think – straightforward environments, or something along these lines, and so, maybe it’s just my ignorance of the field, but it seems to me that for example, being an orchestral musician is more of a “fair” environment is the sense that you have to accomplish something that is fairly specific and for example at an audition you get direct feedback: you know if you passed or not. And so I’m wondering if you have any ideas for musicians that are in the fields of, I don’t know, for example Jazz playing of stuff like that, that rely much more on nebulous ideas and concepts – maybe a bit more of a wicked environment – where you don’t get straightforward feedback. I’m wondering if you have advice for these people and how can they apply you principles for example of journaling, or building on feedback and so on.
JH: Yeah, I think it’s a really fair question. I think … I have a couple sort of initial thoughts on this, and then I’ll elaborate. The initial thought is: nothing changes. It’s still all the same basic dynamics and mechanisms. You just have to, you know, kind of craft your approach a little bit differently. Because things are obviously not as straightforward, just like you said. Winning an audition in a blind audition process in a US orchestra like the MET, is a much more straightforward thing, you send in your resumé, you show up, you play for a comitee or 12 or 13 people or whatever that’s behind a screen and they either vote for you or not, and at the end of it, you either won or you didn’t and you hopefully can get some feedback and then go on to the next one. Fair enough. Right? And it’s especially concrete if the feedback you got was: you were rushing, and you made mistakes, and you were playing out of tune. That’s objective stuff, that’s not like: Ooh, I didn’t like your interpretation.
And then there are other times where you may be in the finals for something, and the comments that you get are like, ah, you know, all the different finalists were really, really good. They all had different things to say and we just sort of felt that this other player kind of matched our artistic personality a little better, and was just a better fit. Okay, like fine. There is not so much you can do about that, move on to the next one and hope the stars align there.
I think where it obviously gets much more complicated is the kind of things you’re talking about, which is certain kinds of freelancing, certainly if there are … the world of composing is a whole different animal there, people who are sort of mix composers/performers, who are charting their own path in the 21st century internet identity environement where it’s all about maximizing exposure and all of this other stuff. That is a lot more complicated, it is not … the rules of success are not as straightforward obviously.
Nevertheless, I still think that the same basic process applies, and no matter what it gotta start with: well, find some people who have been demonstrably successful at this, and ask them what they’ve done, and ask for advice.
In a way this is no different than for decades … for hundreds of years, human beings thought that nobody could run faster than … nobody could run a mile in faster than 4 minutes, and then Roger Bannister did it, and everybody was like: Oh crap! How did you do that? And so people started to ask: oh you trained differently, you trained smarter, you had a different approach to it, oh you wore this kind of shoe, oh ok. And then you get some insight, and then turns out that other people are able to do it too, it wasn’t just that he was genetically gifted or something, it was about his training and his approach and his process.
And so I think, regardless of wicked versus unwicked environement, or the degree of wickedness involved, it’s still about finding examples and emulating and adapting what they’re doing. In sort of the same way as the supporting environement, the very related concept is that nobody gets there on their own, nobody makes real progress without having teachers and mentors along the way. Nobody should be ashamed of seeking out mentors, that’s really what this is all about. You should want that, and need it, and be proud of doing that, and, you know, like-minded mentors would be happy to doing that. I think that there’s a lot of joy and learning that teachers get from the process too, and so regardless of the environement, again, whether it’s jazz vibraphone, or spectral composition, or busking in the subway, or like whatever it is that your thing is, isolating and identifying the people that have been very successful at it and then saying: cool, so how did you do that? What advice do you have for me?
BW: Yeah, I mean in a way, there will be no way to completely shelter oneself from selection bias maybe, but there, that’s where there’s maybe a little bit of faith that comes in and that’s what you talk about in your blog as well, like if in 10 years nothing has happened but you made progress by your own accord, will it have been worth it? And so that’s this question of: are you intrinsically motivated?
JH: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That is really where it’s at. And I mean I think, we’re landing squarely in the territory of I think, another one of the questions you had, which is, remind me, I think you called it maybe terror management or something like that? Right?
BW: Yeah, maybe it was a bit exaggerated, but …
JH: Yes and no, I mean, because you hit the nail on the head, this is hard! This is really, really hard, and it’s really competitive. And, you know, I really do think it requires people, when they’re getting into it, to ask themselves seriously a couple of questions, and to answer honestly. And the one is the one you just mentioned, which is: if all of this doesn’t work out – and you can put some sort of benchmark in the future, maybe it’s 5 years, maybe it’s 10 years, and you know, you’re not bound to that but just for the sort of thought-experiment value of it – if at some point, 10 years from now, this hasn’t worked out according to what I defined success to be, will it have been worth it?
And that question is not easy to answer, and it often requires a lot of introspection, but it also forces you to start really thinking about like what are the motivations getting people into this, which gets right back to that issue of sustainability that we sort of started off with, in a way, because if you’re not going about this in a manner where you have had some exposure, and some breadth, and then you, you know, make some sort of realization about yourself and you go further, and you start to decide what interests you, and … sorry, just tangentially for a second, I think, there was this article I found the Atlantic monthy, called: Find your passion is really terrible advice, and I actually loved it, because their point was essentially what I made with talking about excruciating joy. Passion makes it sound like this is always gonna be fun and like we musicians just sit there every day reveling in the beauty of our own sound, and like doing all of this stuff, and like my god, no! It is far from it. It is often a slog, and it is hard, and it is long hours, and your body hurts, and all of this stuff.
But it’s the kind of rewarding work that I feel in the same way if I do a really long hike at high altitude. Right? You know, my legs are tired and my feet hurt and my lungs are burning, but man the view is amazing, and I’m glad I did it. And so, having that kind of sense about why you’re doing what you’re doing, is what can help you answer that question honestly: yeah, if this all doesn’t work out, it will still have been worth it, it will still be worth the time.
It’s sort of like, if you go on a big hike, and you come down and you sprain your ankle in the last half a mile, was the hike still worth it? And it’s like well ok yeah, you can’t always control what happens and maybe that means you’re not gonna get to go on a hike for another 6 months, but it was still a good hike! It was still a beautiful view, right? I think about this metaphor a lot of times when encountering Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. It’s like the most literal musical example of this idea, and in the Alpine symphony, there’s a thunderstorm, and you get wet and you’re cold, and it’s not comfortable.
So, this is the thing, I think, that most effectively confronts that sort of terror management idea that you talked about, because for the people who are gripped by this, who have this existential dread: oh my god, what if this doesn’t work out? The answer is: you’ve dealt with that problem already; you’ve already accepted that it might not. You’ve thought about it a lot, and you’ve got some contigency plans, and you’re setting up this process so that you can do this for the long haul.
One of the other things I’ve recently begun focussing a lot more in my teaching with early college-age and even high school students is thinking about this basic reality. At least here in the U.S, I think way too many music education programs at universities and conservatories, they don’t do nearly enough to prepare people for the realities that are gonna confront them when they’re out of school, which is to say, you finish a bachelor’s degree, or a master’s degree, or you even stick around for an artist’s diploma, or some sort of certificate or something like that.
And, you know, you’re done with school, then when you’re like 23, 24, 25, … something like that. And … great, then what?
And as soon as I got to the MET, I ended up overseeing this sort of internal study that we did, where we asked the members of our orchestra 2 questions: how old were you when you won your audition for the metropolitan opera, and how many auditions had you taken at that point? And, you know, unsurprisingly, like happens with surveys like this, you get results that essentially form kind of a bell curve, and you’ve got outliers on either end, and on the high end, people had taken 45-50 auditions and won the job in their fifties. Wow, okay, that’s tenacity! On the low end, yeah, there were a couple people that won jobs either straight out of school or while they were in school. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s that that is by far an outlier, it is rare, it’s not the thing you can count on. And yet, so many people proceed through school as if they’re counting on that happening. And I’ll ask students this all the time: great, so what are your plans for after graduation? They’re like: Well, I’m just gonna audition and win a job. It’s like: are you? I mean, on average, there’s gonna be a 4 to 8 years gap in there between when you finish school and you’ve refined your process enough to win a job.
And this is not an accident in a way, because the field continues to get much much more competitive, and it takes longer to get to the level that you need to be at to be technically and musically competitive in this, auditionning itself is its own skill, it takes a while to get used to that, and, you know, it’s just gonna take time.
And so the question I want to get my students asking themselves as early on as possible is that, again, accepting that this might not work out, which is not defeatist, it’s just confronting reality as it is, and accepting that even if this does work out, it’s still gonna be likely a multi-year gap between the time I’m done in school, and when I’m good enough of a competitor and I’m good enough to win an audition. So what’s my plan? What am I gonna do in the meantime? Right?
I think of school as sort of like the research and development lab in a way for your musical training, where you come up with a prototype, but then you emerge out into the world and you’re like: oh crap, now we have to alpha-test this and beta-test this and actually get a product that’s usable. And that’s what you need to bring to an audition. And that’s frankly what we’re listening for behind the screen is, you know, are you not just like a skilled student, but like a mature, complete musician package, right?
And so the question then is: great, so you’re planning to go to school, but then what are you also gonna be doing for the 2 to 4 to 8 years after that? And I mean it’s just really astonishing to me how few people have given that part really, really serious thought. Because when I press people on it, they’re like: yeah, I get it, I still might need to keep on improving and practicing when I’m out of school, but I’ll figure out a way to do that. And I’m like: okay, but how? What are you gonna do? Again, you’re gonna need to pay the rent somehow, and maybe you have really generous parents, or you have a trust fund and you can just like live in their basement for 10 years or something, but that’s, again, not the norm. So what’s the plan?
And it’s actually … the more I have been teaching and seeing the same problem manifested throughout a generation of younger player it’s made me really reflect upon and appreciate my own experience, which is that, at the time, I thought that I was at a major disadvantage, because I had this other job, and this other career, and I was like: Oh my god, I feel kind of distracted by this, maybe I’m just not gonna be competitive at these auditions and oh, what am I doing, and, you know, there was a lot of existential doubt, and agony, and all this other stuff.
And yet, my god, in retrospect I had a huge advantage going into that, because I had a way to make my process sustainable. I could do it for as long as I needed to. And I think a lot of people, a lot of the terror management that comes into this is people imposing some sort of arbitrary deadline onto themselves, saying like: well, you know, if I haven’t won an audition after 30 auditions, or if I haven’t won something by the time I turn 30, I’m giving it all up, and I’m going back and getting an MBA or doing something totally different.
And to me that’s just like … I don’t get that at all. That makes no sense whatsoever, especially considering that this field continues to get more and more competitive, and that “finish line”, the period when you can actually support yourself with your music-making, that line is just going to keep getting further and further away from school. And so it just seems totally insane to me that you’d like, impose an arbitrary threshold, and then use that threshold to freak yourself out constantly. I think it’s much more useful to think about: okay, what can I do to make my process of improving as beneficial and sustainable as possible. And if that involves, you know, having a different form of employment, several different forms of employment, doing a couple of different things, but making sure that your income is coming from places that still provide you time and space and mental bandwith to practice … that’s the name of the game.
BW: It’s very interesting to see how intent you are on bridging that gap between the reality and …
JH: And look, I’m gonna say some stuff now that’s not gonna be popular with school administrators, but that’s the nice thing about the path I took, I have no debt to them, I didn’t go to a conservatory, I don’t owe them anything, it’s fine, and I think this cuts the same way in both Europe and the U.S: the reason the system is that it is not in a music school’s best interest to be fully honest about this. If on the application materials it said: warning, only 5% of you are gonna actually do this, there would be a lot fewer people applying, there has to be a certain amount of sort of optimistic delusion that gets people into this.
But I also feel like … One of my roles now and one of the thing I want to do in my teaching and writing, and everything else, is sort of act as a helpful filter, and a little dose of reality. It’s not that I want people to quit music, far from it, I want a lot of people to be involved in music. What I want though, is for the ones who really decide to make a commitment – like a multi-year, decades long commitment to the performing arts – I would like those people to be the thoughtful ones, the instrospective ones. The ones who have asked themselves the question: if this all doesn’t work out, will it have been worth it anyway? I think the field is gonna be better off, I think individual human beings will be better off, and again, the problem is that it’s not in schools’ or conservatory programs’ best interests to get people asking those questions. They need to fill their roles, they need need to meet their minimum enrolment guidelines, they have bills to pay, they have teachers to pay, and so their priority is: keep people coming into the school, and paying tuition, and get them degrees, and then after that, it’s not their problem. And that is not a helpful or reality-based way to look at what a music career is gonna be like.
And you know, the thing is, you don’t have the same issue with MBA programs, you don’t have the same issues with Law degrees. And this is simply because musicians have this, again, passion part of it. It might be excruciating joy, but there is thing where we’re like, art is important to us. There is thing about great works of music from all these different centuries that reflect something about being human and helps us contextualize our place in the world. And this speaks to us and is attractive to us in ways that reams of mind-numbing jurisprudence or financial mergers just isn’t. And so you don’t have 10 to 20 times as many people appying for law degrees as there are jobs available, you don’t have that same problem with MBAs. And so those schools don’t have to deal with that. Well, that’s the situation we face in the performing arts, and the schools are not gonna police themselves, they’re not gonna … there’s never gonna be a point where major music schools and conservatories are gonna say: well, you know, the jobs just are not so plentiful out there so we’re only accepting 5% of the people that applied this year. It’s not gonna happen. And so it’s really on the individual to make these decisions for themselves, to look at it clear-eyed, to understand what they are getting themselves into, to be real about it and then think about what this process is gonna look like in the long term.
BW: You said that the traditional notion of talent is dead, referencing the scientific literature and the scientific consensus, however it seems to be alive and well in culture and in the collective unconscious. And I’d like to have your opinion on why do you think that is and why is it … because I’ve had this conversation with many of my friends and family and it’s crazy to see how much people seem to be attached to this idea of innate talent, like the mozart myth.
JH: Yes, I agree. It is something where … because this is often an idea I lead with when I’m teaching, because it is so fondational and everything else about my approach and my process and methods and everything else stem from this, I feel like you kind of have to go with that first. But then it also gives me an opportunity to see the inherent pushback and the: wow, wait a minute, and people are still very frequently taken out of their comfort zones by this idea.
My answer to this … I mean, there is some of this that is tackled in the literature, some of it is sort of speculative, here, I’m gonna pause for another 20 seconds and just pull up some of the relevant quotes.
Yeah, so for example, page 207 in Peak, Ericsson writes: It’s one of the most enduring and deep-seated beliefs about human nature that natural talent plays a major role in determining ability, but studies of experts point to a quite different explanation with deliberate practice playing the starring role. And the question is essentially: Why? Why is it that this is such a deep-seated idea that goes back, I mean, millenia?
And I think there are a variety of different ways to answer this. I think to a certain extent … and I mean, when I talk about the millenia old thing, you can see in the earliest epics, the writings, you know, the Iliad and the Odyssey, all of these classic archetypal myth stories have at their center some sort of hero who is endowed with unnatural abilities and who has a destiny to go do things heroic. And you can be talking about Achilles, you can be talking about Hercules, you can be talking about Siegfried, you can be talking about Anakin Skywalker, I mean this is all the same stuff.
BW: Maybe that’s the Hero with a Thousand Faces, you know the book by Joseph Cambell?
JH: Exactly, it’s exactly right. That’s the same basic story, it is so deeply set in our societal understanding, in all of our stories.
So in a way, the most proximate answer is that it’s no surprise that people think this because this is the story they’ve been told since they’ve been early enough to know what stories are. These are the stories we tell ourselves and whether it’s … again, it could be Luke Skywalker, it could be one of the X-Men, it’s like: you have a specialness, and you were born with this, and you’re destined for greatness. Right?
JH: I think though, that there is this dark side of that, that a lot of people don’t really think about when they’re absorbing these initial stories, because in a way, it stems from the feeling that everybody wants to feel special, everybody is the hero of their own story.
And so if you can feel like you’re talented too, well, now you’re even more the starring actor or actress in your own story and you are destined for greatness and you know, I think the other part of it is that it sort of serves as this assurance against the terror management problem, which is like: oh wow, if I didn’t have this talent, if I wasn’t strong with the Force, this whole thing, this whole project would be really scary, but since I know I’m talented, since my midichlorian count is high enough, I know this is all gonna work out and it’s gonna be fine. And so in sort of a … it’s sort of a psychological palliative trick, I think, where people are like: well, I’m desperate I’m told I’m talented, and so as long as I’m told that, I’m gonna believe that, and that way I can allay the fears that maybe I’m not, or maybe talent isn’t even a thing, and maybe the world is actually fondamentally chaotic, and difficult to predict and you can’t know exactly how this is gonna turn out, and because confronting the reality of this is not easy. You have to do deep assessments of your values, and what you want to be doing, and all of this.
I think the other side of it, I mean so there’s how that entire framework of thinking can be attractive to people who believe they’re talented, or who have done enough work to develop skills, and then have some manifestation of what people would call talent.
I think the other side of that is that it excuses the people who aren’t, which is to say: it gives a total pass, it’s an out for people who are not manifesting those skills, or who are not achieving things or whatever. It’s a very easy way to say: well, you know, hey, you didn’t really score so hard on that last math test, it’s like: yeah, I’m like not talented in math, it’s just not my thing or man you really sucked out there in the soccer field today, well I don’t really have a lot of talent in soccer. It’s a very easy excuse. And I think as people like Ericsson have written about, all of this can become incredibly self-fulfilling.
And one of the most prominent examples of that is actually Canadian hockey, where you see … and you see this in sports all around the world, but where … in Canada, a huge number of the professional hockey players have birthdays between January 1st and middle March. And you’d look at this on paper and go wait, what? What’s going on here? Are people born in those months just like genetically stronger and faster, or something, and it’s like no, obviously not. What happens is that the cutoff for youth hockey league is december 31, and so if you’re born January 1st, you will be the oldest kid on your team.
And so the coaches who are coaching and who still likely believe in this old paradigm of talent, they look at all these kids showing up on the ice, and some of them are skating better than others, and some of them are skating faster than others, and they assume those are the ones who are talent and so they’re like well I’m gonna give them more like … extra training and coaching and I’m gonna put them on the starting team and do all of this. And from this very early age, you get this like, bifurcating paths system where the kids percieved to have talent get a different route in front of them, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, when in fact it’s just a pure quirk of the arbitrary deadlines to join the league. And the only reason that matters is because yeah, when you’re 4 or 5, the difference in 8 or 9 months of growth can make a huge difference in your size, your weight, your speed, your dexterity, all of these other things, and that’s not natural talent, that’s just how kids grow, and it’s random. And you can design a system totally differently and come up with different results.
And so there are all of these different ways that this talent myth permeates culture, and we see this from Star Wars and the Iliad and everything else, but then there’s also, I think, this almost deeper layer which is maybe like why do those myths exist in the first place, and this is … this is now much more just me being speculative and subjectively riffing, but I think a lot of it can have to do with almost a different … like political cross-currents we’re seeing in the world right now, in the way technology and social media have allowed enabled these to emerge more strongly.
I think this is this very interesting drive towards class inequality that re-emerges throughout history in every society all of the time, and it could be the French Enlightenment, it could be Medieval Agrarianism, or it could be income inequality in the United States in the 21st century, but nevertheless, you have people at the top who are sucking up all the ressources, and then you have the great masses of those underneath supporting them, and for the people on top, you wanna feel like you deserve it. You need to not feel guilty about that. And so for a long time … you know, the Papacy would give it sort of a religious twist, it’s like well no, these people have been chosen by God, or the monarchy would say well no, these are the people whose bloodline is the best to rule the country, and more recently we’ve gotten the ideas of like well no it’s the meritocracy, we want to be governed by those who have proven themselves, by they’ve proven themselves because they are the most talented.
And I think in a way the deep-seated nature of this almost relates back to then, this basic human fear of death. When you have these generational dynasties, you want to believe that you are gonna be sort of immortal, through you family, your kids, your dynasty, they have received your genetic gifts and your talents and they will go on and continue it going and the name will live and therefore … that’s how you confront mortality. It’s the sort of like “generational talent-based immortality”.
It’s a lot tougher to reconcile like: oh. It also might be totally random, and my kids might end up doing totally different things than I do, they might all go into non-profit work and barely scrape by their entire lives, and 2 or 3 generations they will be doing things entirely different. And so, I don’t know, I think there are a lot of deep-seated psychological factors that explain how the talent myth – you know, like Ericsson said, has been one of the most basic understandings of human nature for thousands of years, and is also just provably wrong.
BW: Well, that’s a very, very interesting way of seeing it, and actually, while you were talking I was also thinking that some things that might tend to confirm your thesis might be the idea of predestination in Protestantism or the idea of Karma in Hindouism have both been successfully used to enforce this kind of social control where … Yeah, I mean there is a social order, and people are where they are because it’s been preordained and that’s the way it should be, so it’s very … I mean, to cite Carol Dweck, that would be opposite of the growth mindset, right?
JH: Absolutely. Well and to your point though, I think it is a very interesting idea that like … I mean, I can’t say this from experience or anything, but I would be very interested to know if the notion of talent like this is as deeply seated in Eastern cultures as in Western cultures. Because you’re absolutely right, so much of religious doctrine, for millenia, in the West, have had this idea of predestination involved in it, whereas Buddhist ideas are much more process-oriented, much less “God has a plan for you”, and even the notion of Karma itself is a much more sort of deliberate practice idea. You gotta do the work to get Karma, it’s all about the process, you do the work and if you engage in it, then good things will come to you after that, but you’re not born with Karma, right? And so yeah, I think your question does … it points to some basic fundamental differences in how humans have structured their societies, how we think about philosophy and just everything else.
BW: Okay, well Jason, one last question for you: do you find yourself applying deliberate practice in other areas of your life?
JH: Oh certainly, yeah yeah. In fact, funny thing, here’s the anecdote for the day: I am looking right now, in my hand I have a map of Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks that just showed up in the mail yesterday, because I’m in the middle of planning a backpacking trip for me and my girlfriend this July. And, for me, the sort of experience of the outdoors, and doing these multi-day treks with everything we need on our back, you know, our tent, our food, everything else, it’s a very interesting corollary to my experience of music and a music career. There’s a lot involved with it that seems either sort of parallel or two sides of the same coin.
But with specific respect to that, I have approached that – I mean, you can call it a hobby, you can call it a lifestyle, whatever else – but, you know, right around the time I started getting really serious music, I was getting more deliberate about the way I would do those trips. And it had to do with keeping very detailed lists of things I was bringing, and then I made a spreadsheet of all those lists, and then I started to go through and weigh with a little gram scale everything that was in my pack, and I would have these different contingency settings in my spreadsheet to be like: ok, if I’m gonna be in this climate, I’m gonna need this, this and this, but I’m not gonna need this other thing, and if I’m gonna be in the Rockies, I’m gonna need a bear cannister, but I’m not gonna need this other thing. Right? And again, it was all about optimization, efficiency, not bringing any more stuff than I needed, not wasting resources or time or anything, ultimately so that I could have the most enjoyable possible experience in the back country.
And I think for some people, this probably sounds agonizing, they’re like: oh my God, that sounds like a lot of work, and you have to be out there, you’re out there for days and you’re not showering, and I’m like: Yep! Okay fine, it’s totally, it’s not for everyone, just the same way that a music career is not for everyone, I grant that. But for me, I love it, I love the feeling of freedom and independence and self-sufficiency that comes from like: I am in the middle of the wilderness, everything that I need is on my back, it weight less than 30 pounds, it’s not too physically strenuous, it means that we can go up higher mountains and not be getting altitude sickness and just all of this other stuff, and you know, I’m more comfortable because I’ve spent the time to really research what gear is gonna be really light weight, but still rain-repellant and all of this other stuff, so that like no matter the conditions, we can still get through it and be fine. And you know, people listening to this might already know where I’m going with this, but like again, there is this very parallel idea for the way I think about that, which is, you know, you prepare really well, so you can be ready for adversity, in the exact way that I think about a music career.
BW: Oh yeah, but it’s also like the multiverse idea that you have in the last article!
JH: Yeah. Yeah, there’s a whole different … there’s a variety of contigencies and ways this can go, but when you’ve been thoughtful about it and sort of deliberately planning, you’ve foreseen all of those in advance, and so, you know, few things will ever take you totally by surprise, and you know what to do when you see a moose, or a bear, or it’s 11 A.M. and a thunderstorm comes across and you’re above the tree line, you’re like, you know what to do and you can take care of yourself and there is real strength that comes from that, I mean there’s a lot of confidence that can come from that kind of deliberate planning.
And you know when I … I’ll sometimes have these parts of classes I teach where I just take young musicians and I run them through the statistics. And the statistics start off with saying things like: okay, there’s roughly 7000 to 10 000 music performance degrees granted in the United States every year. Okay fine, so that’s like this pool of people out there against whom you are nominally competing. And then you’ve got that pool, but of course it’s not just the people in that pool, you’ve also got the people from last year’s pool, and the people from the pool before that. And so it’s informing this idea of how truly, truly competitive this thing is, and … oh, and then I walk them through so you’ve got these ten of thousands of persons, in the United States, you’ve got 52 [?] orchestras, and in the US, these are the orchestras that essentially pay a living wage, it’s enough money to live on and you get health benefits, that kind of thing. And, with 52 of these orchestras, round up to like roughly 100 people per orchestra – that’s a stretch, but still – well that’s like 5200 positions, and if you assume that an average length career is about 30 years, that means that there’s only 173 openings per year. But you’ve also got 7000 people joining this pool that’s increasingly growing from 7000 joining this pool that’s increasingly growing from 7000 to 14 000 to 28 000 to like 60 000 people. And these statistics can be absolutely terrifying.
JH: But, and this is the big but, and this is the very important part, I’m telling them this not to freak them out, I bring this up because it’s the same thing I think about when I’m like … when I’m at the Grand Canyon for instance, I don’t know if you’ve ever been, but in the middle of Arizona we have the biggest canyon in the world. And you go up to the edge of that and there’s all these warning signs … you know, don’t get too close to the edge, don’t do this, you know, and one of the biggest one is do not attempt to hike down to the colorado river and back in one day. It’s too dangerous, it’s too far, it’s easy to go down, it’s much harder to get back up, and you will probably have to be helicoptered out. You’ll get heat stroke, heat exhaustion, something, don’t do it. Of course, nevertheless every day, every year, there are people who show up unprepared, overconfident, not understanding their own preparation, or their weaknesses or anything else, and they go down, and they get themselves into trouble, and they might be 23 year old guys in their peak physical prime and still, they get choppered out of the grand canyon because they had no idea what they were doing. By contrast, when I was doing a hike there, I saw people in their eighties who were really well prepared, and they did the work, and they were deliberate about it, and they had all the right gear, and they were taking their time, and they were just fine.
And so to me, it’s like the ultimate living metaphor of this whole concept that like, yeah, you wanna know what you’re getting yourself into, but you also know that this pool of people is not all the same. It’s actually a fairly small number of people who are gonna be discipline, and who are gonna be organized, and who are going to take the long view, and set themselves up to be competitive over a long time, and who are gonna made the kinds of choices that will be increasingly putting them at an advantage and who are really gonna do the work. And so you don’t necessarily have to be terrified of the fact that there are tens of thousands of people competing for this small number of positions, when you recognize that it is totally within your power to make the decisions and form your process to be one of the people that has a very good shot at it.
BW: Yeah I guess that’s the best way to approach this, because as you said that is both honest and there’s a silver lining there. Well Jason …
JH: Yeah, and like [?], the silver lining is: I like to hike! So you’ll have a good time along the way no matter what.
BW: Yeah, that’s the most important thing. Jason, thanks a million for your time and yeah … thank you!
JH: You got it!