Peter Lyons

Sep 02, 2010

Plateaus

OK, so here's comes a rare touchy-feely, gut-spilling blog post! So what's running through my mind these days is this notion of plateaus. I've got three main interests that I pursue with some degree of commitment: music, computers, and athletics. That's it. Just those three and there's not much else in my life that I've ever engaged in deeply. In all three of them, I seem to be well into a plateau in terms of ability and engagement. I'm thinking a lot about this and whether anything can or should be done about it.

Pondering this often, I've come to observe that a great deal of my own personal satisfaction and perhaps a lot of my sense of self worth comes from perceiving myself as "good at" things. I want to be on the right hand side of the bell curve, at least on a small set of things where I have a certain amount of talent and motivation, I want to feel like I've built up a set of accomplishments and skills that put me pretty far out there to the right of the bell curve. I don't know why I have this desire. I don't know whether or not it's ultimately healthy. I'm somewhat torn on that fact. There's a part of me that thinks if you don't get really "good at" a few things, you're ordinary, ineffective, and unremarkable. There's another small Zen camp in my psyche that thinks ultimately this doesn't matter and it's not important. One part of me thinks its latent indoctrination from grade school and my love of getting "A"s. And there's another statistical camp in my psyche that says I should expect to be toward the middle of the bell curve by definition and there's not much escaping that ultimately because it's baked into how we compute the bell curve. But anyway, at least right now this notion of feeling motivated to excel is winning the overall debate in my psyche.

So now let me discuss each of these plateaus a bit, which I think will be therapeutic. Musically, my saxophone playing skill pretty much peaked on April 7, 2001 when I had my senior recital at the Oberlin Conservatory. After that I did make some additional progress, especially in the realm of live performances with Sunny Daze, altissimo playing, and some more chamber improvement from the trio and quartet playing I did with Chris, Alex, and Charlie. But the slope of graphing that improvement over time was much more horizontal compared to the steep curve during my conservatory training. After another six years of not much effective individual practicing and just riding that plateau, I sort of gave it up, moved to Colorado, and switched focus more to athletics. The good news is that my technical abilities seem to more or less self maintain. Were I ever to start practicing again, I think my speed and finger technique would quickly return, my altissimo capability seems to have been baked into my throat and does not seem to deteriorate due to lack of practice, which is actually pretty cool. My endurance however has completely gone to pot and my face muscles are exhausted after fifteen minutes of playing. That would take a few months to come back I think.

But the classical stuff wasn't really my main concern. I felt like through school I kept up well enough with the classical sax players at my level. But my interest wasn't strong enough for me to go onto the graduate school or professional level. I really like playing and studying classical saxophone music, but the truth is I don't like listening to it. I listen to music voraciously still to this day, but I've never owned more than a dozen albums featuring classical saxophone, and there's only a small handful of pieces that I will get in the mood to hear and actively go and play on the stereo. So graduating from Oberlin with recital performances I'm proud of and still enjoy listening to feels OK to me as the pinnacle of my classical saxophone experience. I loved the experience at Oberlin, but I didn't have the motivation and interest to go on to graduate school or to do what it takes to play classical music at the professional level. So I feel very much grateful for that experience and at peace with where it came to a conclusion.

The jazz side is where most of the frustration and feelings of inadequacy reside. So given the choice, I would have majored in Jazz Saxophone Performance at Oberlin. I auditioned for both classic and jazz but got rejected from the jazz program and a nice scholarship for the classical program, so that settled that. However, I still took a lot of improvisation courses, and played in the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble big band as well as doing a few small jazz combos.

There was a time when the jazz majors had a period of accelerated growth where it became obvious that the woodshedding they were doing and the dedicated improvisation practice took them out of the student level and into the young professional caliber. I saw this with frightening clarity case after case after case. In most cases, it happened in their junior year. In the case of my friends Moppa and Kelly, toward the end of sophomore year we were all still playing pretty much at the level of really talented high school students. But there was an enormous and profound change that happened to them (but not me) in their jazz playing over junior year. By the end of junior year, they had learned to "get around on the horn" as Peter Dominguez would say and had developed individual voices coupled with virtuoso technique and a big repertoire of memorized standards. At that point there was still a voice in my head that believed I could do that too if I was able to dedicate the amount of time to it that they are since it was their major and for me it was just a hobby I squeezed in to my spare time as best I could.

Having been pondering this for almost a decade now, my current outlook is fairly bleak. The hard truth is my ear is not nearly good enough for me to realistically play high caliber jazz music. My ear has always been weak. When Andy Fusco first started working on it with me and trying to get me to do transcriptions, I was basically functionally tone deaf. He would play a note on the piano and ask me to sing it. It would take me a while to get it right and even when I did I wasn't confident I was singing the correct pitch. With a lot of focus and training in high school and in my aural skills classes in college, it got much better. I was able to get through four levels of aural skills, which was pretty challenging, but for the most part I didn't see a huge disparity between myself and most of my classmates, and I got "A"s in Aural Skills I-III. It was only Aural Skills IV which focused on a lot of atonal and twelve tone stuff where despite my efforts I couldn't muster more than a "B" due to the errors I was making with my ear. That plus the "B" I got in a more advanced Jazz Improvisation class were the first "B"s I ever got where I thought that was the best I could do. In reality the "B"s were probably generous grades. I think conservatory teachers tend to go easy on students academically because the performance aspect is so rigorous.

Anyway so at this point it is clear to me that my ear is so weak that I just might not make it in jazz. I took extra ear training courses (from Neal Creque) as well as a private study with Tim Weiss. Sadly of course Neal Creque has an amazing ear as everyone on conservatory staff does, so I felt like it was the sighted trying to teach the blind to see. If it's just an effortless sensory reality for you, I don't think you can comprehend what it's like when things just sound like undifferentiated notes. Tim Weiss I think was more sympathetic to my struggle and tried to teach me the "sound colors" approach. Anyway, I knew I had a challenge here and I was making a concerted effort to overcome it. I was doing extra ear training practice, buying miracle cures from the back of band instrument catalogs, walking around with A 440 on a loop in my mp3 player (the Diamond Rio, one of the earliest portable MP3 players :-) ), and so forth.

But now when I think about this, it seems like an insurmountable problem. If you can't hear and interact spontaneously to a certain level in jazz, you just "can't hang" as they say. When I auditioned for the jazz program at Oberlin, Peter Dominguez checked my ear. He rightly detected major problems. I still remember it vividly. He asked me to play "Happy Birthday" and I said I didn't know it. So he asked me to play it by ear and I couldn't. I think I got the first three pitches but not much more and had to stop. My assumption has been this alone was enough to get me rejected from the jazz program. Not sure if that's true, but part of me wishes someone along the way would have stopped blowing "you can be the first astronaut president" smoke up my ass and sat me down and said "look, kid, you're 5'4" and you're ear is weak. Basketball and jazz are not going to work out for you career wise, really, and there's nothing to be done about it". (Not that I was in to basketball, I'm just trying to make the point that sometimes there are fairly obvious indications of a mismatch happening).

So that's pretty much where I am today. I quit my band after several years of not making significant improvement, and having my improvisation limited to modal tunes with very few chord changes. I've now come to terms with this reality but I'm not really sure how to proceed. I've had a few thoughts on this over the years. First, stick to simple music, as in the Boston band "Morphine" that basically just jams everything out in D minor using a 2-string bass and calls it done. Secondly, I thought if I got into electronic music, at least I wouldn't have to worry about intonation. I bought my Eigenharp hoping that would rekindle my passion for music, but so far it hasn't caught on (yet). I'm still optimistic that some combination of a new keyboard or Garage Band or the Eigenharp might do the trick.

The other observation I've had is that while compared to the other students at Oberlin, my sense of pitch was very weak, compared to them, my sense of rhythm was significantly better than average. I've always been really good and reading complex rhythms from sheet music and transcribing them as well. Based on that I sometimes think about learning to play the drum set. I think I could be good at that. However, the problem is the music performances that really inspire me these days are all melodic and vocal. I don't know. Maybe I'll try it for a bit and see how it feels.

OK, whew, it feels good to type all that stuff out. On to the next plateau: computers. Ironically, this is probably the complete opposite of my music experience. Here's something that I seem to have significant talent at but I've not had much formal training or focused practice. The realization I had while I was attending the Henri Mancini Institute that being a professional musician wasn't going to work out, coupled with realizing I really liked computer programming and I was effortlessly good at it was a defining moment in my growth into an adult. I say "effortlessly" not to mean I didn't bust my ass working on it, but comparing working really hard in 16 credits of Comp Sci over 2 years to 10 years of relentless dedicated practice of the saxophone makes it seem comparatively effortless.

So with the help of one truly great and inspiring Professor Stephen Wong, using my remaining electives over my junior and senior year, I learned object oriented programming in Java and with the help of my CS lab buddies I learned a lot about linux systems administration. Of course, I didn't have most of the mathematical prerequisites, so some stuff went completely over my head. But honestly, only once in my networks class where we did some graph theory equations and stuff did I just have to write "I'm sorry I don't have the knowledge to even begin to answer this question at all. It's probably something like 2n ÷ (n - 1) though." :-) All those problems seemed to involve 15 minutes of intense mathematical machinations, but the answer always seemed to be the same as far as I could tell.

So I learned enough about web development and Java to pass Sun's exam and eventually get my first job out of school doing programming at CodeFab. Nine years later, I've built a handy little career here. I've worked with lots of the biggest companies in the world, gotten some good travel experiences, been through a big acquisition, and been inspired by some really talented coworkers. But again I think I've hit something of plateau here. It's not as flat as the music plateau as there's always a certain amount of growth happening, but basically now there's so much awesome community happening on the Internet that my scope of my peer group keeps expanding and expanding. I'm reasonably comfortable saying that even with a very large peer group of about 14,000 software engineers at HP software, I'm probably well to the right of the center of the bell curve. Not sure exactly how far right, and probably not the extreme right, but somewhere along that descending slope. That is, considering overall effectiveness at making software. I'm definitely not the most whiz-bang programmer and I'm not going to be winning any awards for algorithms in C, but at the end of the day I can get shit done and it usually comes out "less bad", let's say, than average.

So now I think I'm ready to expand my peer group to the Internet at large and work toward becoming a legitimately world-class programmer. I may need to go back to school or at least take a leave of absence and do some focused self-training to fill in the gaps in my education and broaden my skill set. I've made a pretty good mind map of this stuff, so I feel like I know what I want the end state to be. I'm not clear yet on which of several alternative paths I'm going to take to go in that direction.

What's not clear to me is what is the right balance here in terms of how much time/effort I put into the computer stuff versus the reward and sense of accomplishment and self worth I get out of it. I think clearly if I double down a bit and level up a notch and overcome the plateau, I'll enjoy that. It's not clear just how much higher the next plateau has to be for me to feel satisfied. I think in my mind I'm pretty ambitious but in my life experience I'll probably be satisfied with any plateau that is noticeably higher than my current level.

So the third area of athletics is more straightforward. I'm not deeply committed to athletics but I enjoy exercising and rock climbing has become more or less my primary hobby these days. I've had pretty good commitment to exercise since January 2009. I've been doing something active at least three times a week continuously since then, with a few intense periods of even more than that. I've been stuck climbing around (barely) 5.11 in the gym for probably 6 months now. I took a bunch of expensive personal training sessions last winter and worked on it a bit, and I got a bit better, but I seem to progress pretty slowly. Most of my climbing partners progress much faster than I do, sometimes to the point where I'm dumbfounded and I literally have no explanation for how they are doing it.

Also, it's not even clear to me that I like rock climbing outdoors that much. I still haven't done a ton of outdoor climbing, but whenever I go I'm always looking around at my buddies skeptically like "do you guys really like this that much?". It's logistically kind of a pain, and constantly worrying about the gear and the weather makes it pretty stressful for me. I might just need to get beyond the red zone here, but I'm a bit skeptical and maybe taking sort of a South Butt approach to it. I suspect ultimately I'll end up wanting to spend less time exercising and choose some exercises I can do quickly at home so I can focus on my other two big areas of interest, but I guess time will tell.

So that's what I'm thinking about now. These plateaus and whether or not I want to try to level up. And how much of that desire is healthy. Comments from family and friend are welcome!