Bronwyn W Higgins

drummer_vocalist

Bronwyn is a classically trained percussionist - turned singer-songwriter working out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area. She splits her time between the two disciplines, which makes for some very original sounding songs. She holds degrees in classical percussion from the Eastman School of Music, Boston University, and Duquesne University. Her upcoming EP Minds Somewhere Else is slated to release in July of 2017, on which she sings, plays some of the drums, and all of the percussion. 

On the right way, the wrong way, and wasted repetitions.

Yesterday morning in my daily drum-set practice session, as normal, I came across a problem. I couldn’t get the beater to stay off of the head, and it was making an annoying buzzing sound and cutting off the resonance of the drum. Of course, initially I blamed the beater. And then the tension of my pedal, and the size of my foot, and the weight of my leg. But then I got tired of being frustrated with my clodhopper feet and CrossFit legs and instead went for a consult with Professor YouTube. I searched "bass drum pedal techniques" to see what other people did with their feet whilst drumming to glean some tips and tricks.. Most of the instruction I’ve had has always said keep your heel down and use the weight of your entire leg to get big notes, and use your ankle for smaller notes, and to use the two together to play multiple notes, sort of like a whipping motion. I realized that I am probably  just not relaxing my leg and foot enough to make the beater stop buzzing. 

And then in the maelstrom of YouTube drum videos, I came across a drummer named Gina Knight, who’s videos have been tangentially familiar with, but have never really dived into (dove? diven? divered?). She sits really high and close to her pedals so that the balls of her feet are extended to the foot pedal, not her heels. (For you non-drummers out there, imagine driving your car with your foot molded in the shape of a stiletto heel, without the obstruction of your Jimmy Choos). Main point: you are NOT resting your heel on the floor, and you use the weight of your entire leg, hip to metatarsal, to push the pedals. The weight of your body is not resting on your bum and your thighs on the seat, but rather entirely on your sitz bones thus freeing your leg to extend without affecting your torso. 

This completely threw me a curveball. I've seen people who play “heels up” before, but never this extreme. But the way that she does what she does makes total sense, and to see her do it it looks smooth, relaxed, and efficient, which is what I seek to do all the time, in everything. But I was a little worried. Do I try this technique and spend all of my precious practice time today messing around with something new and different, only to find that it won’t work? Do I waste my time experimenting with something foreign and potentially fail? Which brings me to my topic today. 

Query: is it better to do something right the first time, or is it better to do something incorrectly several times with the intention of getting better. Should one only do something the “correct” way and not ruin their progress with incorrect and sub-optimal movement patterns?

Sub-question: Is there such a thing as wasted repetitions?

On the surface, obviously doing it right the first time is preferable than doing it wrong several times over. But what if getting to the “right way” requires doing it “wrong" several times until you do learn the “right way” via trial and error?

Perhaps we should first clarify our concepts of “Right and Wrong”. First of all, if you are a person who tends to be a purist, who only appreciates quality, perfection, high-performance BMWs with all the bells and whistles, and $130 bottles of Chardonnay, my guess is that you are going to say something like this:

“One should only do something if its done properly. If one cannot do it well on the first go, one would be better off finding something else at which to excel, because excel one must. Leave the musiquing and the heavy lifting to the Bohemians and the Brutes. In any case, I have a 21-year Balvenie waiting for me in my sitting room (which, by the way, smells of leather and mahogany). You can keep your cumbersome, imperfect, wasted repetitions and your Two-Buck Chuck.”

Too extreme? Maybe… but I’m sure we all know someone like that… If you are however the kind of person who sees every attempt to do something as a chance to experiment and learn something new, you might say something like the following:

“WOAH! That sounded/tasted/felt/looks/turned out like crap. How the heck did that happen? What if I adjust the flux-capacitator 2.6 degrees to the left to see if it gets any better?”
    BAM!
"Ohhhh no…should have gone to the right, or maybe further left. Lets see….”
    FHHWANGgggggg"
"Whoops! Maybe not. That just blew the whole thing up. I guess I’ll be putting this baby together again tomorrow..”
    KahLANG —a—lang—a—lang...
    *looks in the mirror* 
“What happened to my eyebrows?”

Still a little extreme? Well, you get the picture. Subtlety has never been of my strong suits. I think we had first better identify these two characters and then define what Right and Wrong mean to each of them. The first is someone you might call a connoisseur, a purist, an idealist, a perfectionist. I would call this first character a “Fixed Mindset” person. (For more information on the concept of fixed vs. growth mindsets, watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk, or read her amazing book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

This Fixed Mindset person sees success, especially early success, as an indicator of ability, aptitude, and of worth. If someone can do something well, they have been blessed with that immutable talent. If she cannot do something well on the first try, then she is better off finding something else to do. She is never going to gain new abilities, only guard and perfect the ones she already possesses. To the Fixed Mind-besetted person, struggle and imperfection in any form are signs of wasted time and energy. Her concept of Right and Wrong is exactly that: Right is the gold standard, and Wrong is anything that is not. 

The second character is what Dweck in her book would call a “Growth Mindset” person. To them, success and achievement come in forms that are, to fashion a new word or two, Righter and Wronger. (Yes, yes, I know, "more right" and “more wrong", but making up new words is Funner.) To the person with the Growth Mindset, Right and Wrong are neighbors on a sliding scale. It doesn’t mean that the Growth Mindsetter has no concept of quality, but his path there is much more flexible than his Fixed Friend.

Coming back to my original comparison of doing it right the first time and flailing incompetently a few (hundred) times in order to finally gain competence, I propose that instead of having 2 terms, Right and Wrong, that mean completely different things to two different mindsetted people, can we instead divide this duality into four ideas?

1) Optimal (Right; perfect)

2) Adequate (good enough)

3) Abysmal (not good enough)

4) Resigned (Wrong; a lost cause)

And, if I may add some time constraints of time to these:

1) Optimal, now and forevermore

2) Adequate, for now

3) Abysmal, for now

4) Resigned, from here to eternity

Or, just for fun, what if we approach these four Ideas in mathematical terms:

1) infinity, not a real number

2) anything above the x axis

3) anything below the x axis

4) negative infinity, still not a real number

And now its time for our Pop Quiz!

1) Which two qualities does the Fixed Mindsetter tend to choose?

2) Which two qualities does the Growth Mindsetted tend to select?

3) What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

 

Do you see where I’m heading? By adding a constraint of time, or the words, “for now” or “yet” to the assessment of our performance, we can see where we are now and where we can be if we keep putting in the (sub-optimal) repetitions to later achieve more optimal ones. 

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: We interrupt this blogpost to remind you that the economy of repetitions, energy, and time is greatly improved when things that want improvement are RECORDED. Video, voice-memo, good old pen-and-paper-o. If you’re not recording what you do, you probably ARE wasting your efforts, like that mythical beast, the Fixed Mindset snob. Don’t be a snob. 

So with all of this in mind, I can now tackle my subquestion: Is there such a thing as wasted repetitions (or practice, or effort, or time spent?) To which I answer that effort is only wasted if you waste it. Sounds pretty redundant, doesn’t it? Wasted energy, practice, and repetitions are only wasted if you are NOT recording your progress (see above P.S.A.) and NOT having something like the following conversation with yourself:

“Precious, how was that? Was it good, Precious?”
“Abysmal and dismal, if you asks us. Feed it to the spiders we would.” 
“But we wants to be able to do it. Whyyyy can’t we do it yet? Gollum, gollum!”
“Patience! What can we adjusts that will makes it better next times?”
“Lets moves like this, and steps like that, and see if that gets us what we wants. Yes! Yesssss, gollum!”

Or if you don’t speak Smeagolese, 

"Well, how was that?”
“Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty......pretty terrible.”
“Whaaaat?!?! Why isn’t it happening yet?”
“Seeeriously? Can’t you tell I’m trying to figure it out?”
“Ahh. Here we go, do it again, but change that one thingy. Yes, that thingy.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll just move that over a smidge and, hey! What was that for?”

One last thing to notice from the above scenarios: Growth Mindsetters can paradoxically maintain a standard of excellence while simultaneously accepting their less than stellar results. While the above characters are unsatisfied with their current performance, there is still a voice asking rational questions, posing possible solutions, and moving forward with experimentation.

Change your mindset to change your ability. Take risks and take stock afterwards. Don’t be afraid to try something a different way. Who knows, you might learn something new, and *gasp* improve the game you have already “perfected”!

on being flexibly inflexible

We've all heard the metaphor where the tree withstands the storms of time because it bends with the wind, and isn't rigidly resisting change etc.? Well I see teaching as similar to being that tree. I have an ideal of what I want my students to learn, but sometimes I have to bend to their needs instead of doing what I want to at the moment. 

The concept of flexibly inflexible means that the goals of being a good student - and a good musician - are still there, but the way we get to them is different for every student. Having trouble reading the music? Let’s spend more time on flashcards or reading musical shapes. Is feeling a steady pulse a challenge for you? Let’s put some more effort into our rhythmic studies. There is no set progression over time for each student, only a set of skills to master. As long as we master those skills, it doesn’t matter how we get there, what matters is that we find the best way for each student to master these skills. Everyone responds differently to different cues in different ways. We find the best cues for the individual on any given day. 

Why talent is a dirty word

A request I make of both parents and students is that they remove the words “hard” and “easy” from their vocabulary, or at least recognize the emotional attachments we have for these words and their synonyms and are careful with their usage of them. Oftentimes, when we say something is “hard” or “easy” there is an underlying implication of self worth. 

Put yourself in the following mindset:

If something is easy because you got it on the first try, hooray! You must be good at that! If however a person cannot do something the first time, they should avoid such challenges in the future. It’s too hard, and they are therefore not meant to do whatever that task is. 

    Example: Having trouble learning how to ride a bike, or jumping rope? Oh, well. I must not be very coordinated. I guess I’ll never play in the NBA. I shouldn’t try out for the school basketball team.

    Example: Having trouble understanding what the teacher is telling you in math class? My brain just must not be able to process complicated formulas, I guess I’ll never be an engineer. I might as well not put out any effort anyway. 

Example: Having a hard time with chemistry or biology? Its just too much information. I can’t handle it! I’ll never be a doctor. Why don’t I just play video games instead?

    Example: Having trouble in reading class? Oh well. I guess I’ll never write a best-selling mystery novel. Maybe I’ll just watch television instead of reading that book assignment my teacher gave me. 

    Example: I can’t remember which finger to put where! I don’t remember which note is which on the staff. I’ll never be able to write and play and sing like Taylor Swift can. I might as well give up now. 

    Even if he or she has a strong musical inclination, at some point the student will run into challenges. In my experience, it is better not to celebrate concepts like “talent” and “musical predisposition”, and instead to encourage the process of trial and error and self experimentation in order to learn as much about playing music as possible. Ability in any domain comes with effort and the right mindset, not with some magical predisposition.