Yes/No Questions

As I was suggesting a new exercise the other day, one of the students asked: Why do we need to do it? We know it already. ”I was confused for a moment. Usually I encourage my students to ask questions, I want my student to explore things, I want them to be open minded. Still, I felt uncomfortable. On the way home, as I was reflecting on this, I suddenly remembered the film Karate Kid. In the film, Mr. Miyagi finally agrees to teach Daniel karate, with one condition: “no questions asked. I say, you do.” Then he asks Daniel to wax cars and to sand the floor and paint his house. With each one of the chores, Mr. Miyagi asks Daniel to perform a specific movement. At a certain point, Daniel gets frustrated, as he is unable to see the connection between what he is doing and Karate learning.
Just as Mr. Miyagi was teaching Daniel the defensive moves through muscle memory, we as musicians, practice hard to help our muscles remember. Although most of the time I explain why we do a certain exercise, in performance we do not want to think about it. We want to let our muscles think. In my book I quote the famous little poem about the centipede:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a frog in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in the ditch
Considering how to run.

The Timing Belt

Illustration: Inbal Nissim from Mr. Karr Would You Teach Me How Drive a Double Bass?

This is true not only for muscle memory. I have found that one of the most destructive things to any creative process is early criticism. When we learn a piece of music and we criticize ourselves before the process has really taken effect, it might discourage us and ruin the entire creative process. If I compose or make a painting and I start asking myself right away, is this good enough? Will it be good enough? Am I ever going to be good enough? I am probably going to kill the process, because the answer to all these questions is going to be NO.
In the Jewish tradition, four sons are mentioned: One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question.[1]
I think it is important to know how to ask questions, but it is also important to know WHEN to ask questions.
Many times however, I tell my students in advance: “Do not ever believe anything I say. Check it out.”

[1] – From the Haggadah the traditional text read on Passover.
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1 Response to Yes/No Questions

  1. Terry Pack says:

    Thanks, Michael. I agree entirely, especially about muscle memory. The bass is such a physical instrument, and one needs to know where the notes are located on the board to the extent that one can go to each without hesitating. This takes endless repetition. I ask my students to practise things beyond getting them right, until they can’t get them wrong anymore: to play arpeggios until the moments are second nature. I also love practice as a meditative process.

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