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Just tell me the buttons to push

My recently turned 18-year old son is a passionate photographer. He’s got himself a little business where people pay him for senior photos, family portraits, sport team pictures, and other personal moments.

For Cooper’s 18th birthday last month, I gifted him a four-hour private lesson with a pro photographer/coach.

Cooper told me something the instructor shared with him that caught my attention.  The instructor said that Cooper’s attentiveness, note-taking, and astute questions were a refreshing contrast to most of the people who hire him simply wanting to know what few buttons to push to get good photos. Most of his clients want to simply know the shortcut to good photography.

(He was so taken by my son’s interest that he wants to return for additional four-hours of instruction free of charge!)

Truly skilled pros like this instructor know there are no shortcuts to mastery. He knows that there are no predetermined buttons that will always capture the emotion of a moment. Even though today’s cameras are sophisticated computers, a good photograph still requires a skilled eye with knowledge and experience with the technology.

There are no magic buttons on a camera any more than there are predetermined notes to memorize to becoming an accomplished jazz musician.

Looking for the shortcuts in anything doesn’t make you a bad person, however. Your brain is hardwired to look for shortcuts. Those shortcuts make you more efficient in the activities of your life. But there’s a downside.

A telling experiment

One demonstration of that hardwiring occurred in an experiment a few years ago. Participants signed up for an opportunity to have their IQ measured. The researchers told the participants that mid-way through the test there would be a 10-minute rest break in which they would move to a room filled with magazines and candy. The participants were encouraged to relax and help themselves to the magazines and candy.

But there was a subtle manipulation that was the real purpose of the study. The experimenters weren’t interested in the IQ results. Once people had entered the break room, the experimenters placed bowls of candy 10 inches (within easy reach) of certain participants and other bowls 30 inches (requiring people to lean forward to reach the candy).

At the end of the 10-minute break, the bowls were weighed to measure how much candy had been consumed. Those 20 inches made a huge difference. Participants ate roughly twice as much candy when no effort was required to consume the candy.

But effort is required to become a skilled musician, photographer, chief, athlete, or any accomplished expert, and willingness to exert the necessary effort is what separates those who dabble from those who are the truly skilled.

To consistently study and practice one’s craft in the face of friction and resistance is to go beyond the brain’s hardwired tug toward energy conservation and efficiency.

Do you have the purpose-driven fire in the belly to achieve the ‘escape velocity’ necessary to go beyond settling on learning the few buttons to push or notes to memorize?

Now, I want the conclusion of all of this to be very clear.

It’s perfectly legitimate to dabble in the arts. I dabble in photography. Just be clear on the outcome you desire and make sure that the effort you’re willing to extend does not fall short for accomplishing whatever you tell yourself you want to achieve.

Half of those participants were unwilling to lean another 20 inches over in order to enjoy a piece of candy, and I’m guessing they liked candy!

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19 thoughts on “Just tell me the buttons to push”

  1. This hit home! I am better at practicing piano rather than Clarinet because…. I have to get the Clarinet out of the case, put it together, put the reed on …… and the piano is open and right there!

    1. Makes sense, Colleen. I’ve always been thankful that I don’t have to mess with reeds. Of course my lips on a brass instrument presents their own issues, but reeds… I recently saw Charles McPherson play, and throughout the entire first set, I felt bad for him because whenever he wasn’t playing, he was at the side of the stage fiddling with his reed. On and off. In water, out of water. That’s a lot of friction.

  2. Brilliant point Michael. It loudly resonates with me but in the opposite direction!
    I actually LOVE practicing and learning so much that I have to literally force myself to play gigs.

    I guess finding the sweet spot between learning and performing is key to happiness!!

  3. I’m 67 years old and decided to learn to play saxophone a few years ago. I told myself that if I was going to do it, I needed to really dedicate to it and I did. So I worked and studied and meanwhile I got older and my fingers slowed. My embouchure hardly strengthened. i finally realized I wasn’t progressing significantly and I wasn’t having any fun. So, at my age, why am I doing this if I’m not having any fun? Better be be realistic about my talents and abilities, dabble, and enjoy what journey I have left.

    1. Exactly why I took great care to write those last couple of paragraphs. Playing, for you, should be fun, and learning from scratch in one’s 60s is vastly different from learning as a child when finger muscles and brain are at their most malleable!

      1. I can feel where Jan is. I bought my first double bass at 53 and hooked up with a great teacher. Now 12 years later there are times when I come home from work tired and stressed. I don’t feel like practicing until I get my hands on my bass. But it does take longer to get warmed up these days.

        1. It often helps to have a purpose or goal for one’s playing. A friend of mine in his later years – Dr. Rodney Brim, who I interviewed for the Jazz Master Savvy series – streams live every Sunday night on Twitch performing an hour’s worth of jazz, pop, ballads, and other of his favorite music. That broadcast is his accountability buddy making sure he keeps his chops up and constantly learns new songs. Without that weekly objective, I don’t think Rodney would be practicing his singing, piano, trombone, sax, and trumpet playing in order to be at his best each and every week! Check him out at

  4. I see that in modern jazz drum teaching. Listen to the greats and you will hear their rudimental background, it could be Philly Joe, Steve Gadd and so on, yet many of today’s teachers feel the rudiments are not worth the effort. Just get on the drum set and learn to play along with grooves.

  5. Love it – like electric current flow, it takes the path of least resistance and I find myself going back through songs and technical skills. Although I’ve refreshed my brain with these skills I alert myself to other areas that need work. I chastise myself for not being focused on new work.

    Reeds can be evil for sure and when I find the right reed, I can practice much, much more as a good reed helps with a good sound.

    Thanks for your insight!

    1. I got it! So- what you’re saying is, if I eat more candy I can play like Mulgrew Miller. Haha!
      Always interesting to read your blogs Michael. Thanks

  6. Always walk away with something to think about Michael,

    I inherited my grandson’s drums we bought for him a few years earlier when he was 13. I started playing with a friend who taught me 8th notes. Two months later at 68 my wife bought me my first set of used GMS drums from a local drum shop. The past three years have been wonderful for me mentally and physically, and found myself looking for any chance I had to sit at the kit. Last spring I decided I wanted to learn jazz and found a nice jazz kit and found a professional jazz drummer to take lessons from.

    I had taken lessons from other, but everyone wanted to tech me fills and other things where Peter had me buy the books Drummin Men The heartbeat of Jazz and Drummin Men the Bebop years. I turn 71 tomorrow Feb 9, and heading out in 30 minutes for an audition to join a Jazz Ensemble. Focusing on getting pass the brain train trying to coordinate my arms & legs has been the best thing I could do for myself.

    Looking forward to more motivation from you Blogs.

  7. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and try to focus on the following practice principles:

    1. Hear what you play – deeply
    2. Practice it effortlessly – play it until all struggles dissolve (take it slower or in smaller bits / especially transitions )
    3. Play everything with time in mind – because rhythm is the most important thing
    4. Does it feel good?

  8. I played trombone from age to to 18, became a very good player, even turning down a college scholarship. I quit music entirely to attend a difficult professional track in college and grad school. At age 34 restarted music lessons with a professional teacher. I took lessons for about 20 years from two pros, reaching a skill level I never imagined was possible. Orchestras, rock cover bands, theater, church services, salsa bands, big bands, it was about 20 gigs a year.

    Now, at age 64, two years into the pandemic with many gigs drying up and me choosing to avoid a known risk, I’m at some juncture. I have the horn on a stand in a corner of the basement, wondering where to begin. I know what I ought to do, but there’s no “shortcut” or fast track. I wish my work didn’t require me to be present long hours and deplete my resources, so that at least I would have the extra time and energy available.

    Unsure what all this means, but I think that best advice is that if you’re riding a wave, don’t get off. The energy required to regain lost ground is disproportionate. I invested so much time and energy, but as of now it looks like the reserves are empty. Never, ever stop practicing.

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Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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