The novice piano player's guide to coaching

3219512812_670c7f8380Let's talk about something different: I'm taking piano lessons. When I was a kid, I hated taking piano lessons.  There was no point.  I didn't really care about creating the music, because I wasn't passionate about it.  So as a result, piano lessons were effectively something I had to devote time to, without any motivating reason to do so.  I lasted up until just before I passed grade one, and then quit.

In the last two years, I started producing electronic music.  Suddenly learning the theory could explain not simply how to make something sound good, but also why it sounded good.  All of a sudden, I had a reason to go out of my way and actually spend the time to practice the basics.  Scales were no longer simply about doing it until I got it right - they were now the building blocks to creating harmony and melody.

During my last lesson, I was wondering how it related to coaching.  What I saw was that rules really matter.  Rules inspire our creativity.

There's a funny thing about piano scales.  The key of C has seven notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B.  If I start at C, and play up to the next C on the keyboard, it sounds pleasing.  It makes sense to our ears when we hear it.  Here's the weird thing though: if I play those exact same notes, but instead start at A, playing them in this order: A-B-C-D-E-F-G, it will sound melancholy to your ears.  This is called the minor of C.

I found this confusing.  I asked my piano teacher why this was.  "They're the same notes, so how is it that playing them in this way is actually any different".  The answer is that we notice it when it is played relative to the other notes.  If I took a particular part of a song, and we saw that it contained the notes C-E-G-A-C-C-D, we couldn't tell offhand how that would sound to our ears.  It isn't until we've heard the rest of the song that we really get a feel for how that particular set of notes makes us feel.

And this is why rules matter.  This is why it is important to learn the rules of whatever game you want to play.  Without a baseline set of rules, your actions have less meaning, because they don't exist within a context.

Here's the flip side: Just because I'm playing in the key of C doesn't mean that I can't play a note other than those seven I mentioned earlier.  In fact, often, the best parts of a song are when a note is brought in from outside of the scale.  The rule is broken!  Suddenly the composer is playing with a C sharp instead of a regular C.  My ears are taken by surprise.

[Tweet "Breaking rules becomes valuable only because of the context"]

Breaking rules becomes valuable only because of the context.  Because the person has learned how to follow the rules, they've now started to identify how they can create value out of breaking the rules.

Many of us have a relationship with rules.  We believe that they will hold us back, obscure our creativity, are boring, or a waste of time.  For others, rules are designed to be adhered to rigidly.  There is no freedom to play within them, you simply must follow them.

Both of these perspectives ultimately hold you back.  The fact is that rules really are made to be broken, but before you can do that, you have to learn how to follow them.  When you refuse to follow (or even learn) the rules, you take away the context within which your creativity and ability to break them creates value.  When you rigidly adhere to the rules, you remove your ability to be creative.

Ultimately, the relationship we want with rules is one of ambivalence.  They are their for a reason, and our job is to learn and understand them.  Once we've done that, we can begin looking outside of the rules and see where there is room to bring in our creativity.

What is your relationship to rules?  If you want to create a new relationship, you must first identify how your existing relationship is holding you back.  What is impossible under your current relationship, and what might be available if you didn't relate to rules this way?  Lastly, where will you practice, this week, either learning the rules, or breaking the rules?

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