Learning and Lessons
In the past few days I started learning an old song from my youth, “More Today Than Yesterday” by The Spiral Starecase [correct spelling – they did named themselves after a Hitchcock film but corrupted the orthography]. There was a video available of the group playing the piece, so I watched the guitar player/singer’s hands on the fret board to make learning it easier. The opening chords were from exercise number two from the Mickey Baker book, “A Modern Method in How to Play Jazz and Hot Guitar. Pat Lipton, the singer/guitarist/composer was alternating between G Major 7 and G 6 much of the time, as per the dictates of Mickey Baker’s lesson. It turns out that Mr. Lipton had learned a new chord but couldn’t find a pop song that used it, so he wrote one himself.
This made me think of a Randy Bachman story, about his lessons with Jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau. During One lesson, Breau taught Bachman an ending formula. The next week Bachman came in to his lesson exclaiming, “You know that ending you taught me last week? I used as an intro in my latest song.” At which point Breau said, “You can’t do that man, everyone’s going to think the song is over before it begins!” The song was “She’s Come Undone, written in 1969, about a girl who dropped lsd and was never the same. It was an appropriate observation, for a good Mormon boy like Bachman.
This makes me very happy, to think about, creative spirits who expand their knowledge base and use it to write pop songs. In doing so the vocabulary of the idiom grows, and we all become a little bit richer. Any idiom that stops growing and changing risks becoming stale. I think now of George Harrison as I listen to some old Beatle songs and marvel at his guitar parts, which are sometimes inflected withjazz or country styles and the appropriate mannerisms.
Here I sit as a classical guitarist pondering these things. When one of my dear friends was studying viola in Paris in the early 1980’s, he once did a gig with a pick-up orchestra for a pop singer. Word of this got back to his viola teacher, who threatened to ban my friend from his studio because this association with popular music would ruin his good name. The alignment of music with the class structure was so strong at that time that I wonder how much I missed during my own time in France. In Toronto’s current economic climate, many freelance violinists work regularly with mariachi bands to supplement incomes.
Necessity has broadened our horizons…
Nasrudin was dining with the sultan, who leaned over to ask him about the stew. “I thought it was quite good your majesty,” said Nasrudin smiling.
The Sultan replied, “I thought is was terrible.”
“Quite right, your Majesty, it was horrid,” said Nasrudin.
The Sultan frowned, “did you not say it was quite good a moment ago?”
“Ahh, eerrm, yes,” said Nasrudin, “but I serve the Sultan, not the Stew.”
At some point this past year I realized that my recent work wasn’t new music. Certainly it is freshly composed, but it no longer explores sonic frontiers. Rather, it seems to explore older areas. I wish that when hearing one of my pieces, a listener might say: “That sounds like something I have heard before, like something that has always been there.”
This is reminds of the semantic confusion during the 60’s and 70’s when people were said to be writing “folk music.” Properly understood, folk music would be that which has been passed down from older generations. The successful songwriters of that period immersed themselves in the songs from the past and have made our world richer by adding songs like “The Circle Game”, or “ Me and Bobbi McGee” to our world. Perhaps there is a blur between the old world and the new now. So much music available from so many different places.
Having composed for prepared guitar, and having employed extended techniques, my goal now is simpler: to take an idea and make the most of it. In order to do this, one must let the idea dictate the paths to follow, be they tinged with bluegrass, old folksongs or the limits of a church mode. We create within limits and there is a joy from trying on different clothes, so to speak.
A critic once commented about one of my CD’s that there wasn’t a cohesive style. There were rags and choros, followed by imitative parodies and innovations. One can’t really imagine Steve Reich or Phil Glass doing those different things on a recorded project. I’d like to think that there is a bit of myself in each of these styles, that my ears are made afresh with every project. Each piece is an adventure, be it through the world of 12 bar blues or through a looping pedal. Each piece is a different way to use my resources.
It is also the response of a teacher hoping to share the joys of discovery with the guitar world. Ragtime and blues music present the challenge of using certain harmonic patterns, while the restrictions of a mode may force one to think of melodies and drones. Each new problem is a bit of a stretch. My place in the music world may be modest but is filled with wonder.
One day Nasrudin went to visit a neighbouring village. He stopped to rest, and while doing so read a bit from his favourite book. He put it down to have a drink before getting up to leave. It wasn’t until he was at his friend’s house that he realized his book had been left behind. It was no longer there on his way home and he worried that it was lost forever.
A week later a goat came by and dropped the book at Nasrudin’s feet, which inspired the master to leap up calling, “it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.”
“Not really,” said the donkey, “your name was written inside the cover.”
I have been frustrated recently hearing people play upon the guitar. I have heard experienced composers and professionals just playing the correct notes and rhythms. It seems to me that we play through the guitar, we invest time to gain knowledge of the inner workings of a piece of music. We invest energy trying to deliver that wisdom as best we can. Putting our fingers in the correct place is only a small part of that journey.
All the notes of a piece have a status and some of those are pretty small like arpeggiated accompaniment figures. They fill space and time, surrounding the more important notes with harmony. The successive notes of a dominant melody all have more or less importance and generally have a gravitational pull to a destination. Bass lines also have gravitational pulls but also add buoyancy to the music.
Our job as we learn a piece of music is to understand all of these aspects and embody them all. We have reached a point where computers can be called on to create a “human” feel. Frequently this means slight changes of tempo and the occasional flub. I would say that we must render music with details that get smaller as we improve. Every note should have its own colour, touch, timbre and inflection. Improving our control over those details is the only way to be a musician.
It is never easy to know what a piece of music is saying. As someone who plays his own music, there are times when I sing a line over a hundred times just to know how to convey the various aspects of its meaning. I may write new music, but I want it to sound old. I’d like to be able to entertain the fantasy that one of my pieces was always there and was somehow just plucked it out of the infinity cupboard, the wellspring of art.
Nasrudin slipped and nearly fell into a lake, but was caught by a friend walking next to him. From then on, every time Nasrudin saw this friend, the incident was shared with everyone who was near.
Over time, Nasrudin grew weary of this, so one day led that friend to the same lake. With clothes and shoes on, he jumped in and lay there saying, “Now I’m as wet as I would have been if you hadn’t saved me that day. Stop reminding me about it!”
In this post, I’m going to talk about various decisions I made which lead to amazing opportunities. I believe you can achieve this predictive capability as well by observing, reading and having the mindset to watch for trends. Of course, you should do things that you are interested in, not just follow trends!
After a few years of doing structural engineering in consulting firms, I realized I wanted to return to my childhood passion, which was computer programming (my first computer was a Timex Sinclair ZX81). So around 1999, I looked into the industry and felt that object-oriented programming was where things were headed (a way to organize code into objects rather than endless lines of code). There happened to be a fast-track program at the University called OOST (object-oriented software technology). We learned different things but I felt that Java was pretty amazing and “free” or open-source (headed by Sun Microsystems at the time) and where things were going. Also, web-based applications were getting pretty interesting (much more powerful than the usual ‘static’ HTML websites), so I decided to work at Servidium which was developing a web-application framework called Jaydoh. Frameworks make it easier to build web apps and allow you to separate the view (HTML – what you see in the browser) from the controller (Java – the logic) which are also usually different skill sets.
Jaydoh was basically competing with Struts (an Apache open source framework) so the challenge to get sales was large, ie. to sell a proprietary framework when an open source one was already available. So I decided that I should get into open source Java instead for the sake of my career. That lead me to work at Digital Oilfield (DO) who was using J2EE (Java Enterprise Edition) to run their apps.
As it happened DO was about to release a new version of their software so they asked me if I wanted to learn something called webMethods. I said sure even though I had no idea what it was (always good to learn new skills). They needed a way to exchange invoice files between companies and were originally thinking of using Java (servlets) unless I could figure out webMethods quickly (which I did). This lead me to learn about the new area of ‘Enterprise Application Integration’ or EAI and B2B (business to business) transactions (exchanging data like invoices and purchase orders between companies essentially). At that point, I realized that this was an important and growing area. I’ve been working in this area ever since (about 2003).
Somewhere along the line people started talking about web services. So instead of applications full of code that are hard to reuse, we started to think about creating web services (similar to functions by accessible on the internet). In the corporate world this became SOAP (simple object access protocol) and on the internet, it became REST (Representational State Transfer). SOAP is pretty complicated compared to REST which is another important fact to take note of.
During my work as an integration consultant, I noticed that new areas were getting some interest such as business process modeling (BPM). I was pretty interested in this as well as it made sense to set up a process (step by step tasks that need to be done in a common business process) and plug in either automated or human-performed tasks. This is a higher-level layer than the integration layer of course. The challenge for me was that none of the companies I was getting called by had these types of opportunities (it was fairly cutting edge at the time). Also as a contractor, you are paid for your expertise so whenever you have a major learning project it’s probably best to join a company as an employee so you can learn the new skills. Another way is to pay for your own training and try to be put on a project with other experienced people (in BPM, for example). This is a bit riskier as you have the knowledge but not the experience.
I decided to keep doing webMethods projects which were lucrative and allowed me to ‘retire’ in my early 40s. In 2010 I moved to a semi-rural area of Eastern Canada but was still taking various webMethods projects with large breaks (usually many months) in between. The last one was only 1 day a week from home which was great because I could work on other things of interest. But in general, this work was getting pretty boring (not much new learning).
A few years ago I finally decided to get my health in order. So after reading a lot of books, I felt that a plant-based diet made the most sense. I ended up losing over 35 pounds, lowered my blood pressure and lower my cholesterol to ‘heart attack proof’ levels. I’m on no medications at age 47. In fact, I recently had to buy 30″ jeans which is crazy to me (I’m 6′ tall). So I recommend working on your ability to search, read books and papers and try to decipher some of the studies (say on Google Scholar) as it can be tricky to depend on an ‘expert’ in the field (many of them disagree with each other). My success with this approach ended up turning into an online business (Potato Strong) with ebooks, a program, a course, and coaching along with various social media channels that I maintain.
During the past few years, webMethods integration opportunities have diminished somewhat for various reasons (licensing fees, software competition, the influx of cheaper and/or offshore labor, etc) so here we are at another decision point. I’ve been working on other things but my mathematical and programming interests seem to keep coming back. I feel like there’s so much more I can do that I didn’t get into. I received a Ford Motor Company scholarship in 1988 which paid all my engineering tuition plus some living expenses (value $18,000), and then won an NSERC scholarship which paid for my Master’s degree.
Lately, I’ve been looking into deep learning, which is a subset of machine learning which is a subset of artificial intelligence. Related to that area is data science. Last year I took a Computational Investing course on Coursera taught by Tucker Balch of Georgia Tech. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others are investing billions of dollars in the area of deep learning. Just to give you an idea of how much better computers are getting at this type of work, there are computers winning Jeopardy game shows, beating people at chess and Go, recommending what Netflix shows you might like to watch, tagging photos on Facebook automatically (facial recognition), translating languages (Google translate), not to mention self-driving cars.
If you’re thinking of career longevity, you might want to focus on things that require very high-level knowledge or one-on-one contact (nurse). Even things like taxi/truck drivers could be replaced with self-driving cars. At a minimum, these are fun things to read about and even play with. Keep your eye open for changing trends and technologies that could affect your job security.
My website (the one you are on now) has historically been about guitar playing and teaching. I still play or practice every day as it’s a long time passion. I try to focus on one topic at a time, so currently it is using minor pentatonic scales (more so sequences) over jazz progressions (if interested drop me a message – I was working on an ebook about this).
After I lost a bunch of weight eating a plant-based diet (I’m now in 30″ jeans at age 47 at 6′ tall) I created the www.potatostrong.com website along with a ‘Potato Strong’ profile for each of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr. That’s been going pretty well and it feels good to help a lot of people lose weight, get off medications and help the animals and the environment.
For Potato Strong I developed a couple ebooks, program, course, and coaching and as I started to make sales I shared this information on a Facebook page called Share Your Passion Online. Every month I shared my total online income which grew from nothing to a modest monthly income that helps pay the bills. I then had it on auto-pilot to some extent (using MeetEdgar and BoardBooster) but I would still post what I ate most days (to help people see what to eat) and also do YouTube videos which are fun. But I needed a new challenge as I love to learn new things.
My background is engineering (I have a Master’s degree) and computer programming (diploma in object-oriented software technology). I went from being an engineer to switching over to software development where I ended up doing integration for large companies using webMethods software (now SoftwareAG).
webMethods contract opportunities have slowed substantially in the past few years. I used to get calls from a lot of recruiters and had a few close relationships with small consulting firms that specialize in this area.
In one of the many books I’ve read lately (can’t remember which one) they suggested thinking about what you liked doing as a child. While this might not work in every case I used to program computers in my basement. It was fun to make the computer do things. I started with a Timex Sinclair computer that used a regular TV and no data storage (I would eventually turn off the computer losing everything) before I added a regular tape recorder. Then I met a friend in high school and I loaned him my Atari game system for his Vic-20 (with a tape recorder). Then I eventually got a Commodore 64 and my high school had PET computers.
I’ve always loved to learn and am constantly reading books on various topics. It’s a blessing and a curse because it’s hard to do the same thing every day especially if there is no learning component. So last year I took a Python course online that involved stock market predictions using Pandas, Numpy, etc. I did very well and was helping others in the forums.
For some reason, I recently started thinking about artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning. It’s a complex area covering algebra, calculus, probability, computer programming and more (which is pretty much in my study background). I’m going to start with data science projects for the most part using a site called dataquest.io. This area touches pretty much every area of work from health care to social media as it helps employers figure out best business practices.
I’ll be posting my discoveries along the way here. Hopefully, I can add some guitar learnings and other topics over time. The topics are categorized in the top menu if you want to focus on one particular area.
Forget focusing on fame and fortune. Or being a famous guitarist. Screw goals.
I always get excited when I hear an idea that sounds strange at first but then makes me think in a new way. I often I evaluate a project based on the possible opportunities/expectations ie. thinking of learning how to write mobile apps so I can possibly earn some income or help some group like the disabled. Another one is debating whether to write an ebook to help people with a particular problem and earn some income.
A possibly better way to think when evaluating what to do with your time is to focus on the skills you will acquire. These skills may provide some benefit in the future, especially if they are combined with other skills. Scott Adams mentions that he combined some average drawing ability with humor and his knowledge of the office environment.
Since some of you are likely guitarists you could focus on the skills you will acquire – songwriting, arranging, learning scales (that can be applied to many styles), being able to focus for long periods of time while practicing, and so on. Every day you can focus on whether you are developing skills instead of whether you will be famous or even earn a living at the craft. This is systems thinking versus goals.
Say you want to start a blog to share your knowledge but you are wondering if anyone will care, if you will make any money eventually and so on. You might benefit from thinking about what skills you will acquire instead such as clear and concise writing, learning how to install or update a blog (and related website tasks), doing ‘Deep Work‘ (less distracted), writing longer more well researched posts, etc. That way it’s always a win even if no one ever reads your blog. You’ve still developed very useful skills that can be re-used in the next venture.
Focusing on the day to day systems and skills you will develop instead of the end result is another way of saying to be in the present moment. A lot of our ‘future based’ thinking leads to stress and impatience as we are unhappy that we are not at our goal. I’ve seen a lot of guitarists, dieters, and entrepreneurs be constantly frustrated and even give up because they weren’t seeing results (their future goals) fast enough.
When I was doing IT contracts my skills with integration work, specifically using webMethods software, was in high demand. And the hourly rate reflected that (plus I always asked for a high rate). I specifically chose to learn skills rather than try to move up the ladder so to speak. I often made more money than the managers who were more generalist in nature (not to mention employees).
This change in thinking also changes the questions we ask ourselves. Instead of ‘Am I a famous guitarist?’, ‘Do I have a hit song?’, ‘Am I making lots of money?’, ‘Do I have abs?’, we can ask ourselves if we are doing the work each day – ‘Did I practice today?’, ‘Did I write today?’, ‘Did I improve a little today?’.
I hope this idea is interesting to you. What skills are you currently developing?