Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beware the Outliers, Part 2

In my last post, I defined what "outlier" means and how it applies to bass playing. In this post I'll make some comments on how we all can cope with, and learn from, outliers - whether we are one or we are learning from one.

If you are a student, you need to seek out the views of lots of teachers and players and notice when a teacher or fellow student seems to have very unusual ideas about how best to play. It doesn’t mean that those views are wrong, but it does mean that you should be a little more skeptical of those views. The person could have unusual, outlier elements in his or her playing style and those may not work for you. It can feel weird to be skeptical of your teacher. The tradition of classical music instruction is to see the teacher as a godlike figure who must be obeyed without question. However, I don't see that as always being the best model for teaching or learning. While we do need to respect and trust out teachers, we also need to remember that our goal isn't to just obey our teacher, but to become the best musicians that we can be. If your teacher is an outlier in some area, we could actually hold back our progress by being too slavishly devoted to their ideas. (WARNING: just because what your teacher asks you to do is difficult or takes time to achieve does NOT mean that it's an outlier idea! While you shouldn't be a slave of your teacher, you should also remember that your teacher probably knows a lot more than you do...)

The other possibility we need to each consider is whether we ourselves are outliers in some way. We are all subject to the law of averages - what works for the largest number of people is by definition the solution that is most likely to work for each of us. However, if that solution isn’t working for you, you then need to consider whether you are an outlier in that area and need to try something more unusual. There are certain features in my playing that I have been told over and over again are “wrong,” and some teachers and players have helpfully volunteered alternate, “better” options for me. In the past, I would gamely try their ideas, thinking that if they didn’t seem to work for me that it was somehow a lack of effort or understanding on my part. Eventually, I grew enough as a person and player to see that in some of these cases it was simply that my solution worked for me and not for them.

If you are a teacher, you need to be very aware of whether you are an outlier! I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have a highly unusual fingering choice, technical style, or playing posture, you should NOT assume that you have uncovered some great secret of bass playing and need to share it with all your students! While that is possible, the far more likely explanation is that you have found an unusual solution for a playing issue and that it will most likely not be the preferred solution for most of your students. I have certain elements of my own playing that I do not teach to my students because I have noticed over time that I’m one of the only people doing them successfully. Only if they are clearly struggling with the more common solutions do I propose something more unusual. This of course requires more work and focus as a teacher; many folks, consciously or unconsciously, assume that teaching consists of showing your students how you do it and having them copy you. Finding out how and why others do things differently, and presenting those ideas clearly and effectively to your students, is not always easy. It can feel like we are diminishing our own playing style and achievements. However, there’s no shame in being an outlier - being the weird one in the room can be fun and quite liberating!

One final comment on being an outlier: there are real differences of technique in bass (or any instrument), and there are LOTS of debatable points that I’m sure we could argue about all day. True outlier ideas aren’t about whether you stand or sit, or whether you use Bel Canto or Flexocor strings, or which of the five most popular fingerings for the Eccles Sonata you use. But if you use a fingering for the Eccles that no one else you know uses,and that violates some basic fingering principle like “don’t use your fourth finger five times in a row,” and you still sound fantastic, then congratulations - you may be an outlier....

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Beware the Outliers, Part 1

Outlier: a data point that falls far from most other points; a score extremely divergent from the other measures of a set.

I first became familiar with the concept of “outliers” when my brother came home from his new job wearing T-shirt of the company softball team - it was their team name! (This job was at a DC policy think tank so I suspect that a fairly high nerd factor went into the name choice...) The term is a basic one in the study of statistics, and is based around a core phenomenon when one takes any kind of survey, or does a scientific experiment, or simply collects data of any kind on a large group of people. A classic example comes from sports judging. In sports like diving or skating, where the competitors are scored by a panel of judges, the highest and lowest scores are usually thrown out. Why? Well, what if the scores happened to be : [7,8,8,6,1,9,6]? The average of these scores is 6.28. But if I eliminate the highest and lowest scores, the average is 7, which is within one point of the scores of all the remaining judges. In this case, the low score in particular is a classic outlier example - it throws off our ability to see the opinion of the majority of the group.

Alright, enough with the math lessons... What the heck does this have to do with bass playing? Well, in a way our study of music and our growth as players is a huge, life-long research project. We are all observing and studying the playing of everyone around us in search of the best and most appealing ways to make great music on our instruments. As we encounter a great musician, we listen to and imitate the elements of their playing that appeal to us. Most good players share many similarities in their playing. The way the position the instrument relative to their bodies, the way they use the bow, and the way they move their left hand are often similar. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of different ways to play the bass well! Still, I’ve studied with and learned from many talented players whom I respect highly, and I’ve heard almost all of them say similar things about the basics of good playing. The differences between them are usually much more subtle than the points of agreement.

However, I’ve also encountered the occasional outlier as I’ve heard and seen bassists over the years. They seem to be doing everything differently than most players I see. Maybe they hold the bass in a very unusual way. Maybe they use very atypical fingerings. Maybe they seem to have more tension in their body than do many talented players. Yet, despite these unusual characteristics, they sound good or even great. Sometimes this is in spite of their unusual technique, or sometimes it may even be because of it. The point is that their unusual technique works for them.

I emphasize those two words for a reason: We all need to remember that the techniques of outlier players will probably not work well for most people! Sometimes these techniques are not even the most effective for the outlier player; they may simply have the innate ability or personal drive to play well despite them. Or they may have unusual physical characteristics that require unusual technique. Or their brain may simply function differently than most folks. Sometimes outliers are actually visionaries. Their unusual playing choices end up working better for so many people that they actually become the “new normal,” displacing older ideas to some extent. I’m old enough to remember the how unusual many of the techniques of Francois Rabbath once were to most bassists.

Things start to get tricky for students when their own teacher is an outlier in some respect and lacks the self-awareness or training to understand this. The student can end up learning a technique that only works for a small number of players, yet they may be led to believe that this is the preferable or the only way to approach a certain playing issue. I have seen players struggle with their playing for years as they try to master a way of playing that simply isn’t effective, yet seem unable to acknowledge that they need to find another approach.

In my next post, I’ll consider ways that students and teachers can deal with being an outlier or learning from one...