Saturday, October 01, 2005

Integration Theory of Learning Music (aka what Music Lessons did for me)

I attended my first ever Piano recital at the Alliance Francaise de Bangalore sometime early in May 2003. On that warm Bangalore evening the young and talented Ms. Berenice de Gama Rose gave her farewell recital to a small but appreciative audience. Ms. Rose was leaving her position as a teacher of (Piano) Music at the Bangalore School of music to take up her Masters in Business Administration elsewhere. The music that filled my ears on that day evoked several emotions and started a train of thought in my mind. Later I attempted to categorize what I felt and thought that day. Here is a summary.

  1. Awe. The skill with which the Performer played that beautiful Piano was outstanding - and it seemed all the more so to a worse-than-novice in music like me.
  2. A feeling that can be best described as "impossibility". While I *logically* understood that what I had witnessed was the natural consequence of the six plus hours(!) of practice put in by the performer each day for several years, to my mind it would always be impossible for *me* to ever do anything even remotely similar.
  3. Depression. Without much more explanation, let me just say that this usually follows points #1 and #2.
  4. "Giving up". After I recovered from #3, I gave up the whole line of thought and crawled back to my Dilbertain existence.

A few weeks later I started Piano lessons in Bangalore and later when my work took me to Dallas found an exceptionally good teacher here (more on this in a later post). After more than a year of taking lessons and after a (very very simple, bordering on trivial) recital of my own, I reconsidered that evening in Bangalore. In the light of my own lessons, I now have a different look at things.

All music lessons start (or are supposed to) with the basics. As the student progresses on this track, the teacher introduces a fairly simple stand alone piece to work on. When I saw my first such (an arrangement of Placide Clappeau's 'O Holy Night') I could instantly *see* that I could do it - with a little bit of effort. This was a perception different from a *logical understanding* - i.e., perceiving that I could do a task as opposed to understanding that anyone can do it by putting in suitable effort. The focus is on the doing - rather than on the quantum of effort. This is made possible because the quantum of effort involved is *small*.

My recital came and went in December 2004, and early this year, I got my next advanced piece (an Arrangement one of J.S. Bach's Musettes). Here was a piece which was complex than my Christmas piece and yet I was confident that I could do it - in another month or so, after due practice. What is important is that if I had been told that I could do it when I started the lessons or earlier, I would have balked at it and possibly have had thoughts listed in observations #1 through #4.

A similar incident occurred earlier this month. I picked up 4A though 5B of Carl Fischer's 'Music Pathways - Repertoire' series of books. My teacher kindly agreed to play examples from each book so that I could hear first hand what they would sound like when played correctly. Boy! The pieces were beautiful. And I was astounded to realize that these were within my grasp - given adequate work of course.

This is the beauty of taking lessons, reading simple pieces of music and practicing with simple goals in mind. What lessons did for me was to help focus on the task at hand and prevent my mind from being overwhelmed by looking only at the finest, the masterpieces. And this realization I call my 'Integration theory of Learning Music'.

The theory states that if Joe aspiring-Pianist (or Manoj aspiring-Pianist, if you will) wants to be able to delight himself by playing Bach one day, he needs to start with the basics and take small steps at a time. And if Joe a-P does not have the will to stick to a schedule on his own, he should find a good teacher and pay him/her to force Joe to take those steps. For when you start at level 0 and are shown level 1, you know you can do it. And at the end of level 1, level 2 is only a few hours/days/weeks or practice away. And so on. The tiny dx(Lesson/Step/Quantum) when integrated over time will yield the quantity that makes playing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven possible.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Where the Grid Bugs bite

The first ever role playing game I played on a computer was Diablo. Lacking a computer of my own, I would visit one of my friends and tactlessly invite myself to stay over at his house over the weekend. My friend (Bless his heart!) would let me play Diablo on his computer all night long to my heart's content. I never finished the game; as much fun as it was, I was not quite drawn to finish it.

Only a few months later it became next to impossible to play the more modern games on his computer. It appeared to me that every new game was designed to raise the bar on the memory and processing capacity requirements needed to play it while the basic game play and story lines remained the same (there are of course notable exceptions - the Ultima series of games immediately come to mind) I finally gave up on playing new games - Sierra's Arcanum was about the last game my once top-of-the-shelf laptop could handle.

And then Ravi drew my attention to something called Nethack. In this age of zillion-polygon graphics, Nethack's "ASCII art" screen was a highly contrasting oddity. I downloaded the game (all 2.0 MB of it!!) but never quite got around to playing it. A bad mistake. Almost as bad as picking up a cockatrice corpse with your bare hands. (If you haven't played Nethack don't worry - you will understand the last sentance when you do!)

Several months later, wailing in the in the confines of my Dilbertian prison (let us not go there), I chanced upon Nethack again. I realised that Eric Raymond was speaking from experience and wisdom accrued over years when he said opening the Nethack guidebook "Recently, you have begun to find yourself unfulfilled and distant in your daily occupation. Strange dreams of prospecting, stealing, crusading, and combat have haunted you in your sleep for many months, but you aren't sure of the reason".

In the wink of an eye I was transformed to Castcom, the lawful human Samurai, devoted servant of the mighty Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami, beginner in the ways of the Katana, on his quest to find the mighty Amulet of Yendor. Every day, every single trip that I made into the dungeons was a new adventure. And who cared if the Gnomes killed me the first few times? Or if I triggered a land mine and died? What was death by stoning indeed to a Samurai bound to Bushido?
(For those uninitiated to the game, there is no "save game" option in Nethack. If you die, you die. You have to start all over from the beginning.) I could now see exactly why Nethack is considered THE best game ever by gamers and hackers.

I had heard of players taking years to complete the game - to "Ascend" in game parlance - only to go back in again, donning another costume, playing another character. I wondered if I would ever make it, and if so, how many attempts it would take me. Out of curiosity, after a dozen or more attempts, I came up with a way to count.

My character would be named Castcom - with a suffix indicating the number of times I had tried (and died) so far. As I remember Castcom1 died a very unheroic death. Castcoms 2 through 30 were "experimentals" as I learned more about the game and came to better understand the tricks of prospecting in dungeons. Castcoms 31 onward were serious adventurers - though I never stopped learning more about the game. While the key aspects remain the same, the dungeon levels are auto generated, as are the creatures that populate them. Thus there is little chance of any two game layouts - or experiences - being identical.

At the time of writing this I have two games going on. Castcom the 68 at home, and Castcom the 66 at, um, in Dilbert land. If you were wondering what happened to #67 - well, he bent to feel something on the ground while blind - only to realise that 1) the item on the ground was a cockatrice corpse and 2) he was not wearing any gloves. He would remember the lesson for the rest of his life. All 2 milliseconds of it. But I digress.
Above: Castcom68 (the '@') inspects an elven dagger (the ')') while his noble companion Hachi the valiant dog (the 'd') stands by.

I could go on and on about the game for several pages - to the peril of Castcom68. The noble Samurai and his valiant dog just barely escaped being kicked to death by a mad warhorse and an oppurtunistic Gnome king a few minutes ago. A prayer to the Sun Goddes has just restored his health - small comfort considering the vicious creatures in the next room that he has managed to flee for a few minutes but must now confront before venturing any further. Now to open the door to the next room ...

Update on 08 March 2006: Castcom215 finally ascended - albeit thanks to liberal usage of spoilers. Rather shameful, considering that Castcom215-san was a Samurai and gave bushido
scarce consideration when he used all those tips available on the internet. Will his kami ever find peace? Only time will tell.