How I Practice Piano

This is my usual method of practicing, gleaned from my teacher, old posts on the Piano Street forums, Graham Fitch’s Practising the Piano, and various other books and resources. It’s rare that I follow these steps exactly, but they are an ideal to aim for.

  1. Choose one section of the piece to practice, which is short enough that you can memorize it in a few tries. If you can’t, break it down into even smaller pieces. If it’s too easy to memorize, choose a bigger section. Include the first notes of the following section to make joining sections easier later on. For example, if your section is the first two bars of the piece, include the first note from bar three.
  2. Practice the section slowly enough, at first, to avoid making mistakes. If you keep making mistakes when practicing then you are just going to get good at making them, so it’s best to avoid them in the first place. Use the correct fingering, dynamics, articulation, etc. from the very beginning; you are never going to get around to “fixing” it later. Do not work on this section for more than twenty minutes.
    1. Start hands separately at a slow tempo using the metronome. If you can play the section five times in a row without hesitating or making a mistake, increase the tempo and practice again, until you can play at that tempo five times in a row. When one hand is in danger of getting tired, switch to practicing the other one. Aim to increase the speed to above the target performance tempo, so that playing at performance tempo is easier by comparison.
    2. Once you can play each hand individually above the target tempo, practice hands together. Start with a tempo even slower than you think you need—if you are having trouble coordinating, reduce the speed. Once you can play it flawlessly and without hesitation at least five times in a row, start increasing the speed in increments. Aim to get to a speed above the target performance tempo.
    3. Once you can play the section hands together above the target performance tempo, continue practicing it until you can’t get it wrong—but no longer than the twenty-minute limit. Some sections will take much less than twenty minutes to master. Others will take more, which is a sign that the section you’ve chosen is too big and should be broken down further.
  3. Start working on a different section, either of the same piece or a different piece, and don’t touch this section again until the next day. The next day, if you can play the section perfectly in only a few tries, move on to learning a different section. If not, repeat the steps above again. It will take less time the second time around.
  4. Once two consecutive sections have been mastered, work on joining them together as a new section. By adding the first note of the next section during practice, it is much easier to join sections together at this step.
  5. Continue in this way, working on small sections and joining them together, until the entire piece is learned.

While increasing the tempo, you may reach a point where you can’t play any faster, no matter how hard you try. What is likely happening is that the hand motions you are using—which come naturally at the slower tempo you started with—simply will not work at such high speeds. You are basically trying to run by speed-walking faster and faster. One way to get around this is to try playing the section at full speed first, ignoring mistakes, just to figure out what the necessary motions feel like. Then, you can try to practice those motions at a slow speed, not the motions that are intuitive at a slow speed.

It is a good idea to occasionally play a piece very slowly, even after you’ve mastered it. If you only play the piece fast, the piece will deteriorate as mistakes inevitably get introduced and never get fixed. Finally, it’s a good idea to occasionally play hands separately, especially for counterpoint, even after you’ve mastered the piece. In fact, for counterpoint it’s a good idea to learn each voice individually with the correct fingering (even if that means passing the voice back and forth between the hands) and occasionally play each voice separately.

Visualizing Sixty Years of Books

Assume that you will live for 60 more years. This means you have 3,169 weeks left. If you read one book every week, you will have time to read 3,169 more books. Let’s say that each book is, on average, one inch thick. Then, these books take up 264 feet of linear shelf space. How big of a room would you need to store that many books? Let’s assume the room has 8-foot ceilings, so a floor-to-ceiling bookcase would have at most seven shelves. The books would therefore cover 38 feet of the room’s perimeter. If we account for the fact that the bookcases are about a foot deep, then you will actually need a room with a 46-foot perimeter to accommodate them without overlapping at the corners. That is exactly the perimeter of an 11×12 foot room, or a standard American bedroom. Actually, even that would be too small, since you have to account for a door somewhere, and perhaps windows. So if you want to visualize the amount of books you could read in sixty years, picture your bedroom with floor-to-ceiling bookcases covering all four walls and then some.

Are Viruses Alive?

I would like to argue that the question “Are viruses alive?” is a question about language, not about any objective fact about external reality, and that there is no correct answer. I’m sure there’s a standard name for this argument and I’d bet Wittgenstein has already talked about it, but I haven’t read any Wittgenstein so this is my personal attempt to articulate it. The impetus for writing this came from reading this article in Quanta Magazine and from a conversation about it on Twitter.

The distinction between living and nonliving was originally defined ostensively—that is, the meaning was conveyed by pointing out examples of living or nonliving things and hoping the distinction got across to the listener. Cows are alive, rocks aren’t; trees are, dirt isn’t. Do you see the pattern? We do not define life by enumerating every possible phenomenon and stating whether it is alive or not—we are only given a finite number of samples from which to build our intuitions. In other words, the definition is not extensive.

Because the definition is not extensive, when we are confronted with something that wasn’t one of the examples given to us, we have to make a decision. Is this thing more like the examples of living things I’ve been given, or more like the nonliving things? Usually this is easy; a dog moves, eats, and breathes, just like cows and cats, so it must be alive. But when we move further from the central examples, everything becomes murky. Is fire alive? Are snowflakes? Computers? Artificial intelligences? What about viruses?

Not having thought about things this way before, and tired of arguing about it, we decide we need to update the definition of life to cover these new cases. The ultimate goal is to create an intensional definition—a list of defining characteristics that one can use to categorize any object as alive or not, even if you’ve never seen it before. If it has those characteristics it’s alive; if it doesn’t, then it’s not. Sometimes it is easy to see what a group of objects have in common and to construct an intensional definition. Other times, like in the case of life, it’s very difficult.

Consider the following plot. Each point represents a different kind of object; cats, dogs, cows, rocks, trees, viruses, et cetera. Their location is determined by their properties. Maybe the horizontal axis represents a measure of metabolism, and the vertical axis represents a measure of self-replication. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we can see two clusters. Let’s say the top-right one contains what we’d call living things, and the bottom-left one represents nonliving things. Animals, plants, bacteria, etc. are all in the top-right cluster, and rocks, dirt, stuffed animals, etc. are all in the bottom-left. The reason we came up with the life/non-life distinction in the first place is because these dense clusters exist. But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy; what do we do about the dots that don’t obviously belong in either cluster? Where do we draw the line that divides this plot into two groups?

Well, we can choose to divide it however we want! There are many possible intensive definitions that agree with our intuitions, but they disagree with each other about the edge cases. In other words, there are many curves one could draw on the above graph that would separate the two major clusters from each other, but which would disagree about which side the other dots fall on. This is fine—there’s no right answer. Whether to call viruses or artificial intelligences “life” is a subjective choice, based more on convenience and utility than any objective fact about the world.

But this is where the problem occurs. Some people think that our old, intuitive, ostensively-defined concept of life must have secretly been referring to an intensional definition the whole time. They believe there must be a “true” way to define life, the one we really mean when we talk about life, and that there really is a fact of the matter about whether viruses are alive, independent of human definitions. As if there are little tags on every object in the universe that say “living” and “nonliving” that we could see if only we had more powerful microscopes and cleverer philosophers working on the issue. As if there’s one true, obviously correct curve to draw between the two clusters and all other lines are wrong.

But “life” is not a natural category. It’s a convenient way of categorizing phenomena that has proven especially useful to humans. There were two distinct clusters in that plot, after all, so “living” and “nonliving” was a very good concept to have. But that doesn’t mean the universe cares about the exact line where we draw the boundary. The universe doesn’t care if we choose an intensional definition of life that includes or excludes viruses. A good argument could be made for either case.

If you have a definition of life that excludes viruses and I have a definition that includes them, we are not actually arguing over any fact about the material world—we’re not arguing about whether the dot that represents viruses in the above plot is drawn in the wrong place. Rather, we’re arguing over how to draw an imaginary line to categorize things. We’re playing a language game. I think this sort of problem shows up all the time in philosophy. Consider the endless arguments about the true meaning of justice, love, good, evil, etc. I guarantee if you internalize this pattern you will see it everywhere.

Thoughts on Hallucinations and the Supernatural

When I stay up too late—say, past two in the morning—I tend to have auditory hallucinations. Sometimes I’ll hear muffled conversation that stops abruptly when I get out of bed to investigate. Other times I’ll hear music coming up through the floor. Occasionally I’ll hear a voice harshly whisper my name from right behind my head. These are pretty benign as far as hallucinations go, and I usually just ignore them.

One night, I also experienced some visual hallucinations. It was a summer during undergrad when I had nothing to do, and I had let my sleep schedule drift really far from normal; I was going to bed at 5 a.m. and waking up around noon. That night, I saw dark shapes crawling up the walls in my peripheral vision. I decided to go to bed. A few hours later, I was abruptly woken up by what I thought was a man with his face inches from my own, shouting as loudly as he could while pounding his fists into the mattress near my head. I shot upright and realized I was alone. That’s when I decided I would never again stay up past 2 a.m., and I’ve stuck to this promise.

Aside from hallucinations, I also occasionally have sleep paralysis. I wake up and realize I can’t move, aside from some weak vocalizations and muscle twitches in my arms. I generally find this annoying but not scary, and either continue to twitch until I regain the ability to move, or decide to go back to sleep. I’ve never had hallucinations during sleep paralysis, but one time a relative of mine saw a stereotypical grey alien slowly walking toward them from the corner of their room during an instance of sleep paralysis. Their response was “Oh, that’s neat!” Then they fell back asleep.

This makes me wonder if most ghost sightings are simply attributable to hallucinations. It would explain why most “supernatural” events happen at night. It would explain why they happen most often when you’re alone and tired. It explains why people who claim to have seen or heard a ghost insist that they’re not lying or mistaking a bag for a ghost or whatever—they really did experience it, but they don’t realize it was a hallucination.

Hallucinations are more common than you’d think, and people who don’t know this would probably assume their hallucinations have external causes. “Hallucinations only happen to crazy people, right? I’m not crazy. It was a ghost!” This is a much simpler explanation than some of the other explanations that have been proposed, like the resonances of certain rooms causing people to feel fear and vibrating their eyeballs in just the right way to cause them to see shadows, or that all the people who claim to have seen or heard ghosts are mistaken or lying.

My Uneasy Relationship with the Internet

This week’s post is disjointed and I’m not really satisfied with how it turned out, but hey, it’s a post!

I am not happy with the way I use the internet. I continually refresh the same websites, hoping something new has appeared since last time—usually there’s nothing. Occasionally I’ll find something interesting, but it’s never worth the time I’ve wasted. The slot machine analogy, though clichéd, is still relevant. I feel a little spark of excitement and anticipation every time I check, and that strengthens the compulsion, even though I am disappointed most of the time.

This is a problem, because it’s not like I’m enjoying myself while doing it. I’m not getting distracted and only realizing what I’ve done hours later. I’m constantly, miserably hyper-aware that I’m wasting time—that the majority of what I’m reading isn’t important, useful, or even interesting to me. I’d rather read a book. Instead, I keep going, afraid that if I don’t, I’ll miss something that would make my time spent worthwhile. But nothing could possibly be good enough to outweigh such a massive cost.

For some sites—like blogs—there is a simple solution. Instead of checking compulsively to see if they updated, I simply follow them in Feedly, my RSS reader of choice. This reduces the number of sites I need to check to just one. If nothing has updated, there’s no possibility of having my attention sucked away, because I will be met with an empty screen. Other sites offer newsletters. When new articles come out, I will be sent an email. If I don’t get the email, I don’t need to bother checking the site.

It’s not blogs I compulsively waste my time checking, though. Blogs are nice. Blogs only update once every few days, if that. Blogs are of reliable quality because they’re the work of a single person. No, the culprits are social media sites and content aggregators—Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, etc. These sites are near-continuous fire hoses of content, so an RSS feed is pointless. Plus, the average quality is incredibly low because literally anyone can make an account. I can’t remember the last time I found something legitimately good on Reddit.

My life would improve immeasurably if I never visited these sites again—perhaps. But for some reason, I find this difficult to do. I’ve tried using browser add-ons to block my access to certain sites, or to limit the amount of time I spend on them per day, but these are trivial to circumvent and I always do. I don’t even think such measures are the correct solution to the problem; what I need is something outside the internet to occupy my time with. But it’s a vicious cycle, because I’m too busy with the internet to get deeper into my hobbies! Plus, I don’t want to avoid using these sites entirely. Reddit is occasionally the only place one can find answers to certain questions. YouTube is how I became such a good cook. I have friends on Twitter and sometimes even enjoy it. How do I reduce the amount of time I spend on these sites without just quitting them cold turkey forever? What does a healthy relationship with the internet look like?

A few more unorganized thoughts about the internet.

If you’ve been on a content aggregator for long enough, you begin to notice that a lot of the best content comes from the same few sites. For example, the majority of the time I find something legitimately interesting on Hacker News, it’s from Quanta Magazine, Nautilus, or some other magazine in that general space. Wouldn’t it be better to follow those sites directly (via RSS or newsletters, of course) and skip the Hacker News step entirely? Of course it would. The fear, though, is that by doing that I’d be missing out on new sites to follow.

I think the key to avoiding this whole mess I’m in is to trust that the people around me will link me to anything interesting they find, or that I can just ask if anyone knows an interesting source on a particular topic.

You also notice that the comments are basically never worth reading. Large subreddits, for example, routinely have chains of comments dozens of levels deep, each making a slightly different variation on the same joke in a desperate attempt to accumulate karma. There are a thousand low-effort joke/meme comments for every normal comment, and a thousand normal comments for every comment that is actually worth reading. Who has the time to search through all that?

There’s also the problem of the Eternal September. No subreddit can ever progress, because new members are constantly flooding in and asking the same old questions they always ask. On the /r/piano, for example, every post is either a request for someone to identify a chord or a symbol on their sheet music they don’t recognize, someone posting a video of their own playing, or someone showing off their new piano. It will never move past that.

Another problem is leaky boundaries between subcultures. Reddit actually scores relatively well on this, since everyone is siloed into different subreddits, but Twitter is the worst offender. There’s no way to only follow certain people or subjects, or to talk in peace, because everyone retweets everyone else. The Scholar’s Stage articulates it best in The World That Twitter Made:

See, twitter is not a constellation of carefully moderated communities. The users of twitter are one great mass. The ponds and lakes of the blogosphere have emptied into a heaving sea. In this sea, twitter users are linked together, but linked weakly. They are unmoderated, unorganized, atomized—but stuck all together. A retweet can roll through the lot in a day.

Communities of a sort still exist on twitter, but they are mashed together in an unhealthy way. Many of these communities will be filled with people whose base assumptions about how the world works are 100% different than your own. That is fine. It is quite possible to talk honestly to people who don’t share your commitments—but of course the way one does this is very different from how you talk to someone whose world view aligns 85% with your own. On twitter you do not get to refine your message for either group. On twitter you project to everyone at once.

All the best sites are carefully curated walled gardens, where only a select few people are allowed to post. I often wish we could go back to the old internet of blogs and forums, well-defined communities around different topics, where there are few enough people in your bubble that you can get to know them. In The internet as we know it is doomed, Annalee Newitz puts forth the idea that the internet will collapse back into smaller societies the same way that civilization did in the late Neolithic period.

These Neolithic metropolises, though rare, were incredibly long-lived — some were continuously inhabited for 2,000 years. We know of their existence because their inhabitants changed the landscape permanently, leaving dramatic hills of crumbling brick and debris behind. But then, about 7500 years ago, something changed. People abandoned their larger settlements and went back to small communities, many of them moving seasonally rather than sticking with settled, agricultural life.

Large cities didn’t re-emerge in the region for about 2,000 years. And when they did, they were shockingly different; they were essentially city-states, with kings and taxes and slaves.

She doesn’t really “make an argument” so much as say “hey, this event is superficially similar to this other hypothetical event, maybe that means the hypothetical event will happen because of magic reasons!” I doubt this will actually happen, but if it does, it would be the best thing to happen online for a long time. I am rooting for it.

A Short Argument on the Origins of the Universe

While working on another project, I remembered an argument I came up with a decade ago but never wrote down. It concerns questions like “What created the universe?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I don’t think this argument is new—I think Sean Carroll made the same point once, though I can’t find where. Anyway, the argument went something like this.

There’s a concept in epistemology called Münchhausen’s Trilemma. Think of a proof as a directed graph where the nodes are statements and the arrows are inferences. If we look for the ultimate justification of a statement, one of the following must be true: Either the proof ultimately rests on axioms that we assert without justification, or the proof requires an infinite number of steps, or the proof is circular and relies on the statement we’re trying to prove. Since this list exhausts the possibilities, and none of the options are satisfying, it is impossible to ever prove anything in a way humans would find intuitively satisfying. (Personally, I think this just shows that our intuitive concept of “proof” is incoherent and should be relinquished.)

My argument is that the same thing can be applied to causation. Instead of thinking about a graph of statements and inferences, we can think about a graph of events and causes. When looking for the ultimate cause of an event, then, one of the following must be true: Either the event was ultimately caused by a past event that has no cause itself, or the event was caused by a series of events stretching infinitely back into the past with no beginning, or the event is involved in a stable time loop and somehow caused itself. This, too, is an exhaustive list.

Therefore, the answer to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” will a priori never have a satisfactory answer. Perhaps we will realize that it’s impossible to gain information about anything outside the universe even in principle. Or perhaps we will discover that the universe was created by something else, like a god or another universe. All that does is push the question up one level: What caused that? Or maybe we will find that the universe created itself, or that we’re one of two universes that created each other, or something. All that does is bring up the question of the origin of the meta-universe in which this process is allowed to occur!

We will never have an answer that isn’t one of these three options, and yet people spend a lot of time and effort trying to console themselves that “No, actually, I do have an intuitively satisfying answer!” Hypothesizing creator gods, other universes, unmoved movers, etc. does not help you escape the trilemma. A Level IV Tegmark Universe doesn’t help because it just pushes the question up to why that exists. (The worst kind of theorizing about the origins of the universe is the kind exemplified in Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing. He claims that the laws of physics show how our universe can arise from empty, spaceless quantum fields, and that this provides a complete and satisfying answer to the age-old question. But it doesn’t! It doesn’t explain where that initial quantum field comes from, or the rules that govern its evolution!)

Personally, I don’t believe we will ever have any information about any process outside our universe, because this is impossible even in principle. I believe that the people who even think this question is important are making a particular mistake about the nature of causality. Consider a causal diagram for every event in the entire known universe. We can ask what caused a particular event, like “Why is the sidewalk wet?”, and, depending on the abstraction level and the categories we decide to chop the universe into, get some causal answer. “Because it rained.” “Because the sky god was angry.” “Because of the laws of physics and the boundary conditions of the universe.”

But the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” isn’t really a question that makes sense in this context. You’re not asking for the ultimate cause of some event in the causal diagram: You’re asking what caused the causal diagram itself. This is a category error; a mixing up different levels of abstraction. This is why I don’t believe that the question is worth losing sleep over, or even pursuing. We will never know the ultimate cause for our existence, and that’s okay, because the question itself is actually incoherent.

Paper versus Digital Notes

I previously wrote about the problem of deciding what to write down when reading books. This time, I want to write about the problem of which medium to use for note-taking in the first place. Should I take notes digitally, or on paper? I don’t mean just notes taken while reading; I also mean to-do lists, diary entries, calendars; pretty much any kind of information-recording. Usually, I think about these issues really hard once every couple of months, get overwhelmed, and decide not to think about it anymore, putting off any activities that might possibly require taking notes, like reading. It’s very frustrating.

From a purely mechanical standpoint, digital note-taking seems to have many advantages over paper. It’s very easy to erase, modify, and reorganize my notes if they are digital, but next to impossible on paper. Digital notes are also trivially searchable, whereas to search paper notes I would need to do the extra work of maintaining some sort of laborious referencing scheme. Digital notes take up basically no space, while paper requires notebooks, pencils, eraser, etc. Paper notes also require me to carry said writing materials around if I want to take notes on the go. Typing is much faster than writing, and the results are more legible—my handwriting is very messy. Digital notes are also trivial to share and copy.

However, taking notes on paper also has its strengths. I am not constrained by the program’s design choices and can use whatever formatting or organizational scheme I choose. I can write anywhere on the page, at any size, in any style, and draw any mathematical symbol I want without having to search through a menu. I can also draw and doodle. The results are more aesthetically pleasing, and it’s an excuse for me to practice handwriting. It seems horrifying to become so dependent on computers that you forget how to write.

Of course, the handwriting experience is also available digitally via programs like OneNote. But there are some downsides to this. First, there is the issue of screen real estate. With digital notes, I can only display one or two windows at a time unless I have an external monitor attached to my computer. If I’m reading a digital book and taking notes digitally, I have to constantly switch between windows unless I have a second screen. With paper, I can have as many documents and books open and spread out on my desk at once as I want. Writing on paper is also more satisfying, physically, than writing on glass. Not having a screen also means that I am not constantly one click away from the distractions of the internet.

But the strongest, most deep-seated reason I am reluctant to switch to digital is how ephemeral and fragile digital things seem to me. Paper is forever. It’s a solid, real object. Unless my home catches on fire or someone physically breaks in and steals my notebooks, paper can’t be lost or destroyed. Paper is also transparent. You never have to worry about what is going on “under the hood”, or where your data is being stored and whether or not it’s going to sync properly (Evernote and OneNote both tell me they “found an alternate version of this note” or have syncing issues all the time). If you store information on the cloud, eventually that service might get shut down or your data might get hacked.

This all prevents me from feeling comfortable going digital. But I also have trouble taking notes physically, because my handwriting is terrible and my hands cramp up after a minute of writing. Practicing handwriting would solve that, but I still worry that I will miss the benefits of digital, like searching and organizing. I’ve told myself that it’s easier to go from paper to digital if I decide to switch, than to go the other way, because I can scan paper but I can’t print notes (for cheap, anyway), but it’s still a challenge to start.

This all boils down to the ability to make a choice between two options of similar value, which is an ability that I seriously lack. Does anyone have any argument that decisively comes down on one side or the other? Failing that, does anyone have an argument for why I should just choose one and not worry about it?

Thinking About Modes

Every explanation of the diatonic modes that I was exposed to in childhood used the same ordering: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. The reason is simple: If you play a scale from C to C using only the white keys, you have the Ionian mode, if you play from D to D, you have a Dorian mode, and so on. This was very simple, easy for me to remember, and utterly handicapped my ability to play modes.

If I wanted to play an F# Mixolydian scale, my thought process went like this: Okay, F# Mixolydian. Mixolydian is when you start on the fifth degree of the regular major scale… what scale is F# the fifth of? Uhh… B? Yeah, B major. Okay, so I need to play the notes in the B major scale, but starting on the F#, and that’s Mixolydian.

This was a painfully slow multi-step process. I don’t know how many other people have the same problem that I did, but given how common this explanation is and how many years it took me to find a better way of thinking about modes, there are probably quite a few. If you were like me, I hope this helps you. The better way of thinking about modes is to forget all that stuff about starting on different degrees of a major scale and just remember the following rules:

  • Lydian is major but with a raised fourth.
  • Ionian is major.
  • Mixolydian is major but with a flat seventh.
  • Dorian is minor but with a raised sixth.
  • Aeolian is minor.
  • Phrygian is minor but with a flat second.
  • Locrian is minor but with a flat second and a flat fifth.

That’s it. Now I want to play an F# Mixolydian scale, I just think: Ok, that’s an F# major scale with a flat seventh. It’s much faster.

Incidentally, the order in which I wrote this new list—Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian—is a much better ordering of the modes (in my opinion). First of all, the modes are ordered by their character. Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian are the three major modes, with Lydian being happier than Ionian (almost manic, really), and Mixolydian being more subdued. Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian are the three minor modes, with Dorian being more mysterious and aloof than Aeolian and Phrygian being much darker. Then you have Locrian, the black sheep as always.

This ordering of the modes is also organized by the circle of fifths. Try playing all the modes starting on C in the original order—C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc. There isn’t really any rhyme or reason to it. Now try playing all the modes starting on C in the better order—C Lydian, C Ionian, C Mixolydian, etc. Each mode is just one note off from the previous, always by flatting one note of the previous mode. At the end, after you play C Locrian, you can flat the C and start the cycle over again with B Lydian. Try it!

One last interesting fact about the modes. The three major modes—Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian, differ from each other only in the fourth and seventh scale degrees. The major pentatonic scale contains all the notes of the major scale except the fourth and seventh; therefore, the major pentatonic scale is a subset of all three major modes. The three minor modes—Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian—differ from each other in the second and sixth degrees, which the minor pentatonic scale does not contain, so the minor pentatonic is a subset of all three minor modes.

A Few Lessons from Piano Pedagogy

Today’s post isn’t very long, but I’ve got to write something so here it is. During my time researching piano pedagogy, I’ve encountered practical advice that I’ve never seen elsewhere but which I’m sure would apply to other fields. Here are the top three that stood out to me over the years.

First: Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you are practicing a section of music and you keep making the same mistakes, mindlessly playing it over and over again will not magically fix the mistakes. Instead, you are going to learn the mistakes and get very good at making them. It’s better to isolate the problem areas, practice them slowly without mistakes, and avoid mindless repetition.

Second: Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. If you are practicing a section and get it right on the hundredth try, you can’t just stop for the day. So far you have played it wrong ninety-nine times and right once. Which version do you think your muscle memory is going to remember tomorrow? Practice it until you’ve played it right at least as many times as you’ve played it wrong.

Third: Running is not the same as walking very fast. A common technique for increasing the speed at which you can play a passage is to start playing it very slowly, increasing the tempo a small amount each time you become comfortable playing it at the current tempo. However, this is not always guaranteed to work. There may come a point where you hit a wall; you can no longer increase the speed, no matter how hard you try. This is because the hand motions you need to use to play the piece fast are not the same hand motions that come naturally when playing the piece slowly. It’s like trying to run by speed-walking faster and faster. The solution is to play it fast, ignoring accuracy, and figure out the required hand motions, then play those hand motions, slowed down, rather than the natural hand motions you had been playing before.

On Note-taking

I used to read a lot. When I was little, I would stay up past my bedtime and hide under the covers with a book in one hand and a flashlight in the other, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice until I had finished another chapter. In college, I estimated that I was reading roughly one million words of fiction every month, and that’s excluding what I read online. But over the past decade I have pretty much stopped reading entirely.

Somehow, I internalized the idea that I need to take notes on everything I read. My thought process went something like this: If I don’t take notes, then I’m just wasting my time. I will have nothing to show for my time spent reading; it will be as if I had read nothing at all. I want to be a writer, don’t I? What if, in the future, I write something that leans heavily on the book I’m reading right now? I don’t want to have to read it again, do I? That would defeat the entire point! Better summarize the whole book in brilliantly compact shorthand so a decade from now I can just reread my notes rather than having to reread the book.

If taking notes were easy, this wouldn’t be so bad. But I found note-taking to be a frustrating and emotionally draining task. I could never know what information should go in my notes and what I should just ignore, so I felt compelled to record everything, just in case. Who knows what will be relevant in the future? This slowed my reading to a crawl. So, to avoid the guilt of reading without taking notes, I simply avoided reading altogether.

At first, I thought this was the fault of my note-taking system. I had read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, but maybe I needed to use something more structured and sophisticated? I looked into Luhmann’s Zettelkasten system via Sonke Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes, tried out Roam Research, and generally wasted a lot of time.

These resources covered how to add notes to the system, and how to utilize the notes once they were in the system, and their methods seemed interesting… but they never seemed to address what I considered to be the most pressing, important question: How do you decide what information to record in the first place? Nobody mentioned this at all, even though it was at the heart of my problem!

I think I have now discovered what my problem was. I always assumed that the point of note-taking was to stockpile and organize facts and quotations that could be used, someday, as fodder for a project. Any time you read anything, you would add to this stockpile. This is, of course, unworkable in practice. The problem is that I had no goal in mind for my notes. Without something to limit my scope and direct my attention, there was no way to tell what was relevant, so every sentence was fair game. This is why I found taking notes to be such a monumental, suffocating task.

Luhmann’s Zettelkasten was not filled with notes on everything he ever read. It was specifically for his work in sociology, and when he put notes into the system he already knew how they related to the projects he was working on and how they may someday be used. He wasn’t just stuffing any old fact into the system.

Therefore, unless I am reading something for a specific project that I have in mind, there’s no reason to take notes. And there’s definitely no reason to take notes if I’m reading for pleasure. A review, perhaps, but not notes. I believe this is the correct stance, but I still feel in my gut like I’m rationalizing—like I’m trying to weasel out of the hard work of honest reading. It will take time for me to correct my gut feelings, but at least I have discovered where those gut feelings come from and why they’re maladaptive.

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (apocryphal)