Sunday, July 1, 2012


Towards the end of my quest, I grew disinterested in writing about my endeavors. I felt that I had already exhausted every interesting topic I could think of, and to have continued to write would have produced meaningless garbage.

However, I did pursue my goal to the very end, and on Saturday June 30, the last day, I logged my 1000th hour of practice. Sadly, it was not nearly as exciting a moment as I had hoped it would be; somewhere along the line it became fairly obvious that I would succeed, and it became a matter of turning the crank rather than pushing myself. In any case, I'm glad I did the quest, as I am a stronger musician and person because of it. There are days now when I miss the strong sense of purpose I had during the quest; perhaps a second round is in order...?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Independence Day

"You'll end up in situations where you want to do some sort of skill-measuring contest, [but] it's always hard to tell if you've improved. It's easy to say 'Oh, my rank is higher than yesterday', but did you get better? ... You'd get up to like the A- or A range, and you'd play against some player who was just really good. Out of ten games we'd play in a row, I would win three or maybe four, and none of them felt good.... I found that same guy again, and he wanted to play another ten games, and suddenly I won every single one of those games, and his units felt predictable and stupid. His play felt so flawed, and at no point during the game did I ever actually feel nervous. After all those hours of playing, I was like 'Oh my god... I actually improved!' " -- Sean Day[9] Plott


In early November, I created a series of exercises designed to improve the independence between my two hands. In each exercise, I would choose an arbitrary sequence of fingers on my left hand, an arbitrary sequence on the right hand, and cycle through both at the same time while moving up and down the fretboard of my roommate's bass. When I first started out, I would always choose exercises that used the same number of fingers on each hand. Twos and threes were pretty easy, but the fours totally threw my brain for a loop. I would look at my spreadsheet and think "I'm supposed to cycle through 1-3-2-4 on one hand and 4-1-2-3 on the other? How the hell am I going to be able to coordinate that?"

But somehow, the right gears gradually clicked into place, and I cruised through those exercises. I decided to bump up the complexity by incorporating patterns with different numbers of fingers on each hand. Some of them felt so clunky and awkward that it would take me nearly an hour just to get through a handful (no pun intended). I struggled and struggled and struggled, until the day when I realized that I wasn't actually struggling anymore. I could just choose a pattern for one hand, choose one for the other, and zip through it. It felt like I was just installing programs into my hands rather than thinking about what I was doing.

Yesterday, after 5 months and more than 100 hours of work, I finally finished all 3600 exercises. Unlike the various other musical projects I've worked on, I still have a distinct memory of what it felt like when I started. As I closed out of my organizational spreadsheet for the very last time, I thought about that old feeling and had a startlingly awesome realization: "Oh my god... I actually improved!"


Week 39 total: 20.5
Grand total: 830.5 hours
Required pace: 750 hours (+80.5)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Confirmation Bias

In the course of history, there have been a few curious individuals who seem to need no help in achieving greatness, as it is simply woven into the very fabric of their being. As an undergraduate student, George Dantzig arrived late to a statistics class and saw two problems written on the board. He assumed them to be homework exercises and completed them both, only to find out later that they were two of the most famous unsolved problems in the field of statistics. Bobby Fischer was better at chess when he was 13 than most players who have studied the game their entire lives, as made evident by his brilliant queen sacrifice to win a match that would later be called "The Game of the Century". Where some have found themselves unable to break new ground in even a single endeavor, Michael Jackson innovated in multiple fields simultaneously: singing, songwriting, dancing, choreography, record production, and music video production.

However, most of those who have achieved greatness were at one point entirely inept at the pursuit that they would later master. In addition to the single-minded focus that guitarist John Petrucci refers to as "tunnel vision", I have come to learn that confirmation bias may also be a vital tool for propelling oneself to greatness. Confirmation bias, as defined by Wikipedia, is "a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses." In most contexts, the phrase carries with it a highly negative connotation. However, when you want something so badly that you dream about it on a regular basis, but people tell you that you can't have it, confirmation bias can be the only thing that keeps you going.

On Thursday night I performed a 25-minute set at what I considered to be my first legitimate gig. Afterwards, my good friend Big T confessed that "all of the songs kinda sounded the same." One of the gig managers boldly described the performance as "an aural intercourse I will not soon forget," and later went on to contradict Big T's account of the evening. Whose words do you think I took to heart?


Week 38 total: 13.5 hours
Grand total: 810 hours
Required pace: 731 hours (+79)

Sunday, March 11, 2012


"Release!" barked the instructor. One dozen bowstrings snapped. Eleven arrows found their mark; one missed by a few inches. "Always to the left," grumbled the one. The instructor walked over and placed his hand on the squire's shoulder. "We won't accept archers who miss," he said sternly. "If you cannot learn to adjust your aim, your time would be better spent by joining those who have already given up. Archery is not for everyone." The young man threw his bow to the ground in disgust as he watched the others line up to shake their new commander's hand.


Today, after returning from a refreshing and much-needed spring break, I sat down and practiced guitar. I chose to work on a Stanley Jordan–inspired tapping riff that I have been struggling with for several weeks. My left hand plays fine, and my right hand can get through the ascending run without a problem, but for reasons that were a complete mystery to me, I could not play the descending run cleanly with my right hand. After working on it for a few minutes without any success, bad thoughts started to seep into my head: Maybe I'm wasting my time. Maybe I'll never get this to sound the way I want it to. Maybe I should just give up and rewrite it.

A few moments later, I found myself tinkering with pull-offs on my left hand, wondering what it was that made my favorite guitarists able to play legato runs so beautifully... and then it clicked! In a moment of clarity, I suddenly realized the teeny tiny little adjustment I needed to make in order to get the sound that I wanted. I still can't play the riff at full speed, and probably won't be able to do so for some time, but now I have a clear idea of what I need to do in order to get there. It's a great feeling.


After a month had passed, the squire arrived at the field for yet another archery trial. He calmly tied back his hair and strung his bow. The instructor eyed him skeptically before turning to face the others. "Archers! Near target... release!" The squire inhaled slowly, then launched his arrow. It struck the intended target directly in the center. "Mid-range target," called out the instructor. "Release!" The arrows flew. Dead center again. "Far target... release!" A third success.

As the archers-to-be lined up, the instructor hurried over to the commander. "That one should not be accepted, my lord," he snarled, pointing at the squire. "He has failed the trial thrice already! Today's performance was merely a fluke." The commander turned to the young man. "Answer truthfully, boy. Were you surprised when your arrows found their marks?" Without a moment's hesitation, the squire replied, "No, my lord." The commander nodded and said, "As I suspected. This lad will be my greatest archer some day. I would be a fool not to accept him." He held his hand up, stopping the exasperated instructor before he could speak again. "Greatness is not a matter of what comes naturally to whom, nor is it a matter of accepting one's abilities as being fixed and immutable. Greatness is achieved when one is fully convinced that one cannot progress further, and yet one chooses to press onwards all the same." 


Week 37 total: 14.5 hours
Grand total: 796.5 hours
Required pace: 711.5 hours (+85)

Sunday, March 4, 2012


We sat in the front row, an empty pizza box at our feet, staring up at the unfinished tree. She started to stand, ready to face the long night ahead of us. "Nope. We're not going anywhere until until we've eaten this clementine," I said, digging my rusty pocket knife into the peel. It wasn't as though using my hands would have been any better -- they were both covered in paint, glue, sweat, and blood. She giggled, sat back down, and gladly accepted her half of the fruit. "Some people don't realize that a good break can be much more productive in the long run than a short break."


Week 35 total: 10 hours
Week 36 total: 11.5 hours
Grand total: 782 hours
Required pace: 692.5 hours (+89.5)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Embracing Limitations

"What are you doing in my coop?"

Way back in the day, when I was still hopelessly addicted to video games, I went through a phase in which I was obsessed with the N Game, a ninjalicious java applet with an absurdly good physics engine. The game itself was fun, but the aspect that really got me hooked was the level editor. A sizable online community had formed for the purpose of sharing levels, a sub-clique of which were the DDA makers. A DDA, or "Don't Do Anything", is a level which completes itself without any input from the player -- essentially an action movie in which the ninja protagonist confidently dodges rockets, lasers, and killer robots.

My first few attempts to make DDAs were pathetic, even by my own standards. The level designs were clunky, unimaginative, and relied too heavily on the more obvious methods of propulsion. At some point, without putting any thought into the matter, I started imposing arbitrary limitations on myself. Can I make a DDA without any launch pads or gold delay? How about one using only thwumps for propulsion? Can I make a DDA with every object hidden behind a bounce block? I found that, with enough time and effort, the answer to every one of these questions was a resounding "Yes!", and the resulting levels were far more interesting than those I had created without any restrictions.

A few months ago, I tried applying this concept to songwriting: I wanted to compose yet another meandering, astructural, progressive, instrumental piece, but instead of having different sections employ different techniques, I wanted the entire piece to rely on slapping. After churning out dozens of fun new riffs, I eventually stumbled upon a wildly different way of incorporating slapping, one which I had never thought of before. I deemed the experiment a success, and made a mental note to try imposing other limitations in the future.


During the third week of my photography class, the professor announced that we were no longer allowed to submit photos that had been taken on campus. He was understandably tired of seeing the same buildings over and over again, and wanted us to explore more of the city in our search for interesting subjects. At first I resisted, only ever venturing a few blocks from campus with my trusty Canon Rebel, and the results were mediocre at best. This weekend, however, I spent a few days in New Hampshire with my lovely ninja queen, and I brought my camera along with me. The surrounding environment was so vastly different from my daily routine that it was almost too easy to find interesting things to photograph -- bridges, gravestones, flowers, cats, dogs, and even chickens.

Unlike in previous projects, I liked so many of my shots that I found it hard to pick which ones I wanted to submit. Eventually I decided to impose another limitation: my project would be dedicated to exploring the emotions of animals. The collection I came up with was, without any doubt, the most innovative I have created thus far. Of all the lessons that have crystallized during the 1000 hour quest, the one that most readily applies to any subject is this: creativity is unlocked not by avoiding limitations, but by embracing them.


Week 34 total: 15 hours
Grand total: 760.5 hours
Required pace: 654 hours (+106.5)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wazbob and Snagbar

On Monday morning, Wazbob left his home to head down to the docks. Along the way he saw Snagbar, his friend and fellow fisherman, walking in the opposite direction. "Hello there, Snagbar! Where are you headed?" asked Wazbob. Snagbar held up his hand and replied, "I've got this little blister on my finger, see? I'm going to take the day off. I've earned it, right?" Wazbob simply said "If you say so," and walked on.

When he arrived at the docks, he found a dock officer standing by his boat. After a thorough and time-consuming inspection, the officer announced, "I'm pleased to report that your vessel meets all of our requirements... except one." Wazbob was puzzled, as he had never failed a monthly inspection before. "Your registration has expired. I cannot allow you to fish until it is renewed." And so, begrudgingly, Wazbob spent the rest of the day at the Department of Fishing Vehicles to renew his registration.

The next morning, Wazbob was awoken by the sharp crack of nearby thunder. He gazed out his bedroom window to see trees being bent almost to the ground by the strong winds. "Gah, a man can get killed trying to fish in weather like this. I'll have to stay home for the day," grumbled Wazbob. The storm raged until late Wednesday night.

Wazbob rose early on Thursday morning, determined to get in a full day of fishing. As he made his way down to the docks, he again ran into Snagbar, this time walking with an unfamiliar man by his side. "Good morning, Snagbar! Is this a new fishing partner?" he asked. Snagbar chortled and exclaimed, "No, this is my cousin Dagmar! He's visiting for the weekend, so I figured I'd take the day off to show him around." They walked away, chortling all the while. When Wazbob arrived at the docks, he was dismayed to find that a tree had fallen on his boat, crushing the cabin and tearing his best net. After thrice cursing his bad luck, he set about dislodging the tree and repairing his livelihood. He dragged himself home in the late evening covered with sweat, blood, and splinters, but with not a single fish to sell for Friday's market.


A few months ago I was invited to attend a Wikimedia conference in Washington, D.C., with all expenses covered. I graciously accepted, but foolishly forgot to mark the date on my calendar. I knew I would be leaving on some Thursday in February or March, but had no idea what the date was. Last Wednesday morning, I checked my email to find a final confirmation note regarding the conference which was to take place that weekend!

After two days of scrambling, I found myself in a hostel in D.C. The conference was a smashing success, with lots of good people and great food. The only unfortunate side effect was having to spend four days away from my 1000-hour quest. There was an acoustic guitar in the common area of the hostel, but I hardly had any time to play it. On Saturday night I tallied up my total practice hours for the week, a lousy 14.5. I found myself thinking, "Well, there's nothing I can do about this, so it's not really my fault." But then I was reminded of the lesson of Wazbob and Snagbar: It doesn't matter if you have a valid excuse or not; if you don't do the work, the work won't get done.


Week 33 total: 14.5 hours
Grand total: 745.5 hours
Required pace: 634.5 hours (+111)