betwixt code and music

Out of Practice

(3 min read)

I have noticed a funny thing as of late. In music-making and writing I am out of practice. This is a cautionary tale of awareness and a possible solution to being out of practice.
Musicians have long heard the phrase "practice makes perfect." It is a silly phrase. One can practice for a year straight and be extremely excellent at doing something wrong. A better phrase is "perfect practice makes perfect." Yes, this is something I have said to hundreds of students over the years.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book
Outliers espoused the "10,000 hour rule." Many people immediately became champions of this. The idea is that the difference between an expert and the rest of the herd is simply putting in the time—ten thousand hours according to Gladwell. Again, this amount of time spent holding your violin incorrectly will still lead to a situation of being super great at holding your violin, but now you are doing it incorrectly.

A more prudent approach is to make sure one is engaged in deliberate practice as told by
this gentleman Anders Ericsson. This "on purpose" approach is key to getting better at one's discipline. This is where having a guiding hand in a teacher or a mentor provides value. Let me revise that statement. This why a teacher or a mentor makes all the difference in the world, especially for someone new to a discipline.

"Mike, you are getting heavy. I thought this blog was supposed to be light and fluffy."

Well, sometimes it is…but not writing for five months means I have been building up steam!

Over the summer I had the cool opportunity to take some time off from my software development gig to teach music. I spent two weeks teaching a local high school drum line in the afternoons. Another week I spent Monday through Saturday teaching a college percussion section.

"Whoa, man. All this time we thought you retired/moved on/abandoned your love of teaching!!"

Not at all, I just wanted to do something that was still creative, engaging, challenging, but more flexible and didn't have a capped salary range.

As I was dusting off my drumsticks to go teach these three weeks in the summer, I realized some things. My chops and brain were as good as ever…but I had become out of practice. The daily repetitions were no longer part of my routine.

Thankfully, I
knew what I needed to practice to get my hands/arms back in shape, but it wasn't something that came immediately back. Keep in mind I had been drumming with my classes daily for over a decade with little time away from the discipline. With my fairly wide knowledge of practice routines, I was able to get my hands back into a decent form with minimal effort. (Shout out to Jonathan Ovalle from the University of Michigan and his old snare drum warmup routine, sadly now removed from his website…good thing I made .pdfs of them long ago!)

You might be wondering how I managed to get my hands back in shape with very little time.
Deliberate practice. It is much better to spend ten minutes working on a specific skill or muscle group than just playing all of my favorite licks from time past. This approach was validated when I stood in front of college-age musicians and could easily hang with them. Now, this is not a truly objective test, I will admit. My expertise in drumming is already high, I had just lost some of the skills.

The takeaway: you
can get better at your skills by doing lots of reps and practicing routines on purpose, with good form!

Hey, folks, this applies to more than music! Not great at budgets or typing or gardening or laundry or coding? Then make a plan to figure out what to focus on first and
GO FOR IT! You might just find yourself moving into expert status before you know it.

Finding Music Again

Shaking off the burnt toast

I got burned out. Being involved with something and thinking about it nearly all the time for over 20 years will probably do that to you. I am just now getting to where I can listen to some music and enjoy it again. That is a good feeling. Music is important in the lives of most people as it fills a big role in so many ways.

smoldering illustration by Nick Volkert from Chicago, IL, courtesy of dribbble.com

You might be thinking, "Where is all this coming from?" Well, I have been listening to many podcasts for quite some time, but two days ago, on a whim, I decided to put on some morning music. After a quick flip through my music app on the information phone, I found myself listening to one of my favorite albums: No Need To Argue by The Cranberries.

Like so many songs or albums, this particular group of songs always takes me back to junior year of high school. I am suddenly 16 years old and figuring things out. Many songs in this collection have a joyous sound, perhaps a carefree sound, but many have an underlying melancholy that encapsulates 11th grade perfectly for me. This is one of those albums that I can listen to from beginning to end and find zero flaws. I never want to hit the fast-forward button to skip over a song. Taken as a whole, the entire album makes a lot of sense to me.

lovely illustration by Chris Walker from London, courtesy of dribbble.com

A day later I found myself turning on more music. This time it was Kid A by Radiohead, by far my favorite band. This entire album makes me think of a soundscape in a post-apocalyptic world. Maybe there are roving bands of survivors battling to survive on what is left of the world's resources. Anarchy abounds.

Point is, music means something different to everyone all of the time. Most people could probably hear a certain song and be transported back in time or have a certain person pop into their mind. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana came out when I was in eighth grade. At the height of my uncertainty and angst in this time, this song was the perfect soundtrack to accompany my rampant individualism. When I hear Kiss From a Rose by Seal I always think of my wife as this was "our song" back in high school.

Thankfully, my love of music did not perish when I decided to leave behind music education as a daily pursuit.

Open Source Teaching

As a teacher of many long years, I really never felt like I was in it by myself. When I would ask for help, then people would generally make time to help.

I remember sitting and having coffee with countless friends and legendary teachers as they shared their incredible insight into teaching other people how to play music.

The technology community has a phrase for a similar situation: open source.

In my personal philosophy, I never have any qualms sharing my stuff with people. You can have all of my documents and ideas about teaching, probably even lots of the pieces I have written or arranged. It is a joy to talk about how and why I have come to these ideas in the first place!

Why would I do that? Why would I give away so much that I worked hard on for years? Easy. People gave me a ton of stuff along the way, too.

I called a guy from a rival high school back in the 1990s to come teach me some stuff about drumming. Not only did he show up to give me a lesson in the forbidden band hall, he handed me a stack of sheet music. His time was free, the music was free. Open source. This has happened so many times to me. I have known some truly selfless people!

For the most part, the knowledge that I have about performing and teaching music is not
novel or fancy, it is borrowed and assimilated in a way that makes sense to me. If I can share that with another person, then perhaps there is one concept that makes one thing click into place for that person. Maybe one more student or teacher can benefit from this down the road.

Also, I will certainly claim all errors in my ways. All of the things that work well I borrowed from someone else!

So … look for some posts coming soon sharing insight about teaching for veterans and newbies alike. I would ask that people be decent and link back to me if they find something useful. Be nice!

Switching Gears

Well, I am leaving the formal teaching profession to do something completely different. When all of my kiddos and so many friends across the state go back to school in late August, I will also start school. For 12 weeks I will be in an immersive program called The Iron Yard in Austin, Texas. This coding bootcamp is designed to teach me how to graduate with the skills to be a Front-End Developer, which is fancy-talk for someone who makes the parts of websites that everyone can see. When I come up for air around Thanksgiving, I will be taking my skills to a company where I can create cool things and make a difference in my community writ large. My hope is to continue to keep our family in the Dallas area, but we will have to see what happens!

A bit of history leading to this…

My first day of band was in August of 1987 at Sidney Lanier Elementary School in Dallas, Texas. I fell in love with being a musician and especially hitting things to make noise. I spent thousands of hours honing my skills and gaining mastery over various techniques and instruments in the percussion family.

Teaching came as a natural outgrowth of my passion for music learning and performance. Sharing my experiences with others, helping other people have a terrific musical journey, these are things that have been, and continue to be, important to me. So many of my students have been successful both in my presence and further down the road in their musical journey. The entire realm of music has blessed me through performance, teaching, and being around other fantastic humans for so many years. I am certainly thankful to all of my mentors and students and co-workers over the years.

Back to now … the last year has seen me becoming less satisfied with teaching and being around music. For a number of reasons, it stopped being as much fun for me. I was beginning to be annoyed just hearing music on the radio. Car drives were mostly silent. I found myself coming back to a question I had turned over in my mind for several years: "Should I do something else instead of teach music?" I tried unsuccessfully to switch environments to possibly re-create that love of teaching and music. My mind turned to other things.

As I searched through things that I enjoyed doing and learning about, I kept coming back to
computers. My uncle Ricky gave me an old TRS-80 computer when I was about nine or ten years old. The BASIC programming language was like Greek to me, but I continued to plug away at it and learned to make my way around the file system. Later in middle school I had "Computer Literacy" with Mr. Mulkey where we learned to turn the computer on and use the basic programs inside. I was always getting in trouble for being 20 steps ahead of the teacher. In high school I had Mr. Richards for "Computer Science I" where we learned Turbo PASCAL. (I also sat between my future wife and her best friend in this class - a cute distraction to my right!) In 12th grade my "Computer Science II" teacher was an angry lady who became a teacher from what seemed to me like necessity instead of passion. I lost my motivation as a student of computers and threw myself into the music studies that much more.

My music career has been wild - many schools in many types of communities and districts. Some of the best people I have ever known were co-workers at different schools. I have loved it! It has been a lot of fun to be a significant part of so many families' lives. My time spent as a member of the Troopers and Carolina Crown Drum & Bugle Corps was a blast. My time as a performer and conductor with ensembles performing at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) still means so much to me. I will always love music and teaching.

Special thanks to my amazing wife for continuing to support me through this crazy life. She continues to be a devoted and selfless person for our family's needs. My children are interested in coding and have been taking an interest in learning more and more. Like dad, they are endlessly curious about things, constantly reading books and learning. What a blessing to be able to learn new things each day! No matter what, they will be in band. Those are experiences that all children should have! Isaac is already working hard on his french horn skills. Alexis is still deciding which instrument will pick her at the end of this school year. Olivia runs around the house pretending to play every instrument!

You never know … maybe I find a new passion has been ignited that I enjoy and can get paid to do … or maybe I am clicking sticks in front of a drum line in a few years after all! I am always listening and trying to go the right way.

If you feel like supporting a future hacker/coder, then feel free to peruse my
Amazon wish list. Regardless, please drop me a line on Facebook or Twitter. Now, some percussion posts to get to…

And in this corner...

I am Mike Mathew and you have stumbled into my corner of the interwebs. Welcome!

In the case that you don't know me, please go find my
About page and learn more there. If I already know you, then we should probably talk more often. Please send a text that reads, "Hello, Michael!"

For a long, long while I have been meaning to get a space set up to make words appear on the internet.
Here it is.
It has finally arrived.
We have it now.

I foresee many posts forthcoming about both computer programming/coding and music/education and probably just life in general. I would very much appreciate any comments or correspondence you might care to share. As I become a worldwide internet sensation, I cannot guarantee a response in a timely manner. (Actually, I will probably be playing with my kids or reading a documentation file about something!)

I certainly do not purport to know all things, but I have a decent amount of wisdom and experience to share regarding some things. As a percussionist, I have some mastery over most of the domains. As a percussion teacher, I have a literal ton of experience across many skill levels and types of communities. As a coder/hacker, I am a unique wide-eyed newbie!

Let's get down to business. Next up is why I am switching careers…