Monday, July 22, 2013

Practice makes... more practice.

I was picking up my new pair of glasses the other day, and ended up explaining my take on the cube to the tech that did the final fit and one of the waiting customers there. I had done the same with the woman that scheduled the optometrists' appointments the previous weekend, and both times I was feeling really on the mark, like delivering good comedy or a convincing musical performance. I was wishing a little bit that I could get somebody else to film me doing this, just because I've never actually seen it, and I'm not entirely convinced I could just fire up a camera on a tripod and run through my schtick for nobody. Part of the reason that it's a little bit different every time is that I usually tend to tailor my responses to the initial questions, and then steer the presentation in to my standard bit when it seems right to do so. I'm not even thinking about that when I'm doing it, it just seems to go that way on its own.

At lunch the subsequent Friday, feeling confident with my new glasses, I got the "how long does it take you/what's your fastest time" questions and I started feeling a little disappointed that that number hadn't really changed much. I answered the rest of their questions and went to eat my lunch. While I ate, reflecting on my good performances the previous day, it occurred to me that it is pretty rare that I work on my speed specifically. What I tend to work on is exactly what I'm doing - explaining the Rubik's cube to people while I'm solving it. If I were using a faster solution method, I wouldn't have enough time to explain it while I was doing it. I also wouldn't have enough spare processing ability to be able to talk while I did some of the more complicated moves, especially at first when I would still be learning them.

So that got me thinking - what we practice is what we do is what we practice. Ok, so that's not worded well. Let's think about this in terms of music for a moment. If you spend all your time practicing by yourself, you can develop considerable technique but you are surrounded by a mostly comfortable situation - your roof, your room, your, idiosyncrasies, your accompaniment (if any), and your lack of an audience. You run the risk of not absorbing new input, and the challenges you face are fairly small and usually self-imposed. This is why for most players there is much value in both teaching and public performance.

The value in teaching others comes from many things. First, it forces us to strengthen our foundation of knowledge on the subject, purely by repetition. Second, we are presented with students that are approaching these ideas with (hopefully) a new mind. Sometimes the fresh perspective is invigorating to the teacher, allowing them to re-approach ideas with a new mind themselves. Sometimes the fresh perspective just helps us re-verify the ideas while we teach them to our students. Sometimes the fresh perspective makes us reevaluate some ideas and throw out some ideas entirely, but this is usually more difficult to do. Third, now we have a reason to communicate ideas back and forth. In our musical example, this would usually be some sort of musical notation. (In the cubing world, I might communicate an idea like R'D'RD'R'D2R'.) In dealing with other persons, both as students and as audience members, we are presented with the concept of hazard. Sometimes there are mistakes, and it is a necessary part of the interaction.

This brings us to the value of performance. In our musical example, we are strengthened by our interactions with other musicians, and it gives us more reason to communicate musical ideas although usually this happens in a more informal way. Instead of using strict musical notation, the ideas may be as simple as a set of lyrics and some chords to go with them. (In the cubing world, talking to other cubers at a competition, I might say, what moves do you use for the Sune and the Y permutation?) The level that the communication takes place at is usually raised by the level of skill of the participants. We are influenced by the different styles, methods, and presentations of our fellow participants, both in other groups and our own group. The outside influences add dimensions to our own ideas that we would not have had in isolation. We are also presented by more aspects of hazard. Will the microphones shock us if it starts raining? Can anybody in the back of the room hear the acoustic guitar? Are we going to remember the new ending that we just rehearsed last month the one time? Is the movie theater going to call and say we're playing too loud? (Cuber example: If I use my faster, looser cube to gain speed do I run the risk of having a piece pop out during a solve?) The best things that we learn from performance are usually not how to avoid hazard, but how to skillfully deal with it.

We must practice so that many things are second nature and we do not have to give those things our attention. We must practice so that when hazard appears we can give it our attention to minimize it. If this is not what we do, if we do not place ourselves in hazard's way, then we are ill-equipped when it finally occurs.

So, for me, for now, that means that I stick with my performance art/comedy bit/one-on-one cubing presentations, since I have a bit that's only designed for a small group of people.

While I'm thinking of it, for those of you that need to read more about the inherent hazards of musical performance, please go read my friend Nikki's blog at

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