Opinion

Three things sax taught me about working hard and being a perfectionist

In this posting from the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program, Carat's Robert Christian argues that the best way to get good at something is to first be bad at something over and over and over again...

When I was in year one, I took up the violin. After a couple of years though, I realised that while I was pretty warm on the trail, my true passion was somewhere else.

When my older cousin – who I thought was very cool – came down to the prep school with the saxophone ensemble (again, very cool), I found it. A year later I started sax myself, and for the next ten years, barely a day passed that I didn’t play.

My teacher was a fairly remarkable man. Originally from Egypt, trained to a musical doctorate at an institute in Berlin, there was never any doubt that he was much too talented and dedicated to have to listen to young whelps shriek out scales on instruments their parents were already regretting buying them.

(Charlie “Bird” Parker. Playing this dude’s tunes was the ultimate challenge to technique, even if it’s not the prettiest sounding stuff).

Bleeding Gums Murphy – a timeless inspiration

As tall as he was eccentric, my teacher was a perfectionist at being a perfectionist, and I learned a great deal from him that remains at the core of my work ethic today. Most of it is directly or indirectly applicable to work life, but there are three lessons in particular that I learned in my years as a music scholar that I believe is essential to getting better at anything:

1. The three pencil trick, or, do it right three times in a row.

This training method was my daily nightmare. I would have to play each bar (or in extreme cases, half-bar) perfectly three times before moving to the next. It was measured by moving a pencil (A musician must always have a pencil) from one side of the stand to the other for each correct play.

If something was even slightly wrong, you started again at no pencils.

I still use it today when practising trafficking: if I get something wrong, I delete it and the three lines before it and do them again. Unsurprisingly, it makes you pay VERY close attention to your work.

2. The only way you get better is by doing it more.

It’s tempting to give up on things we’re bad at, because in all honesty, being bad at things sucks. This is particularly the case for people (like me) who have a lot of pride, and get very sensitive about not being good at things.

I probably played saxophone for seven years before what I played sounded good to anyone other than my mother.

However, I distinctly remember a day where I was running up and down the keys, and I realised, “Oh! I’m actually quite decent at this now.”

Taking a teaspoon of reality helps you to realise that improvement only ever happens slowly, by a long series of mistakes and errors painstakingly corrected.

3. BUT, practising something the wrong way only makes you better at being wrong.

This one is fairly simple, but caused me a lot of grief and stress. My problem was rhythm. I was useless at counting beats while playing complex melodies, so for a long time I just took a punt at what sounded right and played that.

It resulted in a fair few blow-ups from my exasperated teacher, as well as occasionally a rolled up manuscript to the back of the head.

It’s a lesson now inscribed in my brain: “If you practice wrong, you become good at being wrong.” This means two things: first, that it’s important to have good teachers to show you how to do things right. Second, that when you are shown how to do it right, you follow that to the letter, without resorting to an easier way out.

There are countless more stories and lessons I picked up while discovering my deep love of music, but these three are the most valuable to my day to day work. Distilling all three gives this formula:

Perfection is achieved by practicing with precision.

Also, never forget or be late to your appointments, as music lessons are very expensive. Thanks Mum and Dad!

Robert Christian is an investment and activation coordinator at Carat Australia

This article is part of the LinkedIn Agency Influencer program. See more from the program by clicking on the banner below.

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