True Confessions of a Process Junkie

The day after Christmas, a new student, who I’ll call Jan, showed up at 10am for her first lesson, with a brand new linear chromatic dulcimer in hand.  (The vertical tuning of strings on a linear chromatic dulcimer is in half steps, just like going from the white to black keys on the piano.  On “normal” dulcimers, the vertical tuning is whole step-whole step-half step several times over.)

Early in the lesson, I asked Jan why she bought a linear chromatic dulcimer.  It turns out that she is more than a casual pianist; she felt like she needed all the notes she could get her hands on.  OK.

That evening, I flung the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator open.  Once again, what was I going to make for dinner?  I pulled several ingredients I thought would transform into something tasty.  That’s when the thought hit me: Jan needs all the notes mapped out; I’ll bet she cooks only from a cookbook.  The following week, I asked Jan about how she cooks, and she said, “Oh, yes, always from a cookbook.  And if I don’t have all of the ingredients, I don’t make the dish.”  That’s never stopped me: When the pancakes call for milk I don’t have, I melt the ice cream.

In mid-2007, my foodie buddy Bob and his wife Annie came over for dinner.  I always like to cook something outrageous for Bob and Annie because Bob is a chef-level home cook who inspires me to push the epicurean envelope (he appreciates all of my creations, and thankfully I haven’t failed even mildly, yet).  This time I had to make Chicken Scallopine à la Lidia Bastianich.  The meal came out fine–I’d even made the pasta from scratch–but cooking it seemed to take forever: I felt like I plodded through the recipe while frequently returning to Lidia’s recipe for the next set of instructions, most of which incorporated new techniques within my grasp yet unfamiliar to my usual routine.

About two months after this meal, I watched Lidia at work on her TV show.  I don’t remember what she made, but a recognizable thread came to the fore: The ingredients were different from Chicken Scallopine, but the process was the same.  Suddenly, I understood how to cook Scallopine (and a lot of other dishes) because the order of events became clear.  It didn’t matter what the ingredients were; what was important is when and how to do what.

What does cooking have to do with music?  Plenty!  For me, both are about my personal need for a subcutaneous experience: I want to go a level deeper to find out what makes the music, the cooking–whatever I do in life, for that matter–click.  (My father was an engineer.  What can I say?)  It’s not as much fun for me to go through the motions and just squeak by for the sake of being able to say I played the tune or made the dish.  When I understand the process well enough so that the task sings, it feels good.  I get enormous pleasure out of playing that Bach movement, baking that loaf of bread, knitting socks, whatever, when I understand How to make it come out well.  It makes me happy.  And oh dear, I am a process junkie.  Process is much of why I teach, to help others find happiness in the deeper layer so that their end results will do be really fine instead of just squeak by, and so that they will make everyone around them happy, too.  So it was quite the blow for me to finally understand after decades of teaching that not everyone gets or wants process, that to some it is downright unnecessary and perhaps annoying.  Just the facts, ma’am; forget all the “extra” stuff.

It took teaching a class on how to knit socks from the toe up, for the second time, to understand how people think (or don’t).  The toe-up process is unusual, because in the method I teach, the knitting doesn’t start at the end of the toe but along one side.  From there the knitting heads down and around the toe tip, then up the other side, which at last sets up nicely for knitting the foot in the round.  What I now find even more interesting is that this method of toe/heel knitting requires hardly any counting.  After the cast-on, Row 1 is a knit stitch in every stitch except the last one, at which point the work is turned.  A purl row commences, purling across except for the last stitch, turn, and so on.  Considering that everyone in the class cast on a different number of stitches, thanks to a variety of yarns and foot measurements, being able to knit up to the last stitch and turn would hopefully be a freeing comfort, as well as fast to understand.  To my surprise, it is neither.

What I have learned is that many knitters would rather have spelled out for them how many stitches to knit or purl: “CO16.  K 15 sts, turn; YO-P, P 14 sts, turn;….”  This “recipe knitting” works to a point.  I can produce something hand-made, as long as I stick to that number of stitches and rows using the same yarn every time, and then if it is a garment, I must also hope it fits after all that.  But if the yarn changes to something thicker or thinner, I’m sunk.

Shortly after witnessing the knitters’ approach, I began to understand how my music students approach their instruments, using their bodies in movement, and the music they play.  Recipes are everywhere!  I see them when dulcimer students stare at my hammers bouncing around the strings while I demonstrate a technique by playing a tune, or when players struggle to eek out sounds from stiff bodies.  The recipe for them is all about where the “right notes” are, instead of finding out how to make the playing feel good at the same time while landing the right notes squarely.  I hear recipes when a diatonic autoharpist chooses a mundane chord solely for the sake of sounding the right melody note at that moment, without regard for the harmony underneath.  And recipes reign supreme at jam sessions where everyone plays the same tune the same way 15 times.  (Improvised linear harmony, the stuff that would really make it a jam session, is off the program and therefore unwelcome!)  Somehow this is called “creativity,” and it’s supposed to be fun, but I don’t get it.  The music sounds with less bang for the buck.

And while I’ll admit that even I have to follow a pattern sometimes, I find it to be more fun when the knitted piece tells me where it’s headed while showing me what to do to help it get there.  When I understand process, my needles and yarn are free to go wherever I will follow them.

I do not understand the fun behind an activity that I might not care about doing well, or complete within a reasonable period of time.  (I could knit well, but it wasn’t fun until I revamped my method and tripled my speed.)  We are determined that everything we do be easy, now, but without the skills or understanding that really would make it easy.  Worse, those who teach process (in a world of too many teachers who do not) are ostracized for doing so.  Why do we become unwilling to take the little bit of time to receive gems of wisdom that would make our pastimes that much more satisfying?  It’s just different.  In fact, we need people in the world who think differently, otherwise the musical, epicurean, interlacement, scientific, mathematical, etc. envelopes won’t get pushed for the benefit of mankind.  (Where would relativity be today if Einstein had thought like everyone else?)  Different thinking only becomes a rub when people believe that they will have arrived when they know the surface, thinking that the surface is deeper than it is.  Our society is rife with surface approaches, and why not?  It’s easy.

Does seeing the surface mean that I’ll acquiesce and teach from that perspective?  No.  It does mean, however, that I finally see where a lot of people I teach are coming from, and what a shock process teaching can be.  What to do with that?  I’m not sure yet, but this is all a part of teaching.  I have a lot of thinking to do.

Getting back to Jan: I never taught her how to cook based on what’s in the cupboard, but she has evolved into a creative, process-oriented dulcimer player, for which I am grateful.  She even took one of my sock-knitting classes.  Yes, it was a stretch for her at first to think on the yarn’s terms rather than the pattern’s (when the yarn changes, the stitches per round likely changes, too), but armed with process, she is seeing more and more how freeing process can be.

There’s something to this.

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