Basketball, Soccer, Blackjack, and Traffic Lights:4 different practicing relationships to understand
We as human beings are really good at making certain decisions, but other decisions we really struggle with. Understanding how decisions are made and how analysis of different situations happens can really help you understand your practicing. For this article, you'll have to stay with me through some things that may not seem related to practicing music, but by the end of this, you'll see where I'm going.
The famous storyteller and philosopher Malcolm Gladwell mentions two different kinds of situational thinking theory within an episode of his first season of 'Revisionist History', his podcast. His basic point is based around the idea of two different thought camps- Strong Link Thinkers and Weak Link Thinkers. He basically equates these two worlds to Basketball and Soccer: In soccer, you can have a star player on your team who is much better than any other player on the field, but if your worst two players are substantially worse than the other team's, you'll be at a large disadvantage in that your average playing level is far more important than your best single player's skill. Basketball, on the other hand, is a Strong Link Sport, in which a star player can carry a team to victory after victory because they one strong player is far more valuable to a team's function than having better weak players. Understanding the argument of Strong Link and Weak Link theories within each of your aspects of your playing can really help you conquer problems in your playing.
Let's take an audition for example:
If you are playing a professional audition where your first round has to include 6 orchestral excerpts, you must practice your first round like soccer and not basketball. Why? Because a first round audition is a weak link event- your ability to execute each excerpt as cleanly as possible at the required level is important and to be entirely honest, the first round functions to whittle the number of applicants down for subsequent rounds. Rarely does a panel hear a candidate in the first round and know they will win the audition, and because of this, your first priority in learning your first round excerpts should be to make sure that your worst ones are at acceptable quality. In plain language, you're not trying to stand out from the committee's expectations- they want to hear the excerpts played correctly.
Inversely, let's now look at final rounds in auditions: You're not playing soccer anymore, because final rounds are all about Basketball. Strong Link theory dominates the final round- at this point, there are only 2 or 3 candidates in the room, and the panel has already established that everybody's floor is high enough to be there- they now want to know how high your ceiling is. As a final round contestant, it's important that you take technical risks to show off your musical prowess- your excerpts that show your best playing need to TRULY shine above the other players, and your ability to adjust and show flexibility of musicianship can make the difference. In plain language, you're trying to stand out from the group and the committee's expectations: they want to hear an amazing musician that they would consider worthy of being an inspiring colleague.
Weak Link and Strong Link theory can be applied to so many different areas of your practice routine as well: When planning your practicing schedule, maintenance and growth can both be constant opposite sides of the same coin- sometimes, you need to play basketball to help increase your skills, and sometimes you need to play soccer to help maintenance and reinforce your weaker areas of playing. Knowing what you're doing can assist in mitigation of frustration and increase comprehension and understand of the learning process.
Now, onto decision making: Mathematician Matt Ginsberg, author of 'The Factor Man', discusses problems that humans identify as fitting into two camps: Blackjack and Traffic Lights. It's worth mentioning, as he notes, that we humans are far better at identifying, understanding, and solving one type of problem than the other
Blackjack, or, the 49% problem: Some problems are 49/51 percent problems. Blackjack, one such problem example, is a game where you can win or lose, but over 1000 games, you WILL lose. Statistics are simply in favor of the house. In examples like Blackjack, humans are notoriously bad at making decisions.
Traffic Lights, or, the 99% problem: Traffic lights represent the 99% problem. If you drive through a red traffic light without stopping, 99 percent of the time you will be fine, but 1 % of the time you will have a collision and face serious harm or die. In examples like Traffic Lights, humans are very good at making decisions.
If you understand the decision making behind 49 and 99 percentile problems, it can really help you drive your practice and performance mindset as well. Remember, all decisions can be classified as sitting between each option, but we as people are far better in dealing with traffic lights than blackjack. Let me provide some examples:
High Range practice: certainly a 99 to 49% problem. If you feel like the note will come out only sometimes, but you know conceptually how to work on it, play with air and tongue and focus correctly every time and over time, allow your law of averages to increase. You may miss it a lot at first, but as you practice correctly, that 49 percent will grow.
Soft Playing in a concert: Here is a 49 to 99% problem. We know that if you back off too far in a concert and try and play too soft, you'll risk a no-speak. You're better off treating this as a 99% problem- Don't rush the traffic light. Play a little louder to be safe.
Lip Slurs: Depends. A slow slur should be 99-49, just as high range. A faster slur can go either way, depending on context.
Section Playing: Here's an easy one. Your goal is to play together, and for that, we don't run traffic lights. Play safely, and play to blend rather to stand out. This would also be a great example of playing soccer rather than basketball.
Principal/ Solo Playing: We're playing basketball again. If you're rehearsing, run those red lights. You're leading, after all. In a concert, I'm usually a fan of the 99% approach here too (provided you've done your 49% in the practice room preparing..) but in certain instances, the 49% can be warranted too (for example, I'd be 49% for Bolero on stage, 99% for principal of a Bruckner symphony or a concerto with the orchestra.)
This is all really philosophical and hypothetical, but I hope you find value in the basic act of stopping to analyze exactly WHERE YOU ARE and WHAT YOURE DOING in the practice room or on stage. It helps you control your mind, after all, and that's a win any day.