Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mary Had A Little Lamb

When I was 13 or 14 and a budding rock star in my first garage band, I fancied myself a guitar player, having fumbled my way to beating half a dozen chords into submission.

What a coincidence that everything I wrote back then comprised exclusively those chords, played more or less in the same order. But I easily won the adoration of a number of teenage girls, and thereby the envy of a lot of teenage boys, and I became convinced I was quite good.

Then, by chance, I happened to be the recipient of a pair of tickets to a concert.

A guitar concert.

Some guy named Andy Segovia.

I learned two things at that concert.

First, I learned that the gentleman’s name was "Andre," not "Andy."

And I learned what it sounded like when someone played the guitar who could really play it.

Last time I mentioned that there are different levels or stages of learning.

One good model for these stages is:

1. Unconscious Incompetence

At this stage, a person doesn’t understand or know how to do the thing, and doesn’t know that he/she doesn’t know how to do it, so has no motivation to remedy that lack of knowledge.

2. Conscious Incompetence

Now, although the person still doesn’t understand or know how to do the thing, he/she recognizes that he/she doesn’t know how to do it. Most beginners start here. They want to use a sword. They don’t know how. They know they don’t know how. They try to find a way to learn.

3. Conscious Competence

The person understands or knows how to do the thing. Demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration. Most “fencers” appear never to get beyond this stage, largely because, in my opinion, they do not build an adequate foundation of excellence on which to construct further progress.

4. Unconscious Competence

At this stage, the person has so completely incorporated the skill that it becomes "second nature" and can be performed effortlessly, "automatically," without concentration, without conscious thought, even under adverse circumstances. This is the "mastery" level for which we strive. It’s the fighters’ stock in trade.

I think that’s a pretty good starting point for discussion. Some folks have suggested adding to this model. A fifth stage about teaching, for example. But I think that’s mixing apples and oranges and I’ll explain why in future.

For now, I’d like to suggest that there are four particular levels in swordsmanship. I’ll call them the technical level, the tactical level, the strategic level and the mastery level.

As I go through this, you may detect a suspicious similarity to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Kohlberg's 6 stages of moral development – and if you don’t, you should.

The technical level is where the absolute beginner lives. It’s about the “right” way to do something, the correct way to execute a given action with maximum safety and effectiveness. This is the equivalent of a musician learning how to produce the various notes of the scale on his instrument. On the guitar, there are a lot of ways to play B flat.

In addition to legato, staccato and pizzicato, you can slur up or down, hammer on or off, bend the note if you’ve got the blues, or give it varying amounts of vibrato.

But you can’t do ANY of that if you have no idea where B flat is on the fretboard.

First things first.

At the technical level, your attentional focus is almost entirely “internal,” as demonstrated by the fact that you have to look at the fingerboard and see where and how you’re placing your fingers. It’s a “narrow” focus when you have to place each finger of a chord one at a time; it’s a “broad focus” when you can hit that chord with all fingers all at once. You shift quickly to external narrow focus to look at the music and see what notes you have to play next.

Rinse and repeat.

The tactical level is about making choices in the moment.

In combat, it’s 99% by feel, for reasons which I’ll explain another time.

For our hypothetical guitarist, let’s suppose the music calls for you to play that darned B flat.

Well, do you play it legato, staccato and pizzicato, slur up or down, hammer on or off, bend the note, or give it some vibrato?

How do you know?

You know from the feel of the piece, from the context of what came before and what follows.

That’s tactics.

Tactical facility is predicated upon technical perfection. You can’t choose a tactic that you don’t have the technical skill to execute.

Strategy is based upon the pre-existing relationship of the combatants. It’s a general, long-range plan. For our guitarist, it’s a matter of how to “interpret” the piece, in terms of what tactical choices will dominate and how and when they will be employed. You might delve into the composer’s life history. What was he feeling when he wrote this piece? Light, happy, joyful? Dark, brooding, angry? What clues can you discover that will help you express not only the emotional motivation of the composer, but the universality of that truth for you and everyone who hears you play?

The strategy level assumes tactical facility, which in turn presumes technical perfection. You must control both time and space.

At the level of mastery, one no longer does the thing.

The thing does itself.

In this dance, the sword leads, the swordsman follows.

It’s the place where there’s no longer any distinction between the actor and the action.

It’s the place where it is the way it is because it can be no other way.

It’s the place where all things exist according to their own nature, regardless of how we perceive them – and we can know that nature, not cognitively, but intuitively.

It’s the place where all petty contradiction dissolves and paradox becomes high truth.

It’s a place where no human being I know of lives.

But when the wind is right, you can sail by there and catch a glimpse.

To use our musical motif for illustration, suppose you have a band called Sister Edna and the BTS String Quartet. You have some pieces -- Mozart. Bach. Beethoven. Playing them well is “technique.”

Tactics is deciding what order to play the pieces in. You might make up a tentative “set list,” but if that last Mozart piece got the crowd too rowdy and you don’t want them throwing champagne glasses against the chickenwire cage that protects the bandstand, something soothing to the savage breast might be in order, even it it wasn’t next on the tentative list.

That’s tactics.

Where you gig is strategy. You probably won’t audition your string quartet at Billy Bob Joe’s Bar-B-Q and Blues. You need the right technique and the right tactics for your strategy.

At the mastery level, it doesn’t matter what you play or where you play it. The truth of it is compelling. Anybody with ears will dig it.

I once attended a master class given by a terrific jazz pianist.

As part of the class he played “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Now, that’s a tune that most beginners play and learn to hate. If you ask some people to play it, they might be highly insulted, considering it beneath them, a song for beginners, and they are more advance than that, you see.

Well, no words can describe how, at this master class, this jazz trio brought down the house with Mary Had a Little Lamb! It cooked. It smoked. It swung. It rocked. It was red-hot. It was ice cool.

It was Mary Had a Little Lamb.


  1. Maitre Crown,

    This is an excellent post. While the guitar analogies are a bit of a digression for me the significance is not lost. I specifically agree with your technical, tactical, strategic and mastery differentiations.

    Something I enjoy in training and teaching is how these ideas are not always linear but as we explore different weapons we once again return to the technical stage - although this time, rather than learning everything from scratch, we are building on that original foundation and enhancing our understanding.

    Thank you for the reinforcement of the ideas!

  2. Thanks!
    Very glad you found it useful!



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