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Some Things l Need to Know about Programming I Learned In Music College

In a previous life I took a music degree in Bass Trombone, which is a discipline that’s even more geeky and with a worse gender balance than Software (see this meeting if you don’t believe that’s possible). Over the course of the degree, I raised my bar from Enthusiastic to Not-too-embarrasing-to-appear-in-public. In the spirit of this famous article on Pair Programming, here are a few things I learned there that (if I squint) seem to apply to software.

Quality follows a power law Every time I practiced and got to play with better ensembles, the next level up was an order of magnitude improvement, not just linear. I could imagine being as good as the players one level above me, but two levels was a huge jump. The standard of serious professionals nowadays is just astonishing. As an example, one of our ensembles worked on an Edgar Varèse (obscure but influential modernist composer) piece. For the première in the 1920s, Varèse complained bitterly that he only had 100 rehearsals, we did it in about 10 rehearsals, our conductor performed it with a group of freelancers after working on it for an afternoon.

Quality is fractal To put it another way, good performances requires attention to detail at all levels: from the conductor’s management of the overall structure, to players’ phrasing of their individual lines. The better the ensemble, the more levels just work. It was quite a shift for me when I started joining groups that played in tune, a whole area of insecurity just disappeared and I could now use the effort I’d spent on compensating for inaccurate tuning for something more important.

Play for the audience They’ve paid to hear you. They don’t want to hear your technique, they want to hear music. One of my teachers liked to point out that anyone can make great music work, but good players can make bad music sound better. At the other end of the scale, I once heard a scaled-down version of The Rite of Spring where the Bass Trombonist dominated the orchestra; as a practitioner, I was impressed but it was ugly and self-indulgent.

Don’t take it up unless you mean it The perfoming arts are tremendously rewarding if that’s what you want do. If not, it’s a hard trade involving lots of stress and effort—and there’s a limit to how long you can stand discussing mouthpiece diameters. I met several older professionals who hated the business but had nowhere else to go, and the story goes that one of the trombonists in Toscanini’s NBC orchestra wrapped his instrument around his music stand at the end of his last day before retirement.

The section takes the blame (and credit) together Brass playing, particularly at the low frequency end, is a collaborative activity. You spend much of your time playing chords, so no-one can tell that you’re better than the rest of the section. Your best hope is to try to raise everyone’s standard. When it works, it’s just fantastic.

Some people’s abilities are just obvious I met a few players who were clearly here on Earth to play their instrument, that’s just who they were. These are the kind of people who get top-rank jobs before they’ve finished college. Our Head of Brass had been a child virtuoso, he didn’t understand why people played wrong notes. Why would they want to do that? At the other end, there were some who should have had their instruments confiscated.

Sometimes people take a while to shine Other players are not so obvious. I was lucky enough to meet Ed Anderson (Cleveland Orchestra) who was one of the best. He told me that at college, he’d played in the opera orchestra because he didn’t get enough sessions with the (higher prestige) concert orchestra.

Reality, deal with it In a performing discipline there is nowhere to hide, everyone knows how good you are all the time. I had a bit of a crisis in my second year when a new Tuba student took the time to point out my shortcomings; the message wasn’t pleasant to hear but it worked, I was much better by the end of the year. Later a one-off lesson with Arnold Jacobs, who spent a lifetime researching the mechanics of wind playing, changed my playing life because he could show me what was happening to my breathing and how it needed fixing.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! It turns out that this topic has just come up on Tim O”Reilly’s blog.

What’s the dynamic range of a bass trombone? On or off


  1. John says:

    “Quality is fractal.”

    What a fantastic way to explain it. Thanks.

  2. @John I’m not sure I thought of that, but I’ll always up for esteem-boosting 🙂

  3. David Harvey says:

    Great thoughts, Steve. I think it’s no coincidence that the world of really good developers seems to have more than its share of really good musicians too – the ability to focus on something for a period of some hours, and the practice of practice (listening, self-awareness, reflection, correction, experiment), both translate.

    I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more about this, following the Gladwell 10,000 hours thing (though this has been known about music for some time – I remember talking to John Sloboda about this in the 80’s/early 90’s, following a big research program. The only significant difference between musicians who’d made it as pros and those that had dropped out or not quite got to the top was the hours of playing put in in the early teens or before).

    The hours and the hard work are important, but what’s always struck me is that to master anything you must want to master it (and the _why_ of that wanting is an interesting psychological question in itself). That’s the difference between the kids who practice their pieces or sit in their bedrooms for hours trying to work out a Clapton riff, and those who’s rather watch TV, surf, or kick a ball around. Likewise the programmers who learn new stuff by doing all the exercises (like, you really have to have done the exercises in SICP or Knuth!), and the technology skimmers and fanboys who seem to make it a point of honour never to work with a language or environment beyond its 0.6 release, and never develop anything more complex than a shopping basket…

  4. My violin teacher used to say two things, one was “good technique is about good habits”. If you keep doing the little things, they just become innate and then you always do them without even thinking about them. The same is true of bad habits too of course.

    The other was “just play better”. He meant, you already know what you’re doing wrong – just have a think about it and fix it yourself.

    When you play in a section that’s really good, it pulls you up. You catch little bits and pieces from the people around you subsconciously and copy what they do.

    When you play in a poor section, you sometimes can’t be bothered to play your best, because you know it won’t make that much difference overall. Maybe you try to lead the others a bit, but maybe they aren’t paying any attention, busy staring at the dots in front of them.

  5. @Dave I recently saw an excellent documentary about the Berlin Philharmonic on tour. The surprise was that they’re all geeks, they were all not in the popular crowd at school and are quite open that they worked on their performance skill to gain status. The principal horn talked about being humiliated by messing up during a recital at music college.

    One critical difference, of course, is that they kept going — which fits nicely with Carol Dweck’s work, which I’ve just started reading. And Atul Gawande writes in “Complications” that surgery schools look for tenacity rather than facility when recruiting on the grounds that tenacity is what really makes the difference and cannot be taught.

  6. @Robert. One of my early teachers said that if all his students did what they were capable of, he’d be out of a job…

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