Before I was a software tester, I was a musician. Everyone who has heard me talk about my career knows that I transitioned into testing after making a go as a professional musician. I talked about a lot of the things I learned in the process of being a musician, and how a lot of what I learned really had more to do with entrepreneurship than it did with making music. A band is a start up in its most literal sense. The music, the image, the story, the stage show… that is our product. Thus, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that music and musical metaphors get repeated often in my work and in my vocabulary.
Today, I’m going to share a conversation I recently had with a friend of mine (names have been changed, but for the sake of this post, we’ll call him “Will”).
Will: So I’ve heard you talk a lot about becoming a musician over the years, and I know you played in several bands, primarily as a singer. I’ve also heard you say that you played several instruments, but you yourself said you didn’t play any of them particularly well. How did you ultimately become a musician then?
Me: Well, it was something that actually happened over time. I started taking piano lessons about the time I was in fourth grade, and I did that for about a year or two, not really being all that thrilled with it. In fifth grade, I went to a public school for the first time, and they had a “band” class. I looked at the options available, and for some reason, I thought the flute sounded interesting, so I said “I’d like to learn how to play the flute.”
Will: Interesting, so how hard was it to learn how to play the flute?
Me: It wasn’t too difficult to learn the basics. I guess I was lucky because I knew a bit about reading music. Unlike the piano, where I had to interpret chords and finger placing for ten different fingers to sound out simultaneous notes, a flute was easier. The flute can only play one note at a time, so a melody line for a flute was a lot easier to read. Figuring out the finger placements and the breath control to get the right note, the right octave, etc. was the harder part.
Will: So where did the guitar enter into this?
Me: In seventh grade. I bought a cheap electric guitar from the BEST catalog store (A Global Les Paul copy) and started to learn on it. My mother’s Godfather, Jimmy Feodi, was an accomplished jazz guitarist and played the various mountain clubs up between Santa Cruz and Boulder Creek a lot. He saw that I wanted to learn guitar, and for my 13th birthday, he gave me a Fender Jazzmaster from the early 70s, a beautiful (and very heavy) guitar. This made me really excited to want to practice and play, so I tried my best to learn what I could about playing the guitar, including taking lessons locally and playing in my school’s Jazz band. Understand, playing might be a slight exaggeration. I did try, but I was not nearly good enough to do it justice. A lot of the time, I would turn the guitar way down on more difficult passages, so it wouldn’t be so obvious where I wasn’t as good.
Will: So was playing guitar that different than playing the piano or flute?
Me: Fingering the strings was odd, and plucking and strumming took getting used to. The chord shapes were, at first, very strange, but I noticed many of them could be used in different positions on the neck, and that helped a lot. Learning that heavy metal often used two finger to play “Power chords” was kind of cool, but this was the time of Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhodes and, later Yngwie Malmsteen and others, and the solo was king. I just wasn’t that fast or articulate, so I kind of gave up at that point.
Will: But you still became a musician later, so something must have clicked. What happened?
Me: Sometime in my senior year of high school, just for fun, I decided I wanted to start playing again. I saw that some of my friends were putting bands together, and I thought it would be fun to play along. I didn’t think my skills as a piano player, flute player or guitar player would get me very far, but what seemed like an “easy” instrument to learn was electric bass. Yes, I know, hubris, but work with me here. A bass just needs one note to be played at a time (yeah, again, work with me here, this is my 16 year old mind we’re talking about here). They also just have to play a steady “bump-bump-bump-bump”… heck, I can do *that*! Of course, as soon as I started playing bass, I started to notice bass lines in songs sticking out more prominently, and suddenly, I realized that the bass, depending on the band, was a lot more involved instrument than I ever gave it credit for. Sure, I knew about Geddy Lee of Rush, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, and Chris Squire of Yes, but it wasn’t until I started playing myself that I realized the skill level of players like John Taylor of Duran Duran, Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire, or John Entwistle of the Who. The most surprising one, to me, was Gene Simmons of KISS. Some how, I just never realized that he was actually really good! Anyway, I quickly realized that I was not going to have as easy a time getting “good” at playing bass. Sure, I could keep time, and I could anchor a band, but if I wanted to do more than that, it was going to take time. The nice things was that the four string bass (and yes, to the players of today, there was once a time when five and six string basses were extremely rare; if you played a bass, you played an E Bass with 4 strings) fit very nicely with what I learned about playing a guitar, The strings were thicker, the neck was longer, but much was the same.
Will: So I’ve seen the pictures of your bands… you don’t play any instruments. You were the singer. Why did you make that choice?
Me: Well, originally, I hadn’t planned to be a singer, at least not a dedicated one. When I first started putting Monikker together with a few friends, we thought we’d do something like the Beatles, or Kiss, or Queen, where there were multiple singers and each would take a turn at various songs. When we set up the group originally, we actually had a lineup similar to the Beatles or Kiss. I played bass, we had two guitar players (one would switch to keys if the song needed it) and a drummer. The problem was that, as we started trying to do things that were not so basic, I had trouble paying the bass and singing lead at the same time. Harmonies, not a problem, but singing lead while doing more than a pedal tone, ugh, I just couldn’t do it. Over time, the other band members commented that I had the strongest voice of any of them. One day, our second guitar player at the time asked me if he could borrow my bass for that rehearsal session. I said sure, gave it to him, and he said “OK, sing lead… on all of the songs!” I was startled at first, but said “OK”, and that rehearsal, we went through our entire set list with me singing the lead and him playing the bass. At the end of that rehearsal, he told everyone that he felt it would be in the best interest of the band if he took over playing bass, and if I would sing lead from then on.
Will: So was it some “innate” talent that you had, or had learning all of those other instruments over several years helped you when you decided to sing?
Me: Ha! I see what you did there :)!!! Well, I realized that I carried a lot of small bits of musical education from each of the instruments I learned. I wasn’t great shakes at any of them individually, but by the time I got to the skill I had some aptitude for (singing) I was actually very well prepared to not just sing notes, but to read music, to write melody lines, and to sit down with other instruments and, albeit slowly, work out a bunch of musical ideas. The piano helped me with note recognition and music reading, the flute helped me with breath control, melody, and controlling my volume and note placement. Guitar taught me rhythm and popular songs, bass taught me rhythm of a more percussive nature and how to keep time in different signatures. All of this, when it came to singing, meant that I had a lot of stuff I could draw from to help me learn something that many might think is automatic, but really isn’t at all. Singing is a lot harder than people realize, especially if you are pushing a P.A. system in a club for hours a night. Surprisingly, my stamina for singing came from what I learned playing flute :).
Will: I remember seeing someplace that you played drums. When did that happen?
Me: Actually, that was a few years after I stopped playing “professionally”. I wanted to set up a music studio in my garage so I could keep writing, and MIDI allowed me a way to record ideas quickly. I started out with a drum machine, but found I was getting bored with the basic rhythm construction, so I bough a drum module that accepted trigger inputs. I started with one trigger, then two, then three, then bought a kick drum trigger, and over time, I built a makeshift electronic drum set. As I started playing along with my songs I was writing, I started to vary the rhythm and, over time, I learned how to play a number of drum beats. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to step on stage for a band or anything, but I can sit down and show another drummer the beat that I have in my head, and I can play those beats for several measures solidly (fills and flourishes are where I start to fall apart 😉 ). But yes, it seems everything I’d learned up to that point helped me considerably with picking up other instruments.
Hmmm, so what was the point of all of this? Yesterday, I mentioned that many of us copy and master “forms” to learn something, we learn the rules, and then we learn where we can break them, and ultimately, we learn that there are no rules, we are one with the rules, and we don’t follow the rules, we just do. The nature of that approach is referred to as “Shu Ha Ri” in martial arts. It’s great for when we have a well established tradition to draw upon, but what if there isn’t a well established tradition? What if we are looking for or are interested in “the new hotness”? What do we do then?
Will’s point is that we draw on what we have already done, and we look for the analog. When it comes to computers, music, philosophy, education, art, etc., at this stage of the game there really isn’t anything “new” under the sun. Tools change, techniques change, and mediums change, but the general skills are still the same. A drum is very different from a flute, but a note is a note. Just because the note is considered a “beat” doesn’t really change the fact that it is still a noise that happens at a predetermined time. Though my vocal chords are different than breathing through a small aperture and holding down stoppers, a “C” is still a “C”. An Am (minor) chord, whether played on a piano, a guitar, or a bass, still contains the same notes. The rhythm structures that we learn strumming or fingerpicking a guitar; fingering, picking or slaping a bass; or pounding out chords or bass accompaniment on a piano translates to a drum. The medium has changed, but the fundamental skills are still the same. What we have to do is abstract what we are doing, so that we can use the skills in multiple places.
Programming languages differ in syntax, and they differ in where they are used, but most languages in use today (I’ll keep assembly or other low level languages out of this discussion for now) all do similar things. They all store variables, they all store strings, they all store larger pieces of data that we construct. Some use functions, others use objects and methods, all of them use flow control, all of them use conditions, and all of them encourage creating libraries for reuse of things that have been built before. In short, everything is an analog, and what you have learned at some point will inform what you do going forward. Had I realized this when I was younger, I might have been able to not only save myself a lot of frustration, but I could have become a lot better at the instruments I had learned how to play (which I’ve proven to myself over the past few years as I’ve gone back to try to play piano, flute, guitar, bass, and drums).
I recall going to a PowWow in 2008 and one of the vendors was showing six hole flutes. He encouraged me to try it out. I did, and after a couple of minutes playing around, I was playing songs I remembered hearing when I was younger. There was a group that surrounded me to listen, and the owner of the booth asked me how long I had been playing. When I told him I’d never picked one up before, he was astonished, and he said “wow, you’re a natural!” Looking back, no, I wasn’t. I was, however, someone who had thirty years of various musical experiences that I could call on, inductively, to help me figure out how to play this, to me, totally foreign instrument. The point is, ultimately, that a good foundation in a discipline can help you pick up something new, but you need to have some experience to start with. Once you have that experience, leverage the analogs to learn new things.