We’ve talked often on this podcast about musical “talent”, including in our interview with Professor Anders Ericsson, the leading researcher on the topic, and the notion of talent and how it relates to musicality is obviously a really central one for everything we discuss on this show.

We’ve also talked more than once about “deliberate practice”, a specific practice methodology which can be applied to any instrument and task, and in fact across any discipline, not just music – and which promises to deliver several times faster progress for the same amount of time spent practicing.

Our guest today, Jason Haaheim, is the clearest-cut example we’ve come across of someone who’s taken these ideas on board, applied them very directly in his own life, and tracked and documented the results so as to demonstrate very clearly the impact they had.

Jason began in his youth as a very casual musician and his studies and work life led him into science and engineering rather than music. But today Jason is principal timpanist for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, one of the top professional percussion roles in the world. So how did that happen?

In this conversation we talk about:

  • The three big turning points that took him from a casual high-school musician to a world-class professional orchestra player
  • The four characteristics you need to bring to your own music practice to achieve this kind of rapid progress yourself
  • How taking a scientific mindset can be reconciled with the “magic” of music that we all love

If you’re someone who has worried that it might be “too late” for you to reach an impressive level in music, we know you’re going to find this episode illuminating and encouraging.

We hope you’ll enjoy this detailed conversation with Jason as much as we did. He’s a fascinating man who’s given these crucial topics deep thought and we can pretty much guarantee you’re going to come away from this episode with a changed outlook on your own musical development.

Listen to the episode:

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Transcript

Christopher: Welcome to the show Jason, thank you for joining us today.

Jason: Thank you Christopher, thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Christopher: So you are at this point, one of the highest level timpanists there can be, in your work at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. But I know from reading your blog a little bit, that your early percussion report cards did not look so shiny. Could you tell us a bit about those early years learning music? What did your music education look like?

Jason: It was the same kind of thing that I’m sure a lot of your listeners and readers can relate to, which is doing it because it’s fun. But, not being actually that serious about it, not necessarily putting a ton of time into it, not necessarily thinking about it as if “Oh, this is definitely going to be my career.” Right? Certainly, many of my colleagues in the Metropolitan Opera, and particularly string players, because they have a Suzuki method, which can start them, you know age three, four, five, sometimes like that. For me, it was nothing like that at all, right? I got into music, essentially as a fluke. And I was in fourth grade, and my elementary school music teacher just happened to bring in this brand new, [insonic 00:01:42] synthesizer that day in class. And I was just, it was captivating. I was like “Oh, that’s really cool.”

And it also just so happened at that time the Eddie Murphy movie, Beverly Hills Cop, was out in theaters. And it had that really iconic synthesized theme song called Axel F, you can find it on You Tube and as soon as you hear it, you will be like “Oh, yeah that one!” It’s very catchy. And so my teacher had programmed it into the keyboard. And I can only sort of surmise, in retrospect, that there was something about my sort of nacient interest in physics and engineering and technical things and what was just a generalized interest in music that came into focus in this moment. And I was like “Oh wow, this is really neat. You can have this like, computer machine doing this thing.” And so he played it and I was like “Oh wow.”

And I went home from school that day and my parent’s had like one of those very tiny, little Casio keyboards with like, you know, the half sized keys? And I just plunked around on it, trying to just by ear figure out the tune for Axel F. And I don’t know how close I got, I mean it probably was really butchered. But, they noticed me doing it and just you know asked “Oh, well okay, that’s kind of cool. Do you want piano lessons I guess?” And I said “Uh, sure. Okay, yeah, let’s do that.” Totally, you know, in a way, haphazard. Also, perfectly representing my parent’s role in this, which was endlessly and 100% supportive. Of really anything that I wanted to be doing, but with no pressure applied. You know, they were not the sort of typical, task master parents might imagine for people who are playing in the Met Orchestra, right?

But they were like “Hey, dude, you do you. Have fun, we just want to make sure you’re enjoying yourself, having fun.” And so I mean I continued playing piano up through, I think it was my junior or senior year of high school, but again, never seriously. I never made it past being able to play a couple of the Bach two part inventions. And even with that, I mean that took me years. I was basically a hobby. I sort of fell into percussion in the same way. Simply because in our school district, you couldn’t play percussion unless you’d had some piano already. And because I had, I was like “Oh, this is like exclusive. Like that’s the one I want to do.” Plus I mean, drumming just seemed cool. And so I started out with that. But yeah, I think the thing to which you are referring is one of my blog posts where I show the picture of my fifth grade band report card.

And it accurately identified that I was not applying myself, I was not consistently practicing, I wasn’t really notably getting better at it. I was just participating and having fun.

Christopher: And are you sure you’re allowed to say all this? Like I kind of have this feeling like someone’s going to bust down the door and tell us off for saying that you didn’t practice 20 hours a day from age three to get into the Met Orchestra.

Jason: Well, here’s the thing, right? And this gets to a core concept of deliberate practice, which I know you’ve talked about on, you know, on your podcast, it’s in your website, and it’s gaining increasing traction in broader education and pedagogy in popular culture. I think the take home from that should be that it’s not simply how much you practice. It’s also not simply trying hard. It is the combination of several very specific factors of putting in a lot of hours, working very hard, but in a very smart and efficient way. And so, I have this other graph, this chart that I made in one of my blog posts, where I was just trying to estimate my accumulated practice hours over time. Like basically, since that moment, when I started playing percussion, you know, what was that trajectory like?

And what I hope people take from this story is not “Oh hey, I can slack off and get to the Metropolitan Opera.” Far from it. Right? It is … It took me a long time to get started. It took me a long time to have that ignition point. Where I really started to figure out what I was doing and how to do it well. But, if you look at the trajectory of that graph, once I really started figuring that and applying myself, I accomplished more in the next three years of work than I had in the preceding 17. And so the point is not just when you start, it’s how you go about it. And oftentimes, when I’m encountering younger students that are working with me, I think people can often fall into sort of like negative self talk.

Or almost a paralysis. Agonizing over “Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? Am I talented?” And I think those are dramatically unhelpful questions. I have students … I say “Don’t ask yourself are you good enough right now. Rather, ask yourself am I willing to do the work?” Because doing that work over the long haul, that is what really makes the difference. That establishes your trajectory. And if you just think about you know, a piece of paper with a line on it, and the slope and the angle of it, you can cover … you will scale heights so much more quickly, depending on that trajectory. And that’s really what it’s all about. And one definition of deliberate practice is establishing that trajectory.

Christopher: Interesting. Well there is so much that is inspiring and instructive in your story, that I’m keen to dig into, but I think for a start, it’s just incredibly reassuring, I think. And I’m sure it will be to our listeners, that you didn’t just say “So I switched at the age of eight, and I practiced in this other way for 20 years. And then I was good enough to reach this you know, this world class performance position.” What you just said was; “I accomplished more in three years than the previous 17.” And I’m sure there are people who are listening who are somewhere on that 20 year time scale, if not longer. I know we have members that musically, who have been playing music for decades. But they feel like they haven’t really cracked it.

You know they haven’t really been making the progress they wanted to.

Jason: Yeah.

Christopher: And I love that you’re so mindful of the factors that let you make that dramatic change in your rate of progress. And so I’m really looking forward to digging into this. I don’t want to jump the gun though, because as I just said, you didn’t switch at the age of eight or in grade school and change. It took you, as you said, a few years to cotton on to that. So let’s just jump back, if you don’t mind, to that report card or that kind of period in your musical training. You choose drums because they were kind of an exclusive option you had access to, presumably you had a great love of pounding away at the drum kit. How did things progress from there?

Jason: And which kid doesn’t? Right? I mean come on.

Christopher: I bought myself a drum kit lately and I’m having a blast, it’s a whole new adventure for me. So I can imagine. I can imagine that teenage kid having a way in school, as you said, not taking it super seriously. Presumably not imagining one day you would be playing in one of the top orchestras in the world.

Jason: Oh, absolutely not. Yeah.

Christopher: And so what was going through your head at that phase? Did you have those kind of inner voices, you alluded to there? Talking about talent and whether you were good enough. Or were you genuinely just kind of enjoying it for the sake of enjoyment?

Jason: So I… again, I’m going to refer back to this graph that is in one of my blog posts. And you can feel free to you know, have a link to it. The listeners you can find it if you just Google my name. But, I mean being somebody with training in science and in math, I often conceptualize this stuff in a sort of visual spacial way. And if you think about lines on a graph like this, and shapes, there’s often what are called “inflection points.” And inflection points are where the trajectory noticeably changes. And when I thought back you know across my entire you know start, from that moment you know, taking, beginning piano lessons up to now. Starting my sixth season at the Metropolitan Opera, there were three fairly decisive inflection points.

And they all have something I think meaningful, associated with them. To kind of answer that question. And in a way, they all also perfectly map to some of the descriptions of the progression through deliberate practice intensity that Anders Ericsson describes in his book, Peak. And really, anybody who gets into anything, not just music, but I mean anything, at a high level and begins applying the principles of deliberate practice, whether or not they know they’re doing it, this is basically happening. And that they’ve had a series of these inflection points that have basically intensified their commitment and their energy dedication along the way. And so, you know, the very first one of course, was just this discovery of piano and starting playing percussion.

But then I really just kind of coasted along for years. Just having fun. And like you said, it was not part of my thinking that “Oh I’m going to be a professional musician.” It didn’t even occur to me that was an option. And even when I was having the most fun with it, I mean I was admittedly laboring under this previous myth, this paradigm of thinking that talent is something you are either born with or not. And that because I was not one of these kids on the fast track to this going to like an art high school and you know going to all the art summer camps, that was just not for me. Right? That I was not going to be doing that. The first big inflection point, it was in the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. And it happened when I met a girl. And I met a girl at summer camp. And the basic situation was that I was there with my buddy, and we were going to play in the camp talent show.

And we basically just formed a little rock band. And I was playing drums, and we were going to play in the talent show. We did and it was fun. And you know at this point, I was just the most awkward, nerdy, you know like voice cracking teenager out there. And lo and behold, after this performance, this beautiful girl like walked up to me and introduced herself. And said “Hey, I just really wanted to meet you. Like can we get breakfast tomorrow morning in the cafeteria of the camp?” And I was like “Yeah, that sounds great.” What transpired from there was kind of amazing. And she … so she was, herself a very dedicated musician. She was a bassoonist and a pianist. And in our conversations, she was saying “Oh well yeah, that was so exciting, that talent show performance was great. You’re a great drummer. You must be doing the All State Orchestra. Right?”

And I was like “Yeah. Definitely, totally am.” Just lying through my teeth right? Like I had no idea even what she was talking about. And so I literally went back to my friend, after this, who was himself an excellent musician. And I said “Hey man, what is All State Orchestra? I don’t even know what this is.” Now, for your listeners around the world, they probably have versions of this all over the place. But, in Minnesota, where I was growing up, this was the you know, sort of all star group of the state. And you would audition into it and it was the very best kids from all around the state. All the school districts would meet during the summer in a week long camp. And play orchestral music. Now, our high school did not even have an orchestra. I had never played in an orchestra before. I was completely unfamiliar with orchestral music. I knew nothing about any of this. But I said to my friend, “Okay, well if I wanted to do this, then I at least should probably start taking percussion lessons.”

He said, “Yeah, duh.” I’m like “You’re not already, you should be, so yeah, that’s a good place to start.” And for the next year I threw myself into this with, you know, as a sort of passion project unlike anything I had ever you know delved into in my life. Yet, at that point. I started buying as many recordings as I could. I went through the … people might remember the Deutsche Grammonphon, Mad About series, which is sort of like the collection of the greatest hits. And you know just devoured that. And you know in all honesty, was this a, at first, largely hormone fueled project? Yes. Yes it absolutely was. But it obviously evolved. It took on a different life. And you know, I kind of miraculously made it into the All State Orchestra.

And that next summer then, when I was performing, again this was my first experience playing with a live, symphonic orchestra, and it was life changing. It was one of these inflection points where it was like “Oh my God. I actually really love doing this.” I wasn’t that noticeably great at it yet. I mean I had gotten into to All State, but then again, lots of kids get into All State in high school, right? And many do not go on to the Metropolitan Opera. So this was early phase. But this was definitely an important, sort of turning on of my love of music and my connection to specifically orchestral and symphonic music. That was also right around the time where I started going to concerts downtown in Minneapolis with the Minnesota Orchestra. And seeing those guys playing those concerts, and specifically seeing one of my, sort of, idols, Peter Kogan playing timpani in the Minnesota Orchestra.

And that was another point where I thought “Ahh, timpani. This specific subset of percussion. This is really cool. That might be a thing I could love doing.” Right? But that was only the first inflection point. So I went to then, college. And I double majored in Physics and Music. But this was at a small, private, liberal arts college, right? Not at music and [symphonatory 00:17:20], not a place where I was pursuing it with any intention of it being a career. It was more just like a higher, more elevated hobby, right? I was passionate about it, but it was still not something where I was like “Oh, I could have a career.” And again, in retrospect, I think a lot of that was because I was still unknowingly laboring under this paradigm of talent. Where I saw those guys in the Minnesota Orchestra and thought “Oh my God, look at them on that pedestal. They are like Gods. They have something they were born with that lets them do this magical thing and I think it’s so cool, but that obviously is never going to be me.”

And so I just continued working at it and loving it, but not seriously considering it, right? The next inflection point was actually when I was in graduate school. So by this point, I had finished my under grad, I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for a PH.D. in Electrical Engineering. And you know I was doing this basically because that’s kind of always what I thought I was going to do. I had … I was very interested in physics and I enjoyed it and I was good at it. But I had this musical bug, at this point. And when I got to Grad school, I mean for anybody who might have been in other fields and [inaudible 00:18:46] on to Grad school in the sciences, you’ll know that it’s very, very specific. And very focused. Nothing like a liberal arts, under graduate experience, where you are kind of getting to do everything. This was … I was getting to do one thing.

And I was very much missing music. And so I tried to see if I could begin playing in the U.C. Santa Barbara Orchestra. And you know, the music department thought it was a little weird, because they were like “You’re a grad student in electrical engineering. What are you doing over here? But, I don’t know whatever. You like it, so we’ll let you do it.” And one of my friends in the orchestra sort of noticed this and said “You know, you really seem into this. Have you ever considered going to a music festival before?” And I was like “What? You mean like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza?” They were like “No, no, no. Like a summer festival for orchestral players.”

And I was like “Oh, well I didn’t even know this was a thing.” There’s this whole ecosystem right now that I was completely unaware of this. And they said “Yeah, something like Aspen, like the Aspen Music Festival. Like you make a CD, you audition, you can get in and then you go spend five to ten weeks during the summer playing music in this beautiful place.” I looked it up and I thought “Oh, yeah, that would be pretty cool.” Almost an exact repeat of my previous experience with All State, right? I busted my ass to do it, I made a CD, it got accepted. I went there that summer. And that was this next turning point where I started to see … I didn’t really have the vocabulary yet of Anders Ericsson’s work. And the notions of talent and what deliver practice meant. But I at least started to see that these great musicians were in fact, flesh and blood human beings.

I got to sit next to them in rehearsals, stand side by side on stage during performances. Dare I say hear them make little mistakes? Right? Realizing that they’re also human too. And I started to see then, in these ecosystems a path toward “Oh, maybe this is something I could do. I really do love this. Let me start to seriously consider this.” And from then, it was going to … you know, basically deciding that my love for music was going to be more intense than my interest in physics. I ended up getting my Master’s degree, and then moving to Chicago where I had a job offer. At this nanotechnology company where I then worked for ten years. From 2003 to 13, until I was at the Met. And basically Chicago was advantageous, because it had this training orchestra, with the Chicago Symphony called the Civic Orchestra. So this was all sort of part of my plan to be able to get there. You know, have a job, support myself.
But then continue my music project. And that’s essentially what I did. And you know, I was considering going back to graduate school for music. I then realized I could essentially roll my own, so to speak. And do the same thing. And just emulate what all my friends in graduate school in music were doing, but, on my own time. I sought out great teachers, I made sure to have you know, plenty of time to practice. I’d bought my own timpani. I did all of this. And really, in the next and final inflection point was when I started working with a great teacher and timpanist named John Tafoya at Indiana University.

Christopher: Maybe I could just jump in before we dive into that third inflection point. If that’s alright?

Jason: Yeah.

Christopher: And ask you to describe a little bit, because that’s a fascinating trajectory and story. And I want to make sure to understand what was changing in the way you approached music over that time. You know it’s clear that emotionally, you were feeling an increased commitment and enthusiasm and passion and maybe, to some degree, optimism or confidence about what might be in your musical future. But in the more practical terms, it sounded like, you know in that first inflection point, it was a matter of degree. Like you kind of immersed yourself in the music more, you, by the sounds of it, put in a lot of practice hours to get into that All State Orchestra. Was it a matter of just more and harder in that first inflection phase? Was that the step change for you?

Jason: Yeah. I think if you could break it down even more simply, the first one was just sort of more time and love. The second one was the realization … and so the first one was All State. The second one was Aspen and the realization that this could be a career. The first time that it had ever really occurred to me, that “Oh my God, maybe this is something I could do instead of Physics.” And in a way, once that kind of got lodged in my thinking, it was like this beautiful little virus. Like it never went away. You know I sort of went back to school and you know had to study like crazy for my Ph.D., screening exams and I passed them. But, I just … I didn’t have the same commitment level anymore, because I had this other thing that I’m like “Oh, you know I’m good at the physics thing, and it’s interesting. But, there’s this other thing that I actually love.”

Christopher: And that epiphany, I don’t know if it’s a meaningful question, but, how much was that from external observations versus internal? In a sense of, was it that Aspen experience looking at people who were doing it and being like “Oh yeah, they can do it, therefore I can.” Or was it more looking back at the progress you’d made and being like “Oh, okay. I am on this improvement path that I can see eventually ending up there.”?

Jason: It’s a little of both. And I mean I think, you know Anders Ericsson and others who have written about this, talk about the necessity of intrinsic motivation. But that this is really paramount to fuel all of this, because it will be so grueling and arduous over so long that you need … you know, it’s not going to be enough to be basically like horse whipped by other people. Right? And I always, you know, it’s I think sometimes difficult for me to see when there are those you know very task master oriented parents that might be saying, you know, “You have to go practice!” And the kid is crying and screaming “I don’t want to do this. I hate the violin.” Or whatever. It’s like I’m not certain that’s a recipe for long term satisfaction in this, right?

And I mean it’s funny because you can take that model and push it to the breaking point. And if people do that for long enough and put in long enough time, they may get to a point where they can win auditions in major orchestras. The problem then, is when they get there and realize “Oh [ding], I never liked this that much to begin with.” Right? And I mean I think we’ve all, we’ve all seen and met those people. And to me that’s a sort of tragic thing, because you know, in my perfect world, people discover what it is they love and they should be doing that. Like I’m not laboring under some sort of crazy illusion that “Oh everybody should be a musician.” I think everybody can enjoy the arts. I think everybody can enjoy music.

But whether you have the sort of personality and love and all of this, to dedicate to and fuel this insane kind of journey, that requires, I think, that self-discovery and the self-propulsion. Because otherwise, I think you can easily get to this point where you, against all odds, you arrive and then you realize “Oh, maybe I don’t love this.” And that’s where the cynicism can set in. And that’s where people become jaded and you know we all see this. We see people who show up to jobs and orchestras and they just kind of phone it in and they’re going through the motions and collecting a paycheck and going home. And to me, that’s just … it’s a tragedy.

And I think its illustrative of how this can be, you know, approached in a positive way, kind of from the very beginning. And I mean to sort of answer your previous question then, like in that process for me, that was discovering that energy and that intrinsic drive to do it. But the third inflection point, the time when I met John Tafoya. And he basically, you know he said “Yeah, you’re doing some great stuff, but you know there’s a lot more work you need to do if this is something that you want to pursue. You know what? I just read a book you might like. It’s called ‘Talent is Overrated’.” And that, changed my life. Because that was the first time I started to understand what I was doing in music and that it could be approached in a similar way to what I was doing in science.

Very basically. It was the point at which I started to realize that energy and love was not enough. But that it needed some real rigor. It needed the kind of methodical, systematic insanity basically that I was applying in my science career. And you know, take all of that same thinking and put it into music. And I think for a lot of people that sounds kind of intuitive at first. Because they’re like “Well no wait, I mean science is a very cut and dry. And there’s numbers and there’re experiments. But then music is all about art and emotion and feeling.” Right? And that’s true. But, it also then gets to what is my basic definition of musicality. And what I think it gets unaddressed, maybe? A lot in musical training and all of that. So that’s maybe a place we can, we can go next. But that was sort of the journey for me.

Christopher: Fascinating. Well I won’t ask you to summarize an entire book on the spot, but I think I do have to ask, beyond just that concept that scientific rigor can be useful in musical skill development. What was the message in “Talent is Overrated” that got you excited, or gave you a new perspective?

Jason: Well it was summarizing a lot of Anders Ericsson’s work that really showed very definitively that there is no real evidence, scientific evidence, for the existence of genetic talent. Or inherent talent. As it is commonly understood to be. It is not a quantity. It is nothing you can test for. There isn’t a gene for it. There’s no blood marker. There’s nothing, there’s no test that can be applied when you’re five years old to figure out do you have the talent for this thing. And I mean I think upon first encountering that concept, a lot of people will reflexively disavow it. And say “Oh yeah, but what about like Mozart? What about Einstein? These people are clearly geniuses and were born with this amazing thing.” And you know essentially, the answer that comes about when you study this enough, is that those iconic people in history, worked incredibly hard.

Like there is just … nobody gets there without working incredibly hard. There is no shortcut. And in fact that in a lot of cases, there are no obvious indications when people are young, that this is going to be the path, right? I actually, I got into this discussion with a Musicologist. Along the idea of like well, okay, you know Mozart died when he was really young. And it was tragic. But what if he had died when he was even 10 years younger? Right? We wouldn’t have got any of the Vienna Period. We wouldn’t have gotten the four, truly, what people consider the genius operas, right? Giovanni, Magic Flute, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Figaro, right? The things that we think of as like truly like this encapsulates Mozart’s incredible prowess and skill and his voice and all this stuff. If none of that had happened, and we had made it up through like the mid-Kochel numbers, like it’s not that history would have entirely forgotten Mozart.

But he would be listed alongside like you know, Stamitz and Pergolesi. And all of these people who are sort of like journeymen, musicians. Right? And composers. Like, yeah they were there, they helped things along, they were participating. Right? And it was really important to me, because you know, in these … in “Talent is Overrated,” and subsequently in “Peak”, Anders Ericsson talks about like what is, in a way, the formula to apply this and get really good at a thing. And you look at Mozart’s example and it’s like well sure, I mean if you start when you’re four years old. And you’re working with one of the greatest music teachers in Europe, at the time, which just happens to be your dad, and so you’re doing this like, 10, 12 hours a day.

From four years old to the age of you know, in your 20s. When you actually start doing stuff that is noteworthy, right? I mean, people forget that a huge bulk of Mozart’s early work is entirely derivative. I mean sometimes literally. He’s just like copying over other people’s work. And sometimes it’s his dad doing it and sometimes other people are filling it in. I mean, you don’t get like the Mozart we understand to be Mozart emerging until his mid to late 20s. That’s a huge … he’s been cranking on this for 20 years at that point, right? And I mean by the estimation of putting in tens of thousands of hours doing this, he was already kind of behind the curve, right? I was like “Dude, what took you so long?” Like start cranking out some 40th and 41st Symphony’s already, right?

Same thing with Einstein right? And in fact the same thing happens in all of the fields that have been studied about this. And I think there’s a particularly telling example, actually in chess. And so, you know sometimes then, when I have this conversation with people they might be like “Okay, well I get it. Like sure clearly, no one can get there without working very, very hard.” I guess I can, you know, assent to that. But, what about sometimes you start working with kids. You know, younger players. And they’re not all the same. Like certain kids pick things up quicker. And they’re the ones that obviously have talent. And I would respond, and Anders Ericsson would respond “Well, do they? They have something, right?” Anyone who teaches, anyone who teaches music lessons can’t deny that people pick things up.

At different speeds. But, what does that really mean and what is that indicating? So there’s this really interesting study among chess players. Specifically chess grand masters. That was attempting to correlate I.Q., with tournament performance. The thinking being; well, chess is a very cerebral game, it makes sense that the highest I.Q., players will dominate this field. And you know, that’s what we’re going to prove here. Well, I.Q. is another one of those things were the more people have studied it, the less they understand it. Like they thought I.Q. was like this perfect measure of smartness and intelligence and essentially genetic intelligence. And that idea is basically falling apart now. The more people are looking at it, the more they are like “Actually, we don’t even know what we’re measuring. There are all these different problems with the test, it has all of these, you know, demographic and ethnic biases with it. And it’s kind of a mess.”

But it does correlate, roughly with some things. And they found like the higher I.Q. chess players were the ones that picked up the rules faster when they were kids. They took to it more quickly. But, very surprisingly, later in their careers, they found that there was an inverse correlation between grand master performance and I.Q. Basically, the lower I.Q. players are the ones that went on to dominate in tournaments. And they were like “Well, how can this be? This doesn’t make sense.” And the answer is basically pretty simple. The high I.Q. kids picked it up quickly and then they coasted. They went along with a flat trajectory. The kids that didn’t pick it up as quickly, had to work harder. And they had to work smarter. And they had to develop better processes for figuring out chess.

And what Anders Ericsson would say is that they had to establish and develop more sophisticated mental representations. That’s a big part of deliver practice that we can talk about later. But, essentially, they got smarter, more efficient, more scientific about studying and getting better at chess. So that while they may have started with a lower trajectory, they built up this machine in their process for trajectory improvement that eventually outmatched their competition. And when I started reading about some of those examples in these books, I realized “Oh, yeah like in a way, that’s kind of me.” Like I had a slow start, but I’m going about this in a way that’s different from some of my friends in the Timpani Audition circuit. I actually may have more advantages in this than I realized initially.

Christopher: That’s fascinating. I, like yourself, ‘Talent is Overrated,’ was the first book I read where I could point to it and be like “Yes, this is the thing I’ve been reaching for.” Like, I’ve had this feeling, like I’ve totally misrepresented the role of talent, or whatever that might be in musical success, musical enjoyment, musical achievement. But, when you’re handed a book that lays out, with case studies and research studies and you know all the anecdotal evidence you could want to balance out, for me that was life changing. Just to … it was validating. You know I haven’t had the career trajectory that you have in terms of adopting this and being like “Let’s see how far we can take it.” But I … it was certainly a huge part of what kind of redoubled my efforts in musical you and trying to enable people to achieve more of that kind of natural musicianship.

Because finally, I was like “you know there’s proof? You know I’m not just standing here saying you don’t need talent to learn this stuff. This has been fairly, clearly, concisely proven at this point.” And as you note there, it’s not just ‘Talent is Overrated,’ its not just that book or that idea, it’s not just you don’t need talent. It’s that there is actually a fairly clear methodology you can follow. You know there are concepts here that we can analyze and adopt to kind of put ourselves on a better trajectory. So I’d love to jump back into the story at that point, if you wouldn’t mind? And hear about your studies with that timpani teacher you mentioned, who gave you the book. Or, what you did in your own practice at that point to maybe adopt some of these principles or internalize them?

Jason: That’s yeah, that’s great. That’s absolutely awesome. And I mean, I think the closing comment on that idea for me, of talent being overrated, is that if you can really embrace that, it is ultimately freeing. I think a lot of times people … you know, on the one hand, like in my early case when I was young. I thought “Oh well this is off limits to me because I’m not talented.” It can also breed a certain fatalism that’s like “Oh well, I’m not even going to bother. I’m not even going to try.” Right? And it’s real, I mean that was a turning point in my life, to realize “Oh, there’s a whole field of research out there that shows that that’s wrong and that we actually do have a tremendous amount of agency in this process.” That we are you know sort of the masters of our own trajectory. And one final point about it is that at least when I’m working with my students, and sometimes I do so in the context of this thing that I run in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the summer in July called the “Deliver Practice Bootcamp.”

But I’m very conscious to tell people: “There’s a difference between achieving you know, sort of like expert levels of skill. And success.” Success is a very loaded term, right? Success could mean a lot of different things to different people. And you know in my case, in the orchestra world, success is usually defined as like “Okay, you’re making it into an orchestra. You get a full-time job, you do that.” And you know it was certainly a goal of mine. You know, no doubt. Like I really wanted to be doing that. But I also had to realize, and fully accept, that might not happen. Right? And this is one of these other things I often have students ask themselves. Sort of as a measure of their commitment and their love of this. I just, I have them ask you know, if you knew ten years from now, after doing all of this work. And all of this stuff that we’re about to talk about, this whole grueling process.

If you hadn’t made it, if you didn’t have a job in a full-time orchestra, would it have been worth it? Right? Which is another way of saying do you love the idea of the outcome? Or do you love the process? Do you love the process of engaging in music and refining your craft, and doing all of that? Is it about that? Or is it about the job and the status and the glory and you know, all of that? Right? That, I think, could become very clarifying for people. Because I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying “There are not enough orchestral jobs out there for the people currently studying orchestral music.” Right? Far from it, it is a hugely competitive field. And you know for everybody that’s in it now, working away at it, many people will end up you know going off and doing other things. And being perfectly happy doing those things. And still, you know, continuing to keep music as a part of their life.

And that’s great, I think that’s awesome. But I think it’s important for people to kind of have that, orientation in mind. Like is it about the processes, is it about the outcome? For me, in my own work, I kind of realized very early on, I have … I’ve got to detach from the outcome, because so much of what is defined as success, is beyond my control. Right? There are all of these variables in the process that who knows? It is to a certain extent, random. The actor Bryan Cranston has a great YouTube video about this. And also an interview with Marc Maron where he talks about this exact same thing in his own career. And he said that there was this kind of turning point in his acting career where he just realized, you know the whole point. He said “I love to act. I want to do this as my craft. I’m just going to do it for that reason. And trust, that if I establish a good process, good things will come about as a result.”

“There will be these positive byproducts. But I can’t focus on those in real time.” And sure enough, one of those byproducts was Breaking Bad. So there you go, right?

Christopher: Yeah I think that’s a super valuable mindset. I love that question you ask your students. And I think it comes back to what you touched on before, and I’m really glad you did with that question of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Because like yourself, I’ve encountered that thing where, you know to me, that idea that there’s no talent, and it’s all about hard work and smart work, was really exciting and liberating and opened a whole new vista ahead of me. But, I definitely have encountered people for whom there’s that momentary excitement, and then they clearly shut down a bit. Because you know, with great potential comes great responsibility and that’s what we’re confronted with. You know? I could do this, I need to actually decide if I want to, and I’m willing to.

And as you say, you know, maybe what makes the difference with kids, it’s not the question of talent, it’s like how much do you want it? Do you have that intrinsic drive, is there something you feel like you want to dedicate your life to? And if you want to, you can, which is great news. But if actually all you want to do is dabble a bit and enjoy, you’re going to have to face up to that and not feel like it’s only the lack of talent that’s held you back.

Jason: Exactly. Well, so we’ve been sort of like flirting with this idea for a while. We talk about this process, this grueling thing, right? So that is deliberate practice, right? And that is what you know Geoff Colvin wrote about in ‘Talent is Overrated’ based on Anders Ericsson’s work. Anders Ericsson is you know, a preeminent researcher in this field, but not the only one. And a lot of people have sort of gotten involved in this now, looking at it. And the basic idea is that there is a sort of blueprint for what practicing looks like. In any field. Music, chess, golf, tennis, you know, anything like this. That everybody has in common. And that is necessary for achieving mastery.

And I’ve actually got a list right in front of me, I’ll just run it down because I think it’s useful for people to hear. Because this is really where the rubber hits the road, like you say. Because this, and applying this and putting tens of thousands of hours into it, I mean multiple hours a day, every day. For years and years. Right? That is where you start to realize, like do I love the process? Or do I just like to dabble? Right? The first aspect of it is that it’s designed. It’s not haphazard, right? You don’t just like show up, and you know, start knocking a few balls around on the driving range, you don’t go into the practice room and sit down with your timpani and start pounding away. You go in with a very specific set of goals.

You have a design, you know how much time you’re going to spend, you know why, you know what you’re working on. And that has all been you know, worked on with effective coaches and teachers. It’s been structured so that it’s pushing you outside your comfort zone. Right? You’re not just going over stuff you already know how to do, but you’re also not trying to tackle things that are far beyond your skill level at that point. Probably the most important part of this is that it incorporates continuous feedback. And this is the thing that I see probably is the most prominently missing aspect of a lot of younger musicians who have great intentions but they lack the rigor in their process yet to do this. And there are a lot of ways to get feedback. But I think one of the most important ones, is self-recording.

Buying one of these digital zoom recorders, you know something like the H4N, or the H4N Pro, or whatever. They’re a couple of hundred bucks. Recording yourself every day. Forcing yourself to listen back to the objective record of what you’ve been doing. And training yourself to be your own healthy critic. We could probably spend an hour talking about that. And everything that goes on with that. But that is and element of the feedback that we need, in order to get better. And if fact, there’s this famous quote that says; Practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain. Right? You’re just not going to get better and you’re going to stop caring about what happens because you know, if you think about how insane that is, that you’re throwing a bowling ball down the alley and you hear some sound. Like some pins get knocked over but you don’t even know. Like was that a spare, was that a strike, did I get one pin? What happened? It truly is like that.

If you’re not getting feedback, you have no idea whether your efforts, and all the time you are putting into this are making the kind of difference you want. You know related to this then, deliberate practice is going to be very mentally demanding. It’s going to require an incredible amount of focus, and concentration. It should leave you exhausted, by the end of it. If you’re doing it right. Because of all of these aspects of it, right, that you’re working on difficult things, you’re working outside of your comfort zone. These things are going to require massive repetition. You’re going to be drilling Etudes and exercises. Because of this, it’s not inherently fun or enjoyable. Right? And I should contrast this like, you know, it’s like oh sitting down and cracking a beer and watching a comedy.

That’s fun. Right? It’s not to say that deliberate practice isn’t rewarding, it’s rewarding. But I think of it the same way that you know, a lot of people might describe like running. Running is physically painful sometimes and grueling. And your lungs are screaming at you and your body might hurt, but you get done with it and you feel a certain sense of satisfaction. And accomplishment and it’s rewarding. And done right, practicing is like that. Right? And it’s in the moment, it is very grueling. Again, because you’re doing all of this stuff, like you’re basically holding up a mirror to all of your warts and deficiency’s and technical problems and focusing in intensely on those, for hours and hours at a time. Until you are utterly exhausted. Right?

It’s not going to be the most fun. Obviously this takes a lot of willpower, it takes being obsessed with this idea of refining your craft. You know? As you go along, you will begin to experience enhanced perception. This is another big point of Ericsson’s work, where like the more people do deliberate practice, like literally they will hear and see more detail and nuance and everything than people who haven’t been doing it as much. And for anybody out there who sort of rails at the notion of orchestra auditions, when you go and you play eight minutes of short excerpts, and people think “Oh, come on, I mean they only give me like five minutes to play. How could you possibly judge me as a musician based on so little time?”

Well, the answer is that the people sitting on the other side of the screen, have put in tens of thousands of hours and have a very enhanced set of ears to be able to listen to this. In my personal experience, you know we were having auditions at the Met and we will hear everybody. Right? Some people get a live audition, but everybody gets a chance to be heard via CD. Right? And so we will listen to these CD rounds, and sure enough, in most cases, I was 90% certain in how I was going to vote on a certain candidate. Within the first 15 seconds of the CD. Like it just didn’t take that much.

Because I had some very specific things I knew to listen for. And I was listening with this sort of like an enhanced perception. You can imagine almost like going through the world being born with vision that’s only black and white. And as you put in more practicing, you start to get like gray scale and then sepia tones, and then finally, eight bit color. And then finally full 24 bit color that you’re seeing the world in all of this detail, right? And finally, all of this then kind of informs the knowledge that goes into this. The term of art is domain specific knowledge. Things you just need to know and learn about the field. Music history and music theory and training and all of these kind of defined skills.

And then finally, this… informs these things that Anders Ericsson calls ‘mental representations.’ And they’re abstract. They’re actually fairly difficult to define. But if… you know, when I work with students, I’ll try to describe it this way; I say “Think about a piece of music that you know really well.” In our case it might be orchestral excerpt. On timpani, it’s something like the coda of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the first movement. And I say “Now sit down, like close your eyes. And just hear it playing in your head. Hear the most ideal version of that playing in your head. You performing it. What does that sound like? Play that track[inaudible 00:51:52], that is your mental representation.” It has to do with visualization.

It’s an idealized structure. And the point is that, that thing will grow and evolve over time. As you become aware of all these other elements about it that can be refined. And you put all this together now. All this stuff that I just rattled off. And you get this process that when you zoom back far enough, you look at it and you are like “Oh, wait okay. So I’m going to go into this with some ideas of things I want to change. And ideas of ways that I might go about it that might help me practice. I’m going to make sure to get a lot of feedback along the way. I’m going to look at that feedback, see if it’s been successful. Compare it to what I was trying to do.” Well, if anyone is really paying attention here, they realize I just rattled off the scientific method. Right? Deliberate practice is essentially just the scientific method applied to music.

Scientific method being you formulate a hypothesis. And a prediction. And you do experiments, and you gather data and you analyze the data and you see how it compared to the hypothesis. And you repeat. Right? Well, there we go. Sure enough, it turns out that this unifying principle for how you get good at anything, is deliberate practice. And deliberate practice is just the scientific method applied to that. When I really encountered this, and started to figure this all out in like the 2007, 08, 09 frame, when I first encountered that book, it was revelatory, because I was like “Oh, right. The scientific method? That’s something I already know how to do pretty well. I just need to start applying that kind of thinking and work and rigor to my love of music.”

Christopher: Awesome.

That was a tremendous run down of deliberate practice. Thank you. I think one of the things that’s most remarkable about you and your story is that you are not just someone who is expert in the principles and ideas of deliberate practice, but you are someone who has really applied them in a thoughtful way in your own life and seen results. So I want to dive into maybe some practical examples of what this looked like for you as a semi-professional, or aspiring professional timpanist. But before I do, I want to ask a slightly obnoxious question. Which is maybe on the mind of some people as they hear you talk about approaching music with the scientific method. And that is; is that not taking all the magic out of music?

Jason: So you just hit on … I’m really glad we’re going to talk about this because this is something I encounter quite a bit. And I feel like I’m just on a mission to kind of reorient thinking about this. And the basic idea is one that I encounter with students and you know, sometimes, professionals and critics and all this other stuff. And sometimes it’s stated explicitly, and sometimes it’s sort of the undercurrent of the conversation. But, it’s this idea that you have an access and on the one end of the access, you have technical excellence and on the other end of the access you have musical excitement. Or you have energy, or artfulness, or something.

And these exist in opposition to each other as if you know, one compromises the other. And that if you go in the direction of one, you are necessarily sacrificing the other. I don’t know where that came from. I’m curious to kind of understand the growth and evolution of that idea. But I want to emphatically say that it is absolutely, completely dead wrong. That in fact, these things are mutually reinforcing. And I would go so far as to say that my whole sort of self-revelation in this, in embracing the idea of deliberate practice, and this process, was realizing and redefining what musicality, what musicianship really is.

And even what art really is. And why we’re doing any of this. I define musicality very specifically. I say “Musicality is being clearly, emotionally communicative.” Simple definition. Right? And on the surface, it’s like well, okay. I guess I’m not going to argue with that too much. But there’s a big emphasis on clearly. Being clearly communicative. Right? Because I might have something, you know, really, interesting to say. Or like you know you might come up with a good line that’s like [inaudible 00:58:33]. What’d you say? Couldn’t you hear me? I said [inaudible 00:58:38].

It’s like Kenny in Southpark, right? What I just said was to be or not to be? That is the question. But if I can’t articulate it, and if I can’t say it clearly, if it’s muffled, if it’s being distorted by other stuff, no one’s going to know or care. And this was the point in my musical growth where I realized I was going into it with all of the intention, with all of the energy, with all of the love. What I lacked was the clarity. What I lacked was the ability for my musical ideas, and my energy and my commitment to all of this, to be translated. Because that relies on a bedrock and foundation of technique. And there’s just really no other way to put it. And if you think about it as you know, the corollary and visual arts.

Say you’ve got like a sketch artist who wants to you know, put together a really compelling facial rendering. Or a portrait, or you know this beautiful picture. And capture all these things about sort of the emotion of that glance. And the lighting and everything else. But they don’t know how to draw a straight line. They can’t draw a straight line. Right? Like well, if you can’t draw a straight line, you’re never going to draw a compelling picture. And so for me, this got me thinking about “Oh, wait. The whole reason for this process is to develop the chops and the listening and the ears, and all of this other stuff. In order to be able to communicate emotionally more clearly.”

And that for me, is the name of the game. That’s why these things do not exist in some sort of false dichotomy. There’s not diametric opposition to this. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing. And you know, frankly, yeah are there people who can just kind of like sit down and like grind through all the drills and get you know, technically competent, but might lack some soul? Sure, that can exist. But, I would say probably two things to that. First of all, you can hear that. Like soulless playing is obvious, right? When it is just bland and technical, that’s super clear from the other side of the screen, from the concert hall. Anywhere. It’s not compelling, it doesn’t grab you.

And second of all, lacking that kind of love being channeled into the process, I don’t think those people are going to last very long. Again, for all the reasons we talked about. That it requires this intrinsic commitment. Almost this, a kind of obsessive madness to be refining this craft.

Christopher: That’s fascinating. And I want to pick up in a minute and talk about your deliberate practice in particular. But the scenario you painted a picture of there, of the audition situation, where your critical ear was able to pick up on things that others, including probably the players themselves, were oblivious to. You talked about the mental representations there. Before we move on, I wanted to just ask; how much is that something you can articulate? Like if I asked you, what’s the different between a technically competent timpani performance and one that is expressive and compelling, or has soul. Is that something that you can put into words? Or is it an instinctive thing in your head that you’ve come to understand through those hours of practice?

Jason: So I think maybe the easiest way to answer that is that I have a whole sort of, other session or tract of teaching that’s related to that bootcamp. And there’s part of it that’s focused specifically on timpanists. And it’s called the “Northland Timpani Summit.” It’s in Minnesota. And we walk through a lot of examples of orchestral repertoire. And orchestral excerpts. Where there are sorts of the obvious, base level things that you need to be working out. That would take a lot of time. This is the rigor, right? And I show a structure. Again, I think about a lot of this stuff visually, graphically. And to me, there is this sort of natural and obvious picture of this that is a … like a three legged stool.

With a pyramid on top of it. In which we try to capture all of the different elements of musicianship. And figure out how to focus and prioritize in the different times. The three legs of the stool, for me, are time and rhythm and intonation. Because they are so basic, so fundamental, they are completely objective. Right? Like a computer can measure these things and give you a read out and essentially all musicians aught to be able to agree on this. This happens behind the screen at auditions. I might not know the first thing about how you make an oboe reed, I am unfamiliar with all the different schools of playing, and the sort of sound concepts they have. But I can tell you if they’re in tune, whether they’re rushing. Right? That’s … we have that all in common.

The next level up on the structure for me is clarity. And evenness. And that comes about with the control and the chops that it takes to keep things even and you know, controlling the instrument and being you know, demonstrating that. That also sort of translates into confidence. Now above that, you start to get to the more interesting stuff. These are the more subjective kinds of layers, because you have things like phrasing, and tone, and style, and energy, and all of these different variables that ultimately make the musician. This is what sells it. This is what really, ultimately communicates. But, back to my previous statement of this is all about clear communication, you might have a really fabulous understanding of like a Baroque historical style, and all of the phrasing to go with it. And the tone is just right.

Maybe you’re playing with gut strings or something. But if you’re rushing the [ding] out of it and you’re like completely not in tune, no one is going to care. They’re going to be like “Oh that was, that was not great.” Right? It needs that support structure. Now, implicit in this is that as you move upward on this thing with these different priorities, you get to the things that are more subjective. But even there, I took this approach to it that was again, rather scientific, and sort of learned some interesting things I think, about musical communication along the way. Take for instance, phrasing. Right? People will say “Oh well, you know you can phrase it this way. You can phrase it that way. Some people phrase it this way.”

Phrasing is musical communication. Almost perfectly embodied. Right? It’s the rise and fall of a phrase. It’s how the line moves. It’s what about that grabs you. And it’s subjective. But, and this is what I really try to point out to students, are all of your options created equal? I would argue no. I would argue if you want to be clearly communicative, if you want that performance to be felt, try them out. Get a group of people together, and workshop it. Basically, focus group this thing. Right? Get 10 musicians in a room, people that you really, you know you respect. And they’re good players, they have good ears, they know the repertoire. And try it out three different ways.

And I do this with a timpani excerpt that’s often asked, from Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. And it’s a very simple [licks 01:06:32] timpani, so it’s only four notes. It’s four drums, it goes yum, pompa, bom bom. Da, da, dada dum. Right? And I’m like okay, we’ll do this simple three different ways. Play it completely flat, play it with a reverse hairpin, and then play it with a hairpin. And try them out. And inevitably, when we do this, the people in the room, you know one person might like it completely flat. One person might like the reverse hair pin, eight people like the hairpin phrase. And I’ve done this time and time again. There is something going on there. And I was like “Wow, that’s fascinating.” So there’s a way to think about musical decision making, artistry and communication that can be more rigorous.

Even though it’s subjective. Like if the goal is communicating, like let’s think about what’s really getting across to people. And then, you know, you can sit down and you can really deconstruct it. I’m like “Okay, right so this phrase is F, D, C, A, A, F, D, D, C, D.” Your D minor. So in a way, it’s a phrase that’s kind of like a call and response. Going to the dominant and then arriving at the tarmac. It’s kind of like setting up a question and then answering it. And then in thinking about phrasing, I was like “Oh, right. So what happens when we ask a question? And then we deliver a answer.” There’s a natural rise to our voice and then sort of a fall. That shape, in music making, makes a lot of sense related to the harmony of that passage and what’s going on in its function.

Could anybody else go in and play that phrase subjectively different ways? Sure they could. Will that grab necessarily the most number of people? Probably not, right? So you take that like one example of two measures, and then you start to extrapolate it out over the entirety of the music that you will perform, and you have essentially, this infinite life project of working on how can I make this better? How can I make this more clearly felt? How can I support the music that’s happening? Or especially in my job. The drama. The very literal drama of the story that we’re trying to communicate to the audience.

Christopher: That is truly fascinating. You’re reminding me of my days when I was an RA at the Center for Digital Music in London. And I had colleagues that worked at Goldsmiths in the Center for Computational Musicology there, and there were fairly extensive debates on the subject of you know, can computers truly understand music. You know obviously they can understand MIDI for example, and what is specifically being played. But in terms of that spirit of music, that expressiveness that we as humans care about, can they understand it? Can they play it? Is it purely, at the end of the day, something you can analyze? And I love the way you talked about that because you weren’t saying you know, there is a right and wrong, robots can do this.

You were talking about humans and communication, which is a very human thing. And as you say, you know, it’s subjective but that doesn’t mean all truths are equal.

Jason: Well right. In a way, it’s like you know, expecting a computer to be able to communicate fluently and clearly, is why so many people get frustrated with Siri. Right? Like there are nuances of meaning in linguistics and communication. That can be very difficult to codify. And they’re always changing right? What kids these days say, is different than what kids said ten years ago. And there is a … you know, a living component to that. But I mean I think it all exists equally, if not even more in this sort of musical language.

Christopher: Well I feel like we could go deep and unpack this even further. But, I do want to loop back to that scene of you having that light bulb of “Okay, this deliberate practice thing, this is kind of like the scientific method. This is kind of what I’ve been edging towards and now I have a name to put on it.” What was the kind of before and after for you? If we’re imagining you as someone who was putting in the hours each day, aspiring to an orchestra position, playing timpani. How had you been spending that practice time and what impacted did deliberate practice have on it?

Jason: This is a great question. And I’ll take two really prominent examples that I try to get my student’s working with as quickly as possible. And it relates back to both, you know the idea of feedback. That is a critical part of deliberate practice. And then also the idea of domain specific knowledge. For myself, I just started getting much more rigorous.

Systematic and methodical about each of them. I was recording myself all of the time. I was listening back to it. I started to develop a very specific way in which I would listen back to it. Listening back to a certain passage ten different times. Each time focusing on a different element of this kind of pyramid structure that I described. One time listening sort of holistically. The next time focusing on just on time.

The next time focusing just on rhythm, the next time intonation, clarity, phrasing, style, tone, right? All of that stuff. All the way on up there. Doing this over enough time, I started to have this huge pile of digital recordings, and to be clear, a lot of this just for me emerged organically. Sort of necessity is the mother of invention. But I started to come up with this way to archive all of my different recording, and simultaneously keep track of all of my practicing notes. Because one other element of this, for myself, the rigor translated from being a lab scientist, where you have a lab notebook and you’re constantly documenting everything you are doing and why. Right? What are you using, what happened, how did it work? Right?

I had, you know, both a written book but then also a growing sort of digital practice journal about all of this stuff. And it was becoming incredibly unwieldy. It was like hundreds of pages long, Microsoft Word document and I would have to do a control F to search through there and find all the different references to like, you know, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and like what this teacher said about it, and that teacher said. And it was just kind of ridiculous. At the same time, I had all of my music organized in these plastic sheet protectors in three-ring binders that had all of these Post-it notes all over them. And layers and layers of Post-it Notes, going back to try, and figure out what I was doing was like an archeological dig.

You know? And it was insane. And after a while, I was like … you know, because you prepare an orchestral audition, you have a certain amount of repertoire you will come back to it. Again, and again and again. But sometimes, it might be six months, a year, 18 months before you come back to a certain piece. A long time had elapsed that I had sort of forgotten, like “Well, wait. Okay, how am I approaching this one? What phrasing decisions had I made about this? I marked two things in the part and I scratched one out, I don’t remember which is which.” And I decided on this sticking, right, right, left. Or was it right, left, right? Oh [ding].

And so again, that was, to me, as a scientist, that was just sloppy process. I just started to get better about the process so that I was making audio recordings and video recordings. Of myself doing this stuff. Every time during a audition preparation process, I would document my best of, and keep that as a reference. Audio, video. I could see exactly what I was doing. And I had this whole archive of notes to go with it that I would … and literally, I would just keep track of this in Itunes. And I would drop all of this stuff into the Lyrics tab of the specific MP3. So that I would now have associated with that specific recording, all of the relevant notes, the decisions I had made. The recommendations from teachers, the feedback I’d gotten from audition committees, where I had gone to play it. Different phrasing decisions I had made. Right? All the different times I had performed it.

This running history that is in every way, the embodiment of the domain specific knowledge that is going along with this. Plus, an audio and video record of what I was working on. But here’s the even more critical thing related to the sort of abstracting we were talking about before. This mental representations, right? I would listen back to this thing that’s like my best of, I would compare it to the previous best of that I had logged maybe six months, twelve months before. And I would make notes saying like “Great. Recording number seven is better than recording number six in the following concrete ways. This improved, this improved. I have better control over this. My tone is better. All of these things have improved.”

Now I’m listening to version seven and I’m still hearing things I want to improve. But I just haven’t gotten there yet. So for version eight, lets work on the following, boom this part, making it more even. Boom, making sure this part is more in the pocket. This, this, and this. Essentially documenting my mental representation. Because in reality, what was happening is that I had an idealized version in my head that I could hear. The ideal version being the best, most perfect thing I could conceive of. And then I would compare the reality of the recording, and I’d be like “Okay. They’re different. They’re different in the following ways. Here’s how I inch this along further to the next you know, the next yard line down the field.”

And doing that, for years, basically produced this archive of my work, that almost very literally, sonically maps this trajectory. I can listen to 15 or 20 different takes of me playing the same exact material, over years, and now I listen back to it and I hear that first one, and I’m like “Yikes, that’s rough.” Right? Simply because I’m listening to it with all of the enhanced perception and work that I put into it. And realizing that at the time, back in 2007 or whatever, that truly was, that was my best of. I recorded it, I played it, I’m like “Yes, I can be proud of this. This is … this represents the best of what I can do right now.”

And here’s the crazy thing, like that process never ends. You are never done. It’s not like you get to the Met, and you’re like “Great, cool. I’m as good as I’m ever going to be.” No, far from it. It’s continued through my first you know, several seasons. And I hope will continue as long as I have these sort of body and capacity to continue doing that.

Christopher: Well that’s tremendous. We make a throw away comment sometimes at Musical U, when we’re talking about recording yourself. And you know, we mostly focusing on you know, in the context of one practice session. Listening back, trying to be objective, learn what you can. But we sometimes make the comment, you know, don’t throw the recordings away, because it’s going to be really nice a couple months down the line to listen back and realize how far you’ve come. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone doing it as methodically as you just described. And it’s a beautiful implementation of that concept.

That you can self-assess, that you can be critical of your own work and that you can continually improve it on that basis.

Jason: At the end of the day, everyone will have to become their own best teacher. Right? Like you definitely need a teacher. You need a coach, you need somebody who can hear you and see you in ways that you can’t see yourself.

And solve, help you solve problems that you don’t know how to solve yet. But almost all of the time, is going to be spent on your own. Right? When I go back and think about the number of lesson hours I had, versus the amount of solitary time spent in the practice room, I mean the ratio is like 99 to one or something like that. Right? It’s incredible.

And when you think about it that way, like you really want to make sure that those 99 hours versus the one hour in the practice room are spent as productively and efficiently as possible. With you teaching yourself and doing as much of that on your own time as you possibly can. And for me, yeah that was this other light bulb in realizing “Oh sure, if deliberate practice is the scientific method applied to music, then I can absolutely approach this process with a self-improvement rigor that allows me to solve a lot of this stuff on my own time.” Right? And I say this to students. Right?
Like the reason I insist that my students do so much self recording is that I’m perfectly happy to have a timpani lesson where somebody walks in and pays me my lesson fee. And I sit there, and I say “you know what? That’s sharp, that’s flat, that’s rushing, that’s dragging. Okay, see you next week.” But that’s [ding], right? They don’t need me for that. And frankly, that’s not for me the most exciting kind of lesson. That’s just like boring base level stuff. They could’ve self-diagnosed that all on their own with their recorder. The much more interesting lesson to me is a student walks in and says “You know what? I’ve been practicing this certain way. I’ve heard and fixed a lot of these problems, but there’s one spot here where I always seem to be misplacing the note rhythmically, and I can’t figure out why.”

“Can you help me figure out why?” Ahh, yes! Now this is interesting. This isn’t a dialogue, this is problem solving. This is what I find so fascinating about teaching, is being a participant now in the scientific method of somebody else’s musical growth. And sometimes it’s their own internalized pulse and their sense of rhythm. Sometimes there is a physical, technical aspect going on, where it’s “Oh, you need to do it this way, not that way. This one part of your playing is inhibiting this thing and that’s why the rhythm isn’t right.” You know? There’s this sort of infinite, trouble shooting process that can go on. But for me, that’s really interesting teaching.

And again, yeah, don’t throw away the recordings. Those things are incredibly useful learning tools.

Christopher: So we’re talking, or we have been talking in the context of you kind of studying up for auditions. You’re already at a very high level in terms of technical proficiency. But we’ve also been referring to your work with student’s and on that bootcamp, for example, I wanted to ask you a little bit about when all of this becomes relevant. Because I don’t want our listener to assume that you know, you described that pyramid. Is it the case that they need to master each level before they can consider the next one?

Jason: Certainly not. Certainly not. It all works in tandem. But it’s, you almost think about it like what is the you know, sort of balance of assets in your musical portfolio. To take some, you know, terrible financial analogy. But what I find with students a lot of the time is that you need to be working on it all together. You need to be aware of it all together. But usually the stuff on the bottom, is going to take a lot more time to master. And in a way, what I find consistently, is that a lot of younger musicians’ sort of like to run before they can crawl and walk. Simply because dealing with tone, and phrasing and style and all this stuff, is kind of more fun. Because it’s the more interesting part, right? Like going in and just like grinding out exercises and Etudes to improve time, rhythm, intonation and clarity, that’s the not fun part.

Well, the thing is though, that a lot of people are going into it that way and skipping the not fun part, because it’s not fun. And then they show up at auditions and wonder why they get cut. And you know, in a way, when I talk about this with student’s too, I’m like the fundamentals are the gate keepers to this. Right? You can think of like of the hundred or two hundred people that might be showing up to an audition, you can sort of stack the deck in your favor, by being the person that invests in this pyramid of musical qualities with a sensible allocation. Right? Giving yourself the ability not to get cut in prelims, because you can’t play in tune. Right? You do all this stuff in order for people to be able to appreciate all of the higher elements of your playing. And to be clearly, emotionally communicative.

Christopher: I love it. We talk, fairly often on this show, about the surprising advantages that adult learners sometimes have over younger students. Because you know, a lot of our audience are adult musicians.

Jason: Sure.

Christopher: And often feel inhibited by that. You know what we talked about earlier, about kind of it never being too late to make this rapid progress is fantastic. But there’s also that kind of psychological thing of feeling like you don’t learn as quickly or that your limited. But I think in what you just described, it really jumped out at me that it comes back again, to that intrinsic motivation thing. You know the student who walks up and needs you to walk them through doing the simple kind of technical stuff. They probably didn’t bother to practice between lessons because they weren’t really feeling the enthusiasm.

Whereas the student who walks up having really kind of mastered that ground level of the stool and looking for your input on the problem solving, or the more subtle things, that’s probably a person with intrinsic motivation who has been willing to kind of put in the practice time in between and make sure that they took care of everything they could before they came back to you as a teacher. And I think that’s something that you know, adults definitely have the edge on, because we can have that self awareness to know, okay, it’s probably not worth me going to the lesson if I have taken care of all that other stuff.

Jason: That’s absolutely right. Yeah. And I mean, I say this to student’s all the time. Doing the work is the measure of your commitment to the art form. Right? And it’s not to say that if you don’t do the work, you don’t care about it at all. This is all like a sliding scale. Right? Of like people who dabble, people who dabble heavily, people who love it but just don’t have the time to invest. There’s no point in which this is not a binary switch. Right? It’s just basically scalable to the amount of time, energy, and resources that you can and are willing to commit. And where you know, and the thing is that I basically like meeting people wherever they are at on that sliding scale. But certainly, when that investment can be the highest, is when that trajectory is the steepest, upward, impressive climb.

You know? And it is then thrilling as a teacher to see students make some of these improvements and these leaps and bounds very quickly. And in a way it’s just vicariously thrilling because I remember myself, like what that felt like. And that … being able to sort of reexperience the joy of that. Is really tremendous.

Christopher: Cool. And so then, let’s come back to that, because you’ve described it both as a grueling process and just now as a joyful one. So that period where you were really going hard for the auditions, and really kind of applying these principles to make sure you got the best bang for your buck in terms of practice hours put in. What were those years like and how did things progress in your career from there?

Jason: Yeah. Great question. So I mean this … I think we’ll inevitably touch on an element of performance psychology. And you know, your listeners may be aware of this website called “Bulletproof Musician.” And a really fabulous guy, Noa Kageyama, who teaches at Julliard. He actually just lives down, same neighborhood as I do. But I actually just recorded a whole podcast interview with him about some of these concepts. So we take on a deeper dive into the performance psychology and mindset aspects of this. But I mean to try, and answer your question the most simply, in a way, I think people can also unnecessarily divide these things. For something that’s either fun or its difficult.

Either it’s you know, rewarding or it’s awful. And really I think what work and music and the process of deliberate practice is like, is the merging of these two things. Where it’s essentially an excruciating passion. And to try and break that down, I mean you know, on the one hand you always remain painfully aware of your own deficiencies. This process depends on you being honest about that. And being able to self-diagnose and improve. And that never goes away, right? Again, I said this before, that the improvement curve is endless. You never arrive. And unto this day, I will categorically state that I am always, perpetually, slightly dissatisfied with my playing. And that’s what keeps me improving for the next performance and the next season.

And my next run through a given opera or a given composer. Or whatever. And you have to be comfortable with that. You really have to develop this like intimate relationship with failure and with feeling insufficient. With feeling like this is not good enough. And that’s always the way it’s going to be. You actually have to enjoy that, right? I mean and not to get to crazy about that, but there is almost a little bit of masochism involved in that, right? And in what I think is essential is that kind of people figure out a way to harness that and control it without it metastasizing into some really dark places, and very negative self-talk. And just you know, almost this self-loathing of like you know, I’m never going to be good enough.

Rather it’s I can always be better. And that’s exciting. Psychologically then, I realized after a while, that I possessed this fairly decisive advantage going into these orchestra auditions. Precisely because I could do it as long as I needed to. Right? A: I was enjoying the process. I just like the refinement of this and the application of my sort of scientific thinking to this art that I loved. B: I had a full-time job. I was paying the rent, paying my mortgage, right? I had instruments. My efforts in this have no expiration date. And that, is a big deal, because a lot of people go into auditioning thinking, “You know what? I’m going to give this a solid two years, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to find something else to do.” And there’s, I mean, a kind of pragmatism involved in that. It’s like well, yeah, you need to be spending all this time doing it. And then at some point, like you’re going to want to have a family or something else.

Or like you’re tired of working at Starbucks, or like whatever it is. But that is applying a sort of arbitrary deadline to this process whose outcomes you don’t have full control over. And so this is … I mean the other thing I tell students is look, if you can be rigorous and deliberate about this, you will automatically put yourself in the sort of top ten to twenty percent of people who are allocating their portfolio correctly. To be able to win people over, have fundamentals under control, be confident and be clearly, emotionally communicative. Okay?

Step two: do it for a long time. It’s ultimately just about shots on goal, right? For me it was 28. The Met was my 28th audition. And I know people who have taken 50 auditions, 60 auditions, right? And to be clear, it’s not like my 25, 26, and 27th auditions were garbage. Like I wasn’t that different a player. It was just in those situations, there were other variables going on. And the starts didn’t align. You just want to make sure you’re at … that you’re there often enough to have the chance. I sometimes make the analogy that it’s like a really high, minimum bet poker table. Right? The minimum bet, that’s something that you can control. For sure. And that in my analogy is the putting in of those hours, that’s the deliberate practice process.

You’ve got to arrive at the minimum bet. At that point, then you get dealt a hand. And you’ve got to be good about it. I mean you’ve got to know what you are doing. But you can’t control the hand you’re dealt. And that’s going to be true of any of these auditions. So you need to approach it knowing like its probably going to take a while. It’s going to take some time. I did an actual survey of our orchestra, just asking, you know, “What age were you when you won your audition with the Met Orchestra? How many auditions had you taken?” And you know a lot of times we tend to I think fixate on the outliers in situations like this. The kids that win jobs right out of school, because that’s exciting.

And of course, the schools want to market that, because it completely fits their business model of saying you know, “Come to Julliard. Come to Curtis.” You know? “Our graduates win jobs immediately.” That’s just statistically false, right? It’s not true, the majority of the time. Usually people are in their late 20s or early 30s, after having taken ten to twenty auditions. That’s just the reality of it. So there’s a sustainability involved that gets right back to the idea of loving the process, being able to do it for a long time, embracing that excruciating passion, right? And if you can do it with that sustainability, and removing the fear and pressure of any one of these auditions, then you’re just going to be in so much better of a place. It’s freeing, right? That was the advantage I felt.

Going into auditions knowing that I wanted it, but I didn’t need it. Right? Like my life was not going to end if I didn’t walk away with the job. And that was huge.

Christopher: Amazing. Well I think like so much of what we’ve talked about today, obviously there’s a specific story there about your own trajectory and where it’s brought you and that kind of success story. But, it was all, I think, so applicable for almost any musical life. You know from the principles of deliberate practice, to the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, to that kind of mindset of I’m going to be okay with failures on the way. I’m going to be okay with not being perfect, and see that as an opportunity rather than a critique of myself. Or a limiting factor. And I hope everyone listening has really been encouraged and inspired in a whole lot of ways while listening to this, because Jason, I do think your story is… it’s a beautiful success story.

You know just kind of stepping back and taking the kind of two sentence precis, it’s great that you kind of persisted that you had this sharp point of inflection in your progress. And that it has, I don’t want to say “ended”, but it has culminated so far in this world leading orchestra position. But I am so glad that we did not do the two sentence version. And that we’ve had the chance to unpack it, because there is such rich wisdom I think, in the way you’ve gone about it. And I just want to thank you for the clarity of explanation you’ve brought to it today, because I think you have related it in a way that everyone will be able to understand and apply to their own lives. So I want to wrap up by asking obviously, you know, playing in the Met Opera Orchestra is not a small task.

That must take up a great amount of your time. But, you mentioned a couple of other projects there, the North Land Timpani Summit and the Deliberate Practice Bootcamp. I’d love to hear a bit more about those and in particular, if people have been inspired and encouraged and made curious by listening to you talk about these things today, where can they go to get a lot more of Jason Haaheim?

Jason: Well thanks Christopher, I mean its, I love talking about this stuff, I feel like it is a privileged to be able to do so from the perspective of this you know, wonderful career at the Metropolitan Opera. Right? It’s something I don’t take lightly. It’s a ton of work, it’s also very grueling. But it is, you know, I never lose sight of the fact that it could have gone so many other ways. Right? And the fact that I get to do this now, and that you know, some of the highest levels in the world. And then get to talk about it with people. I mean it’s truly awesome.

And so, you know so I try to talk about it in a variety of different ways. And sort of like share the love. So I have my blog. Its just jasonhaaheim.com, where I’ve started writing about some of these ideas and have a whole lot more lined up. When I can scare up the time to sit down and write. You already mentioned, you know, these two summer projects I have where there’s a Deliberate Practice Bootcamp that is open to all instrumentalists. And we go through this, you know, a lot of the stuff we touched on in this last session here. And how people can approach deliberate practice and apply it to their own playing.

And then you know, intimately, conjoined with that is a session specific to timpanists, who are interested in improving on timpani. And you know applying that to the specific craft of our instrument and taking timpani auditions. And then finally, related to that, I’ve tried to encapsulate this in a two year, timpani specific master’s degree program at NYU, New York University, where I teach. It’s something we’re rolling out in just the next couple of weeks. And you know that’s a chance to get to work with students at that high level. People who are really interested in taking orchestral auditions, you know, improving on timpani and then doing so according to this framework of deliberate practice. And in fact, at NYU, there’s a very similar class that I teach that’s related to that deliberate practice bootcamp.

Where there’s any of the instrumental students at NYU can take this. And we go through all of this stuff over an entire semester. And it’s a ton of fun.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well I certainly applaud you for doing all of that to get these ideas out there, because I think they can be so transformational for people’s musical success and enjoyment and fulfillment. For anyone listening, I will just say Haaheim is spelled H-A-A-H-E-I-M. So you can go to jasonhaaheim.com for Jason’s blog and links to those projects. And of course, we will have direct links in the show notes of this episode of Musicalitypodcast.com. All that remains is to say a huge thank you again, Jason. This has been a pure delight for me and I’m sure my listeners have learned a ton along the way too. So thank you for sharing so openly and yeah, again just to applaud you in the message you’re getting out there and how well you’re doing that.

Jason: Again, thank you. It’s a privilege, I love to be able to do this stuff. Any listeners who are interested, I mean, they can get in touch with me through my website, through a variety of means. If they have questions, they’d like to follow up, I’d love to hear from them.

Christopher: Welcome to the show Jason, thank you for joining us today.

Jason: Thank you Christopher, thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Christopher: So you are at this point, one of the highest level timpanists there can be, in your work at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. But I know from reading your blog a little bit, that your early percussion report cards did not look so shiny. Could you tell us a bit about those early years learning music? What did your music education look like?

Jason: It was the same kind of thing that I’m sure a lot of your listeners and readers can relate to, which is doing it because it’s fun. But, not being actually that serious about it, not necessarily putting a ton of time into it, not necessarily thinking about it as if “Oh, this is definitely going to be my career.” Right? Certainly, many of my colleagues in the Metropolitan Opera, and particularly string players, because they have a Suzuki method, which can start them, you know age three, four, five, sometimes like that. For me, it was nothing like that at all, right? I got into music, essentially as a fluke. And I was in fourth grade, and my elementary school music teacher just happened to bring in this brand new, [insonic 00:01:42] synthesizer that day in class. And I was just, it was captivating. I was like “Oh, that’s really cool.”

And it also just so happened at that time the Eddie Murphy movie, Beverly Hills Cop, was out in theaters. And it had that really iconic synthesized theme song called Axel F, you can find it on You Tube and as soon as you hear it, you will be like “Oh, yeah that one!” It’s very catchy. And so my teacher had programmed it into the keyboard. And I can only sort of surmise, in retrospect, that there was something about my sort of nacient interest in physics and engineering and technical things and what was just a generalized interest in music that came into focus in this moment. And I was like “Oh wow, this is really neat. You can have this like, computer machine doing this thing.” And so he played it and I was like “Oh wow.”

And I went home from school that day and my parent’s had like one of those very tiny, little Casio keyboards with like, you know, the half sized keys? And I just plunked around on it, trying to just by ear figure out the tune for Axel F. And I don’t know how close I got, I mean it probably was really butchered. But, they noticed me doing it and just you know asked “Oh, well okay, that’s kind of cool. Do you want piano lessons I guess?” And I said “Uh, sure. Okay, yeah, let’s do that.” Totally, you know, in a way, haphazard. Also, perfectly representing my parent’s role in this, which was endlessly and 100% supportive. Of really anything that I wanted to be doing, but with no pressure applied. You know, they were not the sort of typical, task master parents might imagine for people who are playing in the Met Orchestra, right?

But they were like “Hey, dude, you do you. Have fun, we just want to make sure you’re enjoying yourself, having fun.” And so I mean I continued playing piano up through, I think it was my junior or senior year of high school, but again, never seriously. I never made it past being able to play a couple of the Bach two part inventions. And even with that, I mean that took me years. I was basically a hobby. I sort of fell into percussion in the same way. Simply because in our school district, you couldn’t play percussion unless you’d had some piano already. And because I had, I was like “Oh, this is like exclusive. Like that’s the one I want to do.” Plus I mean, drumming just seemed cool. And so I started out with that. But yeah, I think the thing to which you are referring is one of my blog posts where I show the picture of my fifth grade band report card.

And it accurately identified that I was not applying myself, I was not consistently practicing, I wasn’t really notably getting better at it. I was just participating and having fun.

Christopher: And are you sure you’re allowed to say all this? Like I kind of have this feeling like someone’s going to bust down the door and tell us off for saying that you didn’t practice 20 hours a day from age three to get into the Met Orchestra.

Jason: Well, here’s the thing, right? And this gets to a core concept of deliberate practice, which I know you’ve talked about on, you know, on your podcast, it’s in your website, and it’s gaining increasing traction in broader education and pedagogy in popular culture. I think the take home from that should be that it’s not simply how much you practice. It’s also not simply trying hard. It is the combination of several very specific factors of putting in a lot of hours, working very hard, but in a very smart and efficient way. And so, I have this other graph, this chart that I made in one of my blog posts, where I was just trying to estimate my accumulated practice hours over time. Like basically, since that moment, when I started playing percussion, you know, what was that trajectory like?

And what I hope people take from this story is not “Oh hey, I can slack off and get to the Metropolitan Opera.” Far from it. Right? It is … It took me a long time to get started. It took me a long time to have that ignition point. Where I really started to figure out what I was doing and how to do it well. But, if you look at the trajectory of that graph, once I really started figuring that and applying myself, I accomplished more in the next three years of work than I had in the preceding 17. And so the point is not just when you start, it’s how you go about it. And oftentimes, when I’m encountering younger students that are working with me, I think people can often fall into sort of like negative self talk.

Or almost a paralysis. Agonizing over “Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? Am I talented?” And I think those are dramatically unhelpful questions. I have students… I say “Don’t ask yourself are you good enough right now. Rather, ask yourself am I willing to do the work?” Because doing that work over the long haul, that is what really makes the difference. That establishes your trajectory. And if you just think about you know, a piece of paper with a line on it, and the slope and the angle of it, you can cover … you will scale heights so much more quickly, depending on that trajectory. And that’s really what it’s all about. And one definition of deliberate practice is establishing that trajectory.

Christopher: Interesting. Well there is so much that is inspiring and instructive in your story, that I’m keen to dig into, but I think for a start, it’s just incredibly reassuring, I think. And I’m sure it will be to our listeners, that you didn’t just say “So I switched at the age of eight, and I practiced in this other way for 20 years. And then I was good enough to reach this you know, this world class performance position.” What you just said was; “I accomplished more in three years than the previous 17.” And I’m sure there are people who are listening who are somewhere on that 20 year time scale, if not longer. I know we have members that musically, who have been playing music for decades. But they feel like they haven’t really cracked it.

You know they haven’t really been making the progress they wanted to.

Jason: Yeah.

Christopher: And I love that you’re so mindful of the factors that let you make that dramatic change in your rate of progress. And so I’m really looking forward to digging into this. I don’t want to jump the gun though, because as I just said, you didn’t switch at the age of eight or in grade school and change. It took you, as you said, a few years to cotton on to that. So let’s just jump back, if you don’t mind, to that report card or that kind of period in your musical training. You choose drums because they were kind of an exclusive option you had access to, presumably you had a great love of pounding away at the drum kit. How did things progress from there?

Jason: And which kid doesn’t? Right? I mean come on.

Christopher: I bought myself a drum kit lately and I’m having a blast, it’s a whole new adventure for me. So I can imagine. I can imagine that teenage kid having a way in school, as you said, not taking it super seriously. Presumably not imagining one day you would be playing in one of the top orchestras in the world.

Jason: Oh, absolutely not. Yeah.

Christopher: And so what was going through your head at that phase? Did you have those kind of inner voices, you alluded to there? Talking about talent and whether you were good enough. Or were you genuinely just kind of enjoying it for the sake of enjoyment?

Jason: So I… again, I’m going to refer back to this graph that is in one of my blog posts. And you can feel free to you know, have a link to it. The listeners you can find it if you just Google my name. But, I mean being somebody with training in science and in math, I often conceptualize this stuff in a sort of visual spacial way. And if you think about lines on a graph like this, and shapes, there’s often what are called “inflection points.” And inflection points are where the trajectory noticeably changes. And when I thought back you know across my entire you know start, from that moment you know, taking, beginning piano lessons up to now. Starting my sixth season at the Metropolitan Opera, there were three fairly decisive inflection points.

And they all have something I think meaningful, associated with them. To kind of answer that question. And in a way, they all also perfectly map to some of the descriptions of the progression through deliberate practice intensity that Anders Ericsson describes in his book, Peak. And really, anybody who gets into anything, not just music, but I mean anything, at a high level and begins applying the principles of deliberate practice, whether or not they know they’re doing it, this is basically happening. And that they’ve had a series of these inflection points that have basically intensified their commitment and their energy dedication along the way. And so, you know, the very first one of course, was just this discovery of piano and starting playing percussion.

But then I really just kind of coasted along for years. Just having fun. And like you said, it was not part of my thinking that “Oh I’m going to be a professional musician.” It didn’t even occur to me that was an option. And even when I was having the most fun with it, I mean I was admittedly laboring under this previous myth, this paradigm of thinking that talent is something you are either born with or not. And that because I was not one of these kids on the fast track to this going to like an art high school and you know going to all the art summer camps, that was just not for me. Right? That I was not going to be doing that. The first big inflection point, it was in the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. And it happened when I met a girl. And I met a girl at summer camp. And the basic situation was that I was there with my buddy, and we were going to play in the camp talent show.

And we basically just formed a little rock band. And I was playing drums, and we were going to play in the talent show. We did and it was fun. And you know at this point, I was just the most awkward, nerdy, you know like voice cracking teenager out there. And lo and behold, after this performance, this beautiful girl like walked up to me and introduced herself. And said “Hey, I just really wanted to meet you. Like can we get breakfast tomorrow morning in the cafeteria of the camp?” And I was like “Yeah, that sounds great.” What transpired from there was kind of amazing. And she … so she was, herself a very dedicated musician. She was a bassoonist and a pianist. And in our conversations, she was saying “Oh well yeah, that was so exciting, that talent show performance was great. You’re a great drummer. You must be doing the All State Orchestra. Right?”

And I was like “Yeah. Definitely, totally am.” Just lying through my teeth right? Like I had no idea even what she was talking about. And so I literally went back to my friend, after this, who was himself an excellent musician. And I said “Hey man, what is All State Orchestra? I don’t even know what this is.” Now, for your listeners around the world, they probably have versions of this all over the place. But, in Minnesota, where I was growing up, this was the you know, sort of all star group of the state. And you would audition into it and it was the very best kids from all around the state. All the school districts would meet during the summer in a week long camp. And play orchestral music. Now, our high school did not even have an orchestra. I had never played in an orchestra before. I was completely unfamiliar with orchestral music. I knew nothing about any of this. But I said to my friend, “Okay, well if I wanted to do this, then I at least should probably start taking percussion lessons.”

He said, “Yeah, duh.” I’m like “You’re not already, you should be, so yeah, that’s a good place to start.” And for the next year I threw myself into this with, you know, as a sort of passion project unlike anything I had ever you know delved into in my life. Yet, at that point. I started buying as many recordings as I could. I went through the… people might remember the Deutsche Grammonphon, Mad About series, which is sort of like the collection of the greatest hits. And you know just devoured that. And you know in all honesty, was this a, at first, largely hormone fueled project? Yes. Yes it absolutely was. But it obviously evolved. It took on a different life. And you know, I kind of miraculously made it into the All State Orchestra.

And that next summer then, when I was performing, again this was my first experience playing with a live, symphonic orchestra, and it was life changing. It was one of these inflection points where it was like “Oh my God. I actually really love doing this.” I wasn’t that noticeably great at it yet. I mean I had gotten into to All State, but then again, lots of kids get into All State in high school, right? And many do not go on to the Metropolitan Opera. So this was early phase. But this was definitely an important, sort of turning on of my love of music and my connection to specifically orchestral and symphonic music. That was also right around the time where I started going to concerts downtown in Minneapolis with the Minnesota Orchestra. And seeing those guys playing those concerts, and specifically seeing one of my, sort of, idols, Peter Kogan playing timpani in the Minnesota Orchestra.

And that was another point where I thought “Ahh, timpani. This specific subset of percussion. This is really cool. That might be a thing I could love doing.” Right? But that was only the first inflection point. So I went to then, college. And I double majored in Physics and Music. But this was at a small, private, liberal arts college, right? Not at music and [symphonatory 00:17:20], not a place where I was pursuing it with any intention of it being a career. It was more just like a higher, more elevated hobby, right? I was passionate about it, but it was still not something where I was like “Oh, I could have a career.” And again, in retrospect, I think a lot of that was because I was still unknowingly laboring under this paradigm of talent. Where I saw those guys in the Minnesota Orchestra and thought “Oh my God, look at them on that pedestal. They are like Gods. They have something they were born with that lets them do this magical thing and I think it’s so cool, but that obviously is never going to be me.”

And so I just continued working at it and loving it, but not seriously considering it, right? The next inflection point was actually when I was in graduate school. So by this point, I had finished my under grad, I was at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for a PH.D. in Electrical Engineering. And you know I was doing this basically because that’s kind of always what I thought I was going to do. I had … I was very interested in physics and I enjoyed it and I was good at it. But I had this musical bug, at this point. And when I got to Grad school, I mean for anybody who might have been in other fields and [inaudible 00:18:46] on to Grad school in the sciences, you’ll know that it’s very, very specific. And very focused. Nothing like a liberal arts, under graduate experience, where you are kind of getting to do everything. This was … I was getting to do one thing.

And I was very much missing music. And so I tried to see if I could begin playing in the U.C. Santa Barbara Orchestra. And you know, the music department thought it was a little weird, because they were like “You’re a grad student in electrical engineering. What are you doing over here? But, I don’t know whatever. You like it, so we’ll let you do it.” And one of my friends in the orchestra sort of noticed this and said “You know, you really seem into this. Have you ever considered going to a music festival before?” And I was like “What? You mean like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza?” They were like “No, no, no. Like a summer festival for orchestral players.”

And I was like “Oh, well I didn’t even know this was a thing.” There’s this whole ecosystem right now that I was completely unaware of this. And they said “Yeah, something like Aspen, like the Aspen Music Festival. Like you make a CD, you audition, you can get in and then you go spend five to ten weeks during the summer playing music in this beautiful place.” I looked it up and I thought “Oh, yeah, that would be pretty cool.” Almost an exact repeat of my previous experience with All State, right? I busted my ass to do it, I made a CD, it got accepted. I went there that summer. And that was this next turning point where I started to see … I didn’t really have the vocabulary yet of Anders Ericsson’s work. And the notions of talent and what deliver practice meant. But I at least started to see that these great musicians were in fact, flesh and blood human beings.

I got to sit next to them in rehearsals, stand side by side on stage during performances. Dare I say hear them make little mistakes? Right? Realizing that they’re also human too. And I started to see then, in these ecosystems a path toward “Oh, maybe this is something I could do. I really do love this. Let me start to seriously consider this.” And from then, it was going to … you know, basically deciding that my love for music was going to be more intense than my interest in physics. I ended up getting my Master’s degree, and then moving to Chicago where I had a job offer. At this nanotechnology company where I then worked for ten years. From 2003 to 13, until I was at the Met. And basically Chicago was advantageous, because it had this training orchestra, with the Chicago Symphony called the Civic Orchestra. So this was all sort of part of my plan to be able to get there. You know, have a job, support myself.

But then continue my music project. And that’s essentially what I did. And you know, I was considering going back to graduate school for music. I then realized I could essentially roll my own, so to speak. And do the same thing. And just emulate what all my friends in graduate school in music were doing, but, on my own time. I sought out great teachers, I made sure to have you know, plenty of time to practice. I’d bought my own timpani. I did all of this. And really, in the next and final inflection point was when I started working with a great teacher and timpanist named John Tafoya at Indiana University.

Christopher: Maybe I could just jump in before we dive into that third inflection point. If that’s alright?

Jason: Yeah.

Christopher: And ask you to describe a little bit, because that’s a fascinating trajectory and story. And I want to make sure to understand what was changing in the way you approached music over that time. You know it’s clear that emotionally, you were feeling an increased commitment and enthusiasm and passion and maybe, to some degree, optimism or confidence about what might be in your musical future. But in the more practical terms, it sounded like, you know in that first inflection point, it was a matter of degree. Like you kind of immersed yourself in the music more, you, by the sounds of it, put in a lot of practice hours to get into that All State Orchestra. Was it a matter of just more and harder in that first inflection phase? Was that the step change for you?

Jason: Yeah. I think if you could break it down even more simply, the first one was just sort of more time and love. The second one was the realization … and so the first one was All State. The second one was Aspen and the realization that this could be a career. The first time that it had ever really occurred to me, that “Oh my God, maybe this is something I could do instead of Physics.” And in a way, once that kind of got lodged in my thinking, it was like this beautiful little virus. Like it never went away. You know I sort of went back to school and you know had to study like crazy for my Ph.D., screening exams and I passed them. But, I just … I didn’t have the same commitment level anymore, because I had this other thing that I’m like “Oh, you know I’m good at the physics thing, and it’s interesting. But, there’s this other thing that I actually love.”

Christopher: And that epiphany, I don’t know if it’s a meaningful question, but, how much was that from external observations versus internal? In a sense of, was it that Aspen experience looking at people who were doing it and being like “Oh yeah, they can do it, therefore I can.” Or was it more looking back at the progress you’d made and being like “Oh, okay. I am on this improvement path that I can see eventually ending up there.”?

Jason: It’s a little of both. And I mean I think, you know Anders Ericsson and others who have written about this, talk about the necessity of intrinsic motivation. But that this is really paramount to fuel all of this, because it will be so grueling and arduous over so long that you need … you know, it’s not going to be enough to be basically like horse whipped by other people. Right? And I always, you know, it’s I think sometimes difficult for me to see when there are those you know very task master oriented parents that might be saying, you know, “You have to go practice!” And the kid is crying and screaming “I don’t want to do this. I hate the violin.” Or whatever. It’s like I’m not certain that’s a recipe for long term satisfaction in this, right?

And I mean it’s funny because you can take that model and push it to the breaking point. And if people do that for long enough and put in long enough time, they may get to a point where they can win auditions in major orchestras. The problem then, is when they get there and realize “Oh [ding], I never liked this that much to begin with.” Right? And I mean I think we’ve all, we’ve all seen and met those people. And to me that’s a sort of tragic thing, because you know, in my perfect world, people discover what it is they love and they should be doing that. Like I’m not laboring under some sort of crazy illusion that “Oh everybody should be a musician.” I think everybody can enjoy the arts. I think everybody can enjoy music.

But whether you have the sort of personality and love and all of this, to dedicate to and fuel this insane kind of journey, that requires, I think, that self-discovery and the self-propulsion. Because otherwise, I think you can easily get to this point where you, against all odds, you arrive and then you realize “Oh, maybe I don’t love this.” And that’s where the cynicism can set in. And that’s where people become jaded and you know we all see this. We see people who show up to jobs and orchestras and they just kind of phone it in and they’re going through the motions and collecting a paycheck and going home. And to me, that’s just… it’s a tragedy.

And I think its illustrative of how this can be, you know, approached in a positive way, kind of from the very beginning. And I mean to sort of answer your previous question then, like in that process for me, that was discovering that energy and that intrinsic drive to do it. But the third inflection point, the time when I met John Tafoya. And he basically, you know he said “Yeah, you’re doing some great stuff, but you know there’s a lot more work you need to do if this is something that you want to pursue. You know what? I just read a book you might like. It’s called ‘Talent is Overrated’.” And that, changed my life. Because that was the first time I started to understand what I was doing in music and that it could be approached in a similar way to what I was doing in science.

Very basically. It was the point at which I started to realize that energy and love was not enough. But that it needed some real rigor. It needed the kind of methodical, systematic insanity basically that I was applying in my science career. And you know, take all of that same thinking and put it into music. And I think for a lot of people that sounds kind of intuitive at first. Because they’re like “Well no wait, I mean science is a very cut and dry. And there’s numbers and there’re experiments. But then music is all about art and emotion and feeling.” Right? And that’s true. But, it also then gets to what is my basic definition of musicality. And what I think it gets unaddressed, maybe? A lot in musical training and all of that. So that’s maybe a place we can, we can go next. But that was sort of the journey for me.

Christopher: Fascinating. Well I won’t ask you to summarize an entire book on the spot, but I think I do have to ask, beyond just that concept that scientific rigor can be useful in musical skill development. What was the message in “Talent is Overrated” that got you excited, or gave you a new perspective?

Jason: Well it was summarizing a lot of Anders Ericsson’s work that really showed very definitively that there is no real evidence, scientific evidence, for the existence of genetic talent. Or inherent talent. As it is commonly understood to be. It is not a quantity. It is nothing you can test for. There isn’t a gene for it. There’s no blood marker. There’s nothing, there’s no test that can be applied when you’re five years old to figure out do you have the talent for this thing. And I mean I think upon first encountering that concept, a lot of people will reflexively disavow it. And say “Oh yeah, but what about like Mozart? What about Einstein? These people are clearly geniuses and were born with this amazing thing.” And you know essentially, the answer that comes about when you study this enough, is that those iconic people in history, worked incredibly hard.

Like there is just … nobody gets there without working incredibly hard. There is no shortcut. And in fact that in a lot of cases, there are no obvious indications when people are young, that this is going to be the path, right? I actually, I got into this discussion with a Musicologist. Along the idea of like well, okay, you know Mozart died when he was really young. And it was tragic. But what if he had died when he was even 10 years younger? Right? We wouldn’t have got any of the Vienna Period. We wouldn’t have gotten the four, truly, what people consider the genius operas, right? Giovanni, Magic Flute, Cosi Fan Tutte, and Figaro, right? The things that we think of as like truly like this encapsulates Mozart’s incredible prowess and skill and his voice and all this stuff. If none of that had happened, and we had made it up through like the mid-Kochel numbers, like it’s not that history would have entirely forgotten Mozart.

But he would be listed alongside like you know, Stamitz and Pergolesi. And all of these people who are sort of like journeymen, musicians. Right? And composers. Like, yeah they were there, they helped things along, they were participating. Right? And it was really important to me, because you know, in these … in “Talent is Overrated,” and subsequently in “Peak”, Anders Ericsson talks about like what is, in a way, the formula to apply this and get really good at a thing. And you look at Mozart’s example and it’s like well sure, I mean if you start when you’re four years old. And you’re working with one of the greatest music teachers in Europe, at the time, which just happens to be your dad, and so you’re doing this like, 10, 12 hours a day.

From four years old to the age of you know, in your 20s. When you actually start doing stuff that is noteworthy, right? I mean, people forget that a huge bulk of Mozart’s early work is entirely derivative. I mean sometimes literally. He’s just like copying over other people’s work. And sometimes it’s his dad doing it and sometimes other people are filling it in. I mean, you don’t get like the Mozart we understand to be Mozart emerging until his mid to late 20s. That’s a huge … he’s been cranking on this for 20 years at that point, right? And I mean by the estimation of putting in tens of thousands of hours doing this, he was already kind of behind the curve, right? I was like “Dude, what took you so long?” Like start cranking out some 40th and 41st Symphony’s already, right?

Same thing with Einstein right? And in fact the same thing happens in all of the fields that have been studied about this. And I think there’s a particularly telling example, actually in chess. And so, you know sometimes then, when I have this conversation with people they might be like “Okay, well I get it. Like sure clearly, no one can get there without working very, very hard.” I guess I can, you know, assent to that. But, what about sometimes you start working with kids. You know, younger players. And they’re not all the same. Like certain kids pick things up quicker.

And they’re the ones that obviously have talent. And I would respond, and Anders Ericsson would respond “Well, do they? They have something, right?” Anyone who teaches, anyone who teaches music lessons can’t deny that people pick things up.

At different speeds. But, what does that really mean and what is that indicating? So there’s this really interesting study among chess players. Specifically chess grand masters. That was attempting to correlate I.Q., with tournament performance. The thinking being; well, chess is a very cerebral game, it makes sense that the highest I.Q., players will dominate this field. And you know, that’s what we’re going to prove here. Well, I.Q. is another one of those things were the more people have studied it, the less they understand it. Like they thought I.Q. was like this perfect measure of smartness and intelligence and essentially genetic intelligence. And that idea is basically falling apart now. The more people are looking at it, the more they are like “Actually, we don’t even know what we’re measuring. There are all these different problems with the test, it has all of these, you know, demographic and ethnic biases with it. And it’s kind of a mess.”

But it does correlate, roughly with some things. And they found like the higher I.Q. chess players were the ones that picked up the rules faster when they were kids. They took to it more quickly. But, very surprisingly, later in their careers, they found that there was an inverse correlation between grand master performance and I.Q. Basically, the lower I.Q. players are the ones that went on to dominate in tournaments. And they were like “Well, how can this be? This doesn’t make sense.” And the answer is basically pretty simple. The high I.Q. kids picked it up quickly and then they coasted. They went along with a flat trajectory. The kids that didn’t pick it up as quickly, had to work harder. And they had to work smarter. And they had to develop better processes for figuring out chess.

And what Anders Ericsson would say is that they had to establish and develop more sophisticated mental representations. That’s a big part of deliver practice that we can talk about later. But, essentially, they got smarter, more efficient, more scientific about studying and getting better at chess. So that while they may have started with a lower trajectory, they built up this machine in their process for trajectory improvement that eventually outmatched their competition. And when I started reading about some of those examples in these books, I realized “Oh, yeah like in a way, that’s kind of me.” Like I had a slow start, but I’m going about this in a way that’s different from some of my friends in the Timpani Audition circuit. I actually may have more advantages in this than I realized initially.

Christopher: That’s fascinating. I, like yourself, ‘Talent is Overrated,’ was the first book I read where I could point to it and be like “Yes, this is the thing I’ve been reaching for.” Like, I’ve had this feeling, like I’ve totally misrepresented the role of talent, or whatever that might be in musical success, musical enjoyment, musical achievement. But, when you’re handed a book that lays out, with case studies and research studies and you know all the anecdotal evidence you could want to balance out, for me that was life changing. Just to … it was validating. You know I haven’t had the career trajectory that you have in terms of adopting this and being like “Let’s see how far we can take it.” But I … it was certainly a huge part of what kind of redoubled my efforts in musical you and trying to enable people to achieve more of that kind of natural musicianship.

Because finally, I was like “you know there’s proof? You know I’m not just standing here saying you don’t need talent to learn this stuff. This has been fairly, clearly, concisely proven at this point.” And as you note there, it’s not just ‘Talent is Overrated,’ its not just that book or that idea, it’s not just you don’t need talent. It’s that there is actually a fairly clear methodology you can follow. You know there are concepts here that we can analyze and adopt to kind of put ourselves on a better trajectory. So I’d love to jump back into the story at that point, if you wouldn’t mind? And hear about your studies with that timpani teacher you mentioned, who gave you the book. Or, what you did in your own practice at that point to maybe adopt some of these principles or internalize them?

Jason: That’s yeah, that’s great. That’s absolutely awesome. And I mean, I think the closing comment on that idea for me, of talent being overrated, is that if you can really embrace that, it is ultimately freeing. I think a lot of times people … you know, on the one hand, like in my early case when I was young. I thought “Oh well this is off limits to me because I’m not talented.” It can also breed a certain fatalism that’s like “Oh well, I’m not even going to bother.

I’m not even going to try.” Right? And it’s real, I mean that was a turning point in my life, to realize “Oh, there’s a whole field of research out there that shows that that’s wrong and that we actually do have a tremendous amount of agency in this process.” That we are you know sort of the masters of our own trajectory. And one final point about it is that at least when I’m working with my students, and sometimes I do so in the context of this thing that I run in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the summer in July called the “Deliver Practice Bootcamp.”

But I’m very conscious to tell people: “There’s a difference between achieving you know, sort of like expert levels of skill. And success.” Success is a very loaded term, right? Success could mean a lot of different things to different people. And you know in my case, in the orchestra world, success is usually defined as like “Okay, you’re making it into an orchestra. You get a full-time job, you do that.” And you know it was certainly a goal of mine. You know, no doubt. Like I really wanted to be doing that. But I also had to realize, and fully accept, that might not happen. Right? And this is one of these other things I often have students ask themselves. Sort of as a measure of their commitment and their love of this. I just, I have them ask you know, if you knew ten years from now, after doing all of this work. And all of this stuff that we’re about to talk about, this whole grueling process.

If you hadn’t made it, if you didn’t have a job in a full-time orchestra, would it have been worth it? Right? Which is another way of saying do you love the idea of the outcome? Or do you love the process? Do you love the process of engaging in music and refining your craft, and doing all of that? Is it about that? Or is it about the job and the status and the glory and you know, all of that? Right? That, I think, could become very clarifying for people. Because I’m not going to surprise anyone by saying “There are not enough orchestral jobs out there for the people currently studying orchestral music.” Right? Far from it, it is a hugely competitive field. And you know for everybody that’s in it now, working away at it, many people will end up you know going off and doing other things. And being perfectly happy doing those things. And still, you know, continuing to keep music as a part of their life.

And that’s great, I think that’s awesome. But I think it’s important for people to kind of have that, orientation in mind. Like is it about the processes, is it about the outcome? For me, in my own work, I kind of realized very early on, I have … I’ve got to detach from the outcome, because so much of what is defined as success, is beyond my control. Right? There are all of these variables in the process that who knows? It is to a certain extent, random. The actor Bryan Cranston has a great YouTube video about this. And also an interview with Marc Maron where he talks about this exact same thing in his own career. And he said that there was this kind of turning point in his acting career where he just realized, you know the whole point. He said “I love to act. I want to do this as my craft. I’m just going to do it for that reason. And trust, that if I establish a good process, good things will come about as a result.”

“There will be these positive byproducts. But I can’t focus on those in real time.” And sure enough, one of those byproducts was Breaking Bad. So there you go, right?

Christopher: Yeah I think that’s a super valuable mindset. I love that question you ask your students. And I think it comes back to what you touched on before, and I’m really glad you did with that question of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Because like yourself, I’ve encountered that thing where, you know to me, that idea that there’s no talent, and it’s all about hard work and smart work, was really exciting and liberating and opened a whole new vista ahead of me. But, I definitely have encountered people for whom there’s that momentary excitement, and then they clearly shut down a bit. Because you know, with great potential comes great responsibility and that’s what we’re confronted with. You know? I could do this, I need to actually decide if I want to, and I’m willing to.

And as you say, you know, maybe what makes the difference with kids, it’s not the question of talent, it’s like how much do you want it? Do you have that intrinsic drive, is there something you feel like you want to dedicate your life to? And if you want to, you can, which is great news. But if actually all you want to do is dabble a bit and enjoy, you’re going to have to face up to that and not feel like it’s only the lack of talent that’s held you back.

Jason: Exactly. Well, so we’ve been sort of like flirting with this idea for a while. We talk about this process, this grueling thing, right? So that is deliberate practice, right? And that is what you know Geoff Colvin wrote about in ‘Talent is Overrated’ based on Anders Ericsson’s work. Anders Ericsson is you know, a preeminent researcher in this field, but not the only one. And a lot of people have sort of gotten involved in this now, looking at it. And the basic idea is that there is a sort of blueprint for what practicing looks like. In any field. Music, chess, golf, tennis, you know, anything like this. That everybody has in common. And that is necessary for achieving mastery.

And I’ve actually got a list right in front of me, I’ll just run it down because I think it’s useful for people to hear. Because this is really where the rubber hits the road, like you say. Because this, and applying this and putting tens of thousands of hours into it, I mean multiple hours a day, every day. For years and years. Right? That is where you start to realize, like do I love the process? Or do I just like to dabble? Right? The first aspect of it is that it’s designed. It’s not haphazard, right? You don’t just like show up, and you know, start knocking a few balls around on the driving range, you don’t go into the practice room and sit down with your timpani and start pounding away. You go in with a very specific set of goals.

You have a design, you know how much time you’re going to spend, you know why, you know what you’re working on. And that has all been you know, worked on with effective coaches and teachers. It’s been structured so that it’s pushing you outside your comfort zone. Right? You’re not just going over stuff you already know how to do, but you’re also not trying to tackle things that are far beyond your skill level at that point. Probably the most important part of this is that it incorporates continuous feedback. And this is the thing that I see probably is the most prominently missing aspect of a lot of younger musicians who have great intentions but they lack the rigor in their process yet to do this. And there are a lot of ways to get feedback. But I think one of the most important ones, is self-recording.

Buying one of these digital zoom recorders, you know something like the H4N, or the H4N Pro, or whatever. They’re a couple of hundred bucks. Recording yourself every day. Forcing yourself to listen back to the objective record of what you’ve been doing. And training yourself to be your own healthy critic. We could probably spend an hour talking about that. And everything that goes on with that. But that is and element of the feedback that we need, in order to get better. And if fact, there’s this famous quote that says; Practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain. Right? You’re just not going to get better and you’re going to stop caring about what happens because you know, if you think about how insane that is, that you’re throwing a bowling ball down the alley and you hear some sound. Like some pins get knocked over but you don’t even know. Like was that a spare, was that a strike, did I get one pin? What happened? It truly is like that.

If you’re not getting feedback, you have no idea whether your efforts, and all the time you are putting into this are making the kind of difference you want. You know related to this then, deliberate practice is going to be very mentally demanding. It’s going to require an incredible amount of focus, and concentration. It should leave you exhausted, by the end of it. If you’re doing it right. Because of all of these aspects of it, right, that you’re working on difficult things, you’re working outside of your comfort zone. These things are going to require massive repetition. You’re going to be drilling Etudes and exercises. Because of this, it’s not inherently fun or enjoyable. Right? And I should contrast this like, you know, it’s like oh sitting down and cracking a beer and watching a comedy.

That’s fun. Right? It’s not to say that deliberate practice isn’t rewarding, it’s rewarding. But I think of it the same way that you know, a lot of people might describe like running. Running is physically painful sometimes and grueling. And your lungs are screaming at you and your body might hurt, but you get done with it and you feel a certain sense of satisfaction. And accomplishment and it’s rewarding. And done right, practicing is like that. Right? And it’s in the moment, it is very grueling. Again, because you’re doing all of this stuff, like you’re basically holding up a mirror to all of your warts and deficiency’s and technical problems and focusing in intensely on those, for hours and hours at a time. Until you are utterly exhausted. Right?

It’s not going to be the most fun. Obviously this takes a lot of willpower, it takes being obsessed with this idea of refining your craft. You know? As you go along, you will begin to experience enhanced perception. This is another big point of Ericsson’s work, where like the more people do deliberate practice, like literally they will hear and see more detail and nuance and everything than people who haven’t been doing it as much. And for anybody out there who sort of rails at the notion of orchestra auditions, when you go and you play eight minutes of short excerpts, and people think “Oh, come on, I mean they only give me like five minutes to play. How could you possibly judge me as a musician based on so little time?”

Well, the answer is that the people sitting on the other side of the screen, have put in tens of thousands of hours and have a very enhanced set of ears to be able to listen to this. In my personal experience, you know we were having auditions at the Met and we will hear everybody. Right? Some people get a live audition, but everybody gets a chance to be heard via CD. Right? And so we will listen to these CD rounds, and sure enough, in most cases, I was 90% certain in how I was going to vote on a certain candidate. Within the first 15 seconds of the CD. Like it just didn’t take that much.

Because I had some very specific things I knew to listen for. And I was listening with this sort of like an enhanced perception. You can imagine almost like going through the world being born with vision that’s only black and white. And as you put in more practicing, you start to get like gray scale and then sepia tones, and then finally, eight bit color. And then finally full 24 bit color that you’re seeing the world in all of this detail, right? And finally, all of this then kind of informs the knowledge that goes into this. The term of art is domain specific knowledge. Things you just need to know and learn about the field. Music history and music theory and training and all of these kind of defined skills.
And then finally, this … informs these things that Anders Ericsson calls ‘mental representations.’ And they’re abstract. They’re actually fairly difficult to define. But if … you know, when I work with students, I’ll try to describe it this way; I say “Think about a piece of music that you know really well.” In our case it might be orchestral excerpt. On timpani, it’s something like the coda of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the first movement. And I say “Now sit down, like close your eyes. And just hear it playing in your head. Hear the most ideal version of that playing in your head. You performing it. What does that sound like? Play that track[inaudible 00:51:52], that is your mental representation.” It has to do with visualization.

It’s an idealized structure. And the point is that, that thing will grow and evolve over time. As you become aware of all these other elements about it that can be refined. And you put all this together now. All this stuff that I just rattled off. And you get this process that when you zoom back far enough, you look at it and you are like “Oh, wait okay. So I’m going to go into this with some ideas of things I want to change. And ideas of ways that I might go about it that might help me practice. I’m going to make sure to get a lot of feedback along the way. I’m going to look at that feedback, see if it’s been successful. Compare it to what I was trying to do.” Well, if anyone is really paying attention here, they realize I just rattled off the scientific method. Right? Deliberate practice is essentially just the scientific method applied to music.

Scientific method being you formulate a hypothesis. And a prediction. And you do experiments, and you gather data and you analyze the data and you see how it compared to the hypothesis. And you repeat. Right? Well, there we go. Sure enough, it turns out that this unifying principle for how you get good at anything, is deliberate practice. And deliberate practice is just the scientific method applied to that. When I really encountered this, and started to figure this all out in like the 2007, 08, 09 frame, when I first encountered that book, it was revelatory, because I was like “Oh, right. The scientific method? That’s something I already know how to do pretty well. I just need to start applying that kind of thinking and work and rigor to my love of music.”

Christopher: Awesome.

That was a tremendous run down of deliberate practice. Thank you. I think one of the things that’s most remarkable about you and your story is that you are not just someone who is expert in the principles and ideas of deliberate practice, but you are someone who has really applied them in a thoughtful way in your own life and seen results. So I want to dive into maybe some practical examples of what this looked like for you as a semi-professional, or aspiring professional timpanist. But before I do, I want to ask a slightly obnoxious question. Which is maybe on the mind of some people as they hear you talk about approaching music with the scientific method. And that is; is that not taking all the magic out of music?

Jason: So you just hit on … I’m really glad we’re going to talk about this because this is something I encounter quite a bit. And I feel like I’m just on a mission to kind of reorient thinking about this. And the basic idea is one that I encounter with students and you know, sometimes, professionals and critics and all this other stuff. And sometimes it’s stated explicitly, and sometimes it’s sort of the undercurrent of the conversation. But, it’s this idea that you have an access and on the one end of the access, you have technical excellence and on the other end of the access you have musical excitement. Or you have energy, or artfulness, or something.

And these exist in opposition to each other as if you know, one compromises the other. And that if you go in the direction of one, you are necessarily sacrificing the other. I don’t know where that came from. I’m curious to kind of understand the growth and evolution of that idea. But I want to emphatically say that it is absolutely, completely dead wrong. That in fact, these things are mutually reinforcing. And I would go so far as to say that my whole sort of self-revelation in this, in embracing the idea of deliberate practice, and this process, was realizing and redefining what musicality, what musicianship really is.

And even what art really is. And why we’re doing any of this. I define musicality very specifically. I say “Musicality is being clearly, emotionally communicative.” Simple definition. Right? And on the surface, it’s like well, okay. I guess I’m not going to argue with that too much. But there’s a big emphasis on clearly. Being clearly communicative. Right? Because I might have something, you know, really, interesting to say. Or like you know you might come up with a good line that’s like [inaudible 00:58:33]. What’d you say? Couldn’t you hear me? I said [inaudible 00:58:38].

It’s like Kenny in Southpark, right? What I just said was to be or not to be? That is the question. But if I can’t articulate it, and if I can’t say it clearly, if it’s muffled, if it’s being distorted by other stuff, no one’s going to know or care. And this was the point in my musical growth where I realized I was going into it with all of the intention, with all of the energy, with all of the love. What I lacked was the clarity. What I lacked was the ability for my musical ideas, and my energy and my commitment to all of this, to be translated. Because that relies on a bedrock and foundation of technique. And there’s just really no other way to put it. And if you think about it as you know, the corollary and visual arts.

Say you’ve got like a sketch artist who wants to you know, put together a really compelling facial rendering. Or a portrait, or you know this beautiful picture. And capture all these things about sort of the emotion of that glance. And the lighting and everything else. But they don’t know how to draw a straight line. They can’t draw a straight line. Right? Like well, if you can’t draw a straight line, you’re never going to draw a compelling picture. And so for me, this got me thinking about “Oh, wait. The whole reason for this process is to develop the chops and the listening and the ears, and all of this other stuff. In order to be able to communicate emotionally more clearly.”

And that for me, is the name of the game. That’s why these things do not exist in some sort of false dichotomy. There’s not diametric opposition to this. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing. And you know, frankly, yeah are there people who can just kind of like sit down and like grind through all the drills and get you know, technically competent, but might lack some soul? Sure, that can exist. But, I would say probably two things to that. First of all, you can hear that. Like soulless playing is obvious, right? When it is just bland and technical, that’s super clear from the other side of the screen, from the concert hall. Anywhere. It’s not compelling, it doesn’t grab you.

And second of all, lacking that kind of love being channeled into the process, I don’t think those people are going to last very long. Again, for all the reasons we talked about. That it requires this intrinsic commitment. Almost this, a kind of obsessive madness to be refining this craft.

Christopher: That’s fascinating. And I want to pick up in a minute and talk about your deliberate practice in particular. But the scenario you painted a picture of there, of the audition situation, where your critical ear was able to pick up on things that others, including probably the players themselves, were oblivious to. You talked about the mental representations there. Before we move on, I wanted to just ask; how much is that something you can articulate? Like if I asked you, what’s the different between a technically competent timpani performance and one that is expressive and compelling, or has soul. Is that something that you can put into words? Or is it an instinctive thing in your head that you’ve come to understand through those hours of practice?

Jason: So I think maybe the easiest way to answer that is that I have a whole sort of, other session or tract of teaching that’s related to that bootcamp. And there’s part of it that’s focused specifically on timpanists. And it’s called the “Northland Timpani Summit.” It’s in Minnesota. And we walk through a lot of examples of orchestral repertoire. And orchestral excerpts. Where there are sorts of the obvious, base level things that you need to be working out. That would take a lot of time. This is the rigor, right? And I show a structure. Again, I think about a lot of this stuff visually, graphically. And to me, there is this sort of natural and obvious picture of this that is a … like a three legged stool.

With a pyramid on top of it. In which we try to capture all of the different elements of musicianship. And figure out how to focus and prioritize in the different times. The three legs of the stool, for me, are time and rhythm and intonation. Because they are so basic, so fundamental, they are completely objective. Right? Like a computer can measure these things and give you a read out and essentially all musicians aught to be able to agree on this. This happens behind the screen at auditions. I might not know the first thing about how you make an oboe reed, I am unfamiliar with all the different schools of playing, and the sort of sound concepts they have. But I can tell you if they’re in tune, whether they’re rushing. Right? That’s … we have that all in common.

The next level up on the structure for me is clarity. And evenness. And that comes about with the control and the chops that it takes to keep things even and you know, controlling the instrument and being you know, demonstrating that. That also sort of translates into confidence. Now above that, you start to get to the more interesting stuff. These are the more subjective kinds of layers, because you have things like phrasing, and tone, and style, and energy, and all of these different variables that ultimately make the musician. This is what sells it. This is what really, ultimately communicates. But, back to my previous statement of this is all about clear communication, you might have a really fabulous understanding of like a Baroque historical style, and all of the phrasing to go with it. And the tone is just right.

Maybe you’re playing with gut strings or something. But if you’re rushing the [ding] out of it and you’re like completely not in tune, no one is going to care. They’re going to be like “Oh that was, that was not great.” Right? It needs that support structure. Now, implicit in this is that as you move upward on this thing with these different priorities, you get to the things that are more subjective. But even there, I took this approach to it that was again, rather scientific, and sort of learned some interesting things I think, about musical communication along the way. Take for instance, phrasing. Right? People will say “Oh well, you know you can phrase it this way. You can phrase it that way. Some people phrase it this way.”

Phrasing is musical communication. Almost perfectly embodied. Right? It’s the rise and fall of a phrase. It’s how the line moves. It’s what about that grabs you. And it’s subjective. But, and this is what I really try to point out to students, are all of your options created equal? I would argue no. I would argue if you want to be clearly communicative, if you want that performance to be felt, try them out. Get a group of people together, and workshop it. Basically, focus group this thing. Right? Get 10 musicians in a room, people that you really, you know you respect. And they’re good players, they have good ears, they know the repertoire. And try it out three different ways.

And I do this with a timpani excerpt that’s often asked, from Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis. And it’s a very simple [licks 01:06:32] timpani, so it’s only four notes. It’s four drums, it goes yum, pompa, bom bom. Da, da, dada dum. Right? And I’m like okay, we’ll do this simple three different ways. Play it completely flat, play it with a reverse hairpin, and then play it with a hairpin. And try them out. And inevitably, when we do this, the people in the room, you know one person might like it completely flat. One person might like the reverse hair pin, eight people like the hairpin phrase. And I’ve done this time and time again. There is something going on there. And I was like “Wow, that’s fascinating.” So there’s a way to think about musical decision making, artistry and communication that can be more rigorous.

Even though it’s subjective. Like if the goal is communicating, like let’s think about what’s really getting across to people. And then, you know, you can sit down and you can really deconstruct it. I’m like “Okay, right so this phrase is F, D, C, A, A, F, D, D, C, D.” Your D minor. So in a way, it’s a phrase that’s kind of like a call and response. Going to the dominant and then arriving at the tarmac. It’s kind of like setting up a question and then answering it. And then in thinking about phrasing, I was like “Oh, right. So what happens when we ask a question? And then we deliver a answer.” There’s a natural rise to our voice and then sort of a fall. That shape, in music making, makes a lot of sense related to the harmony of that passage and what’s going on in its function.

Could anybody else go in and play that phrase subjectively different ways? Sure they could. Will that grab necessarily the most number of people? Probably not, right? So you take that like one example of two measures, and then you start to extrapolate it out over the entirety of the music that you will perform, and you have essentially, this infinite life project of working on how can I make this better? How can I make this more clearly felt? How can I support the music that’s happening? Or especially in my job. The drama. The very literal drama of the story that we’re trying to communicate to the audience.

Christopher: That is truly fascinating. You’re reminding me of my days when I was an RA at the Center for Digital Music in London. And I had colleagues that worked at Goldsmiths in the Center for Computational Musicology there, and there were fairly extensive debates on the subject of you know, can computers truly understand music. You know obviously they can understand MIDI for example, and what is specifically being played. But in terms of that spirit of music, that expressiveness that we as humans care about, can they understand it? Can they play it? Is it purely, at the end of the day, something you can analyze? And I love the way you talked about that because you weren’t saying you know, there is a right and wrong, robots can do this.

You were talking about humans and communication, which is a very human thing. And as you say, you know, it’s subjective but that doesn’t mean all truths are equal.

Jason: Well right. In a way, it’s like you know, expecting a computer to be able to communicate fluently and clearly, is why so many people get frustrated with Siri. Right? Like there are nuances of meaning in linguistics and communication. That can be very difficult to codify. And they’re always changing right? What kids these days say, is different than what kids said ten years ago. And there is a … you know, a living component to that. But I mean I think it all exists equally, if not even more in this sort of musical language.

Christopher: Well I feel like we could go deep and unpack this even further. But, I do want to loop back to that scene of you having that light bulb of “Okay, this deliberate practice thing, this is kind of like the scientific method. This is kind of what I’ve been edging towards and now I have a name to put on it.” What was the kind of before and after for you? If we’re imagining you as someone who was putting in the hours each day, aspiring to an orchestra position, playing timpani. How had you been spending that practice time and what impacted did deliberate practice have on it?

Jason: This is a great question. And I’ll take two really prominent examples that I try to get my student’s working with as quickly as possible. And it relates back to both, you know the idea of feedback. That is a critical part of deliberate practice. And then also the idea of domain specific knowledge. For myself, I just started getting much more rigorous. Systematic and methodical about each of them. I was recording myself all of the time. I was listening back to it. I started to develop a very specific way in which I would listen back to it. Listening back to a certain passage ten different times. Each time focusing on a different element of this kind of pyramid structure that I described. One time listening sort of holistically. The next time focusing on just on time.

The next time focusing just on rhythm, the next time intonation, clarity, phrasing, style, tone, right? All of that stuff. All the way on up there. Doing this over enough time, I started to have this huge pile of digital recordings, and to be clear, a lot of this just for me emerged organically. Sort of necessity is the mother of invention. But I started to come up with this way to archive all of my different recording, and simultaneously keep track of all of my practicing notes. Because one other element of this, for myself, the rigor translated from being a lab scientist, where you have a lab notebook and you’re constantly documenting everything you are doing and why. Right? What are you using, what happened, how did it work? Right?

I had, you know, both a written book but then also a growing sort of digital practice journal about all of this stuff. And it was becoming incredibly unwieldy. It was like hundreds of pages long, Microsoft Word document and I would have to do a control F to search through there and find all the different references to like, you know, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and like what this teacher said about it, and that teacher said. And it was just kind of ridiculous. At the same time, I had all of my music organized in these plastic sheet protectors in three-ring binders that had all of these Post-it notes all over them. And layers and layers of Post-it Notes, going back to try, and figure out what I was doing was like an archeological dig.

You know? And it was insane. And after a while, I was like … you know, because you prepare an orchestral audition, you have a certain amount of repertoire you will come back to it. Again, and again and again. But sometimes, it might be six months, a year, 18 months before you come back to a certain piece. A long time had elapsed that I had sort of forgotten, like “Well, wait. Okay, how am I approaching this one? What phrasing decisions had I made about this? I marked two things in the part and I scratched one out, I don’t remember which is which.” And I decided on this sticking, right, right, left. Or was it right, left, right? Oh [ding].

And so again, that was, to me, as a scientist, that was just sloppy process. I just started to get better about the process so that I was making audio recordings and video recordings. Of myself doing this stuff. Every time during a audition preparation process, I would document my best of, and keep that as a reference. Audio, video. I could see exactly what I was doing. And I had this whole archive of notes to go with it that I would … and literally, I would just keep track of this in Itunes. And I would drop all of this stuff into the Lyrics tab of the specific MP3. So that I would now have associated with that specific recording, all of the relevant notes, the decisions I had made. The recommendations from teachers, the feedback I’d gotten from audition committees, where I had gone to play it. Different phrasing decisions I had made. Right? All the different times I had performed it.

This running history that is in every way, the embodiment of the domain specific knowledge that is going along with this. Plus, an audio and video record of what I was working on. But here’s the even more critical thing related to the sort of abstracting we were talking about before. This mental representations, right? I would listen back to this thing that’s like my best of, I would compare it to the previous best of that I had logged maybe six months, twelve months before. And I would make notes saying like “Great. Recording number seven is better than recording number six in the following concrete ways. This improved, this improved. I have better control over this. My tone is better. All of these things have improved.”

Now I’m listening to version seven and I’m still hearing things I want to improve. But I just haven’t gotten there yet. So for version eight, lets work on the following, boom this part, making it more even. Boom, making sure this part is more in the pocket. This, this, and this. Essentially documenting my mental representation. Because in reality, what was happening is that I had an idealized version in my head that I could hear. The ideal version being the best, most perfect thing I could conceive of. And then I would compare the reality of the recording, and I’d be like “Okay. They’re different. They’re different in the following ways. Here’s how I inch this along further to the next you know, the next yard line down the field.”

And doing that, for years, basically produced this archive of my work, that almost very literally, sonically maps this trajectory. I can listen to 15 or 20 different takes of me playing the same exact material, over years, and now I listen back to it and I hear that first one, and I’m like “Yikes, that’s rough.” Right? Simply because I’m listening to it with all of the enhanced perception and work that I put into it. And realizing that at the time, back in 2007 or whatever, that truly was, that was my best of. I recorded it, I played it, I’m like “Yes, I can be proud of this. This is … this represents the best of what I can do right now.”

And here’s the crazy thing, like that process never ends. You are never done. It’s not like you get to the Met, and you’re like “Great, cool. I’m as good as I’m ever going to be.” No, far from it. It’s continued through my first you know, several seasons. And I hope will continue as long as I have these sort of body and capacity to continue doing that.

Christopher: Well that’s tremendous. We make a throw away comment sometimes at Musical U, when we’re talking about recording yourself. And you know, we mostly focusing on you know, in the context of one practice session. Listening back, trying to be objective, learn what you can. But we sometimes make the comment, you know, don’t throw the recordings away, because it’s going to be really nice a couple months down the line to listen back and realize how far you’ve come. But I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone doing it as methodically as you just described. And it’s a beautiful implementation of that concept.

That you can self-assess, that you can be critical of your own work and that you can continually improve it on that basis.

Jason: At the end of the day, everyone will have to become their own best teacher. Right? Like you definitely need a teacher. You need a coach, you need somebody who can hear you and see you in ways that you can’t see yourself. And solve, help you solve problems that you don’t know how to solve yet. But almost all of the time, is going to be spent on your own. Right? When I go back and think about the number of lesson hours I had, versus the amount of solitary time spent in the practice room, I mean the ratio is like 99 to one or something like that. Right? It’s incredible.

And when you think about it that way, like you really want to make sure that those 99 hours versus the one hour in the practice room are spent as productively and efficiently as possible. With you teaching yourself and doing as much of that on your own time as you possibly can. And for me, yeah that was this other light bulb in realizing “Oh sure, if deliberate practice is the scientific method applied to music, then I can absolutely approach this process with a self-improvement rigor that allows me to solve a lot of this stuff on my own time.” Right? And I say this to students. Right?

Like the reason I insist that my students do so much self recording is that I’m perfectly happy to have a timpani lesson where somebody walks in and pays me my lesson fee. And I sit there, and I say “you know what? That’s sharp, that’s flat, that’s rushing, that’s dragging. Okay, see you next week.” But that’s [ding], right? They don’t need me for that. And frankly, that’s not for me the most exciting kind of lesson. That’s just like boring base level stuff. They could’ve self-diagnosed that all on their own with their recorder. The much more interesting lesson to me is a student walks in and says “You know what? I’ve been practicing this certain way. I’ve heard and fixed a lot of these problems, but there’s one spot here where I always seem to be misplacing the note rhythmically, and I can’t figure out why.”

“Can you help me figure out why?” Ahh, yes! Now this is interesting. This isn’t a dialogue, this is problem solving. This is what I find so fascinating about teaching, is being a participant now in the scientific method of somebody else’s musical growth. And sometimes it’s their own internalized pulse and their sense of rhythm. Sometimes there is a physical, technical aspect going on, where it’s “Oh, you need to do it this way, not that way. This one part of your playing is inhibiting this thing and that’s why the rhythm isn’t right.” You know? There’s this sort of infinite, trouble shooting process that can go on. But for me, that’s really interesting teaching.

And again, yeah, don’t throw away the recordings. Those things are incredibly useful learning tools.

Christopher: So we’re talking, or we have been talking in the context of you kind of studying up for auditions. You’re already at a very high level in terms of technical proficiency. But we’ve also been referring to your work with student’s and on that bootcamp, for example, I wanted to ask you a little bit about when all of this becomes relevant. Because I don’t want our listener to assume that you know, you described that pyramid. Is it the case that they need to master each level before they can consider the next one?

Jason: Certainly not. Certainly not. It all works in tandem. But it’s, you almost think about it like what is the you know, sort of balance of assets in your musical portfolio. To take some, you know, terrible financial analogy. But what I find with students a lot of the time is that you need to be working on it all together. You need to be aware of it all together. But usually the stuff on the bottom, is going to take a lot more time to master. And in a way, what I find consistently, is that a lot of younger musicians’ sort of like to run before they can crawl and walk. Simply because dealing with tone, and phrasing and style and all this stuff, is kind of more fun. Because it’s the more interesting part, right? Like going in and just like grinding out exercises and Etudes to improve time, rhythm, intonation and clarity, that’s the not fun part.

Well, the thing is though, that a lot of people are going into it that way and skipping the not fun part, because it’s not fun. And then they show up at auditions and wonder why they get cut. And you know, in a way, when I talk about this with student’s too, I’m like the fundamentals are the gate keepers to this. Right? You can think of like of the hundred or two hundred people that might be showing up to an audition, you can sort of stack the deck in your favor, by being the person that invests in this pyramid of musical qualities with a sensible allocation. Right? Giving yourself the ability not to get cut in prelims, because you can’t play in tune. Right? You do all this stuff in order for people to be able to appreciate all of the higher elements of your playing. And to be clearly, emotionally communicative.

Christopher: I love it. We talk, fairly often on this show, about the surprising advantages that adult learners sometimes have over younger students. Because you know, a lot of our audience are adult musicians.

Jason: Sure.

Christopher: And often feel inhibited by that. You know what we talked about earlier, about kind of it never being too late to make this rapid progress is fantastic. But there’s also that kind of psychological thing of feeling like you don’t learn as quickly or that your limited. But I think in what you just described, it really jumped out at me that it comes back again, to that intrinsic motivation thing. You know the student who walks up and needs you to walk them through doing the simple kind of technical stuff. They probably didn’t bother to practice between lessons because they weren’t really feeling the enthusiasm.

Whereas the student who walks up having really kind of mastered that ground level of the stool and looking for your input on the problem solving, or the more subtle things, that’s probably a person with intrinsic motivation who has been willing to kind of put in the practice time in between and make sure that they took care of everything they could before they came back to you as a teacher. And I think that’s something that you know, adults definitely have the edge on, because we can have that self awareness to know, okay, it’s probably not worth me going to the lesson if I have taken care of all that other stuff.

Jason: That’s absolutely right. Yeah. And I mean, I say this to student’s all the time. Doing the work is the measure of your commitment to the art form. Right? And it’s not to say that if you don’t do the work, you don’t care about it at all. This is all like a sliding scale. Right? Of like people who dabble, people who dabble heavily, people who love it but just don’t have the time to invest. There’s no point in which this is not a binary switch. Right? It’s just basically scalable to the amount of time, energy, and resources that you can and are willing to commit. And where you know, and the thing is that I basically like meeting people wherever they are at on that sliding scale. But certainly, when that investment can be the highest, is when that trajectory is the steepest, upward, impressive climb.

You know? And it is then thrilling as a teacher to see students make some of these improvements and these leaps and bounds very quickly. And in a way it’s just vicariously thrilling because I remember myself, like what that felt like. And that… being able to sort of reexperience the joy of that. Is really tremendous.

Christopher: Cool. And so then, let’s come back to that, because you’ve described it both as a grueling process and just now as a joyful one. So that period where you were really going hard for the auditions, and really kind of applying these principles to make sure you got the best bang for your buck in terms of practice hours put in. What were those years like and how did things progress in your career from there?

Jason: Yeah. Great question. So I mean this… I think we’ll inevitably touch on an element of performance psychology. And you know, your listeners may be aware of this website called “Bulletproof Musician.” And a really fabulous guy, Noa Kageyama, who teaches at Julliard. He actually just lives down, same neighborhood as I do. But I actually just recorded a whole podcast interview with him about some of these concepts. So we take on a deeper dive into the performance psychology and mindset aspects of this. But I mean to try, and answer your question the most simply, in a way, I think people can also unnecessarily divide these things. For something that’s either fun or its difficult.

Either it’s you know, rewarding or it’s awful. And really I think what work and music and the process of deliberate practice is like, is the merging of these two things. Where it’s essentially an excruciating passion. And to try and break that down, I mean you know, on the one hand you always remain painfully aware of your own deficiencies. This process depends on you being honest about that. And being able to self-diagnose and improve. And that never goes away, right? Again, I said this before, that the improvement curve is endless. You never arrive. And unto this day, I will categorically state that I am always, perpetually, slightly dissatisfied with my playing. And that’s what keeps me improving for the next performance and the next season.

And my next run through a given opera or a given composer. Or whatever. And you have to be comfortable with that. You really have to develop this like intimate relationship with failure and with feeling insufficient. With feeling like this is not good enough. And that’s always the way it’s going to be. You actually have to enjoy that, right? I mean and not to get to crazy about that, but there is almost a little bit of masochism involved in that, right? And in what I think is essential is that kind of people figure out a way to harness that and control it without it metastasizing into some really dark places, and very negative self-talk. And just you know, almost this self-loathing of like you know, I’m never going to be good enough.

Rather it’s I can always be better. And that’s exciting. Psychologically then, I realized after a while, that I possessed this fairly decisive advantage going into these orchestra auditions. Precisely because I could do it as long as I needed to. Right? A: I was enjoying the process. I just like the refinement of this and the application of my sort of scientific thinking to this art that I loved. B: I had a full-time job. I was paying the rent, paying my mortgage, right? I had instruments. My efforts in this have no expiration date. And that, is a big deal, because a lot of people go into auditioning thinking, “You know what? I’m going to give this a solid two years, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to find something else to do.” And there’s, I mean, a kind of pragmatism involved in that. It’s like well, yeah, you need to be spending all this time doing it. And then at some point, like you’re going to want to have a family or something else.

Or like you’re tired of working at Starbucks, or like whatever it is. But that is applying a sort of arbitrary deadline to this process whose outcomes you don’t have full control over. And so this is … I mean the other thing I tell students is look, if you can be rigorous and deliberate about this, you will automatically put yourself in the sort of top ten to twenty percent of people who are allocating their portfolio correctly. To be able to win people over, have fundamentals under control, be confident and be clearly, emotionally communicative. Okay?

Step two: do it for a long time. It’s ultimately just about shots on goal, right? For me it was 28. The Met was my 28th audition. And I know people who have taken 50 auditions, 60 auditions, right? And to be clear, it’s not like my 25, 26, and 27th auditions were garbage. Like I wasn’t that different a player. It was just in those situations, there were other variables going on. And the starts didn’t align. You just want to make sure you’re at … that you’re there often enough to have the chance. I sometimes make the analogy that it’s like a really high, minimum bet poker table. Right? The minimum bet, that’s something that you can control. For sure. And that in my analogy is the putting in of those hours, that’s the deliberate practice process.

You’ve got to arrive at the minimum bet. At that point, then you get dealt a hand. And you’ve got to be good about it. I mean you’ve got to know what you are doing. But you can’t control the hand you’re dealt. And that’s going to be true of any of these auditions. So you need to approach it knowing like its probably going to take a while. It’s going to take some time. I did an actual survey of our orchestra, just asking, you know, “What age were you when you won your audition with the Met Orchestra? How many auditions had you taken?” And you know a lot of times we tend to I think fixate on the outliers in situations like this. The kids that win jobs right out of school, because that’s exciting.

And of course, the schools want to market that, because it completely fits their business model of saying you know, “Come to Julliard. Come to Curtis.” You know? “Our graduates win jobs immediately.” That’s just statistically false, right? It’s not true, the majority of the time. Usually people are in their late 20s or early 30s, after having taken ten to twenty auditions. That’s just the reality of it. So there’s a sustainability involved that gets right back to the idea of loving the process, being able to do it for a long time, embracing that excruciating passion, right? And if you can do it with that sustainability, and removing the fear and pressure of any one of these auditions, then you’re just going to be in so much better of a place. It’s freeing, right? That was the advantage I felt.

Going into auditions knowing that I wanted it, but I didn’t need it. Right? Like my life was not going to end if I didn’t walk away with the job. And that was huge.

Christopher: Amazing. Well I think like so much of what we’ve talked about today, obviously there’s a specific story there about your own trajectory and where it’s brought you and that kind of success story. But, it was all, I think, so applicable for almost any musical life. You know from the principles of deliberate practice, to the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, to that kind of mindset of I’m going to be okay with failures on the way. I’m going to be okay with not being perfect, and see that as an opportunity rather than a critique of myself. Or a limiting factor. And I hope everyone listening has really been encouraged and inspired in a whole lot of ways while listening to this, because Jason, I do think your story is … it’s a beautiful success story.

You know just kind of stepping back and taking the kind of two sentence precis, it’s great that you kind of persisted that you had this sharp point of inflection in your progress. And that it has, I don’t want to say “ended”, but it has culminated so far in this world leading orchestra position. But I am so glad that we did not do the two sentence version. And that we’ve had the chance to unpack it, because there is such rich wisdom I think, in the way you’ve gone about it. And I just want to thank you for the clarity of explanation you’ve brought to it today, because I think you have related it in a way that everyone will be able to understand and apply to their own lives. So I want to wrap up by asking obviously, you know, playing in the Met Opera Orchestra is not a small task.

That must take up a great amount of your time. But, you mentioned a couple of other projects there, the North Land Timpani Summit and the Deliberate Practice Bootcamp. I’d love to hear a bit more about those and in particular, if people have been inspired and encouraged and made curious by listening to you talk about these things today, where can they go to get a lot more of Jason Haaheim?

Jason: Well thanks Christopher, I mean its, I love talking about this stuff, I feel like it is a privileged to be able to do so from the perspective of this you know, wonderful career at the Metropolitan Opera. Right? It’s something I don’t take lightly. It’s a ton of work, it’s also very grueling. But it is, you know, I never lose sight of the fact that it could have gone so many other ways. Right? And the fact that I get to do this now, and that you know, some of the highest levels in the world. And then get to talk about it with people. I mean it’s truly awesome.

And so, you know so I try to talk about it in a variety of different ways. And sort of like share the love. So I have my blog. Its just jasonhaaheim.com, where I’ve started writing about some of these ideas and have a whole lot more lined up. When I can scare up the time to sit down and write. You already mentioned, you know, these two summer projects I have where there’s a Deliberate Practice Bootcamp that is open to all instrumentalists. And we go through this, you know, a lot of the stuff we touched on in this last session here. And how people can approach deliberate practice and apply it to their own playing.

And then you know, intimately, conjoined with that is a session specific to timpanists, who are interested in improving on timpani. And you know applying that to the specific craft of our instrument and taking timpani auditions. And then finally, related to that, I’ve tried to encapsulate this in a two year, timpani specific master’s degree program at NYU, New York University, where I teach. It’s something we’re rolling out in just the next couple of weeks. And you know that’s a chance to get to work with students at that high level. People who are really interested in taking orchestral auditions, you know, improving on timpani and then doing so according to this framework of deliberate practice. And in fact, at NYU, there’s a very similar class that I teach that’s related to that deliberate practice bootcamp.

Where there’s any of the instrumental students at NYU can take this. And we go through all of this stuff over an entire semester. And it’s a ton of fun.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well I certainly applaud you for doing all of that to get these ideas out there, because I think they can be so transformational for people’s musical success and enjoyment and fulfillment. For anyone listening, I will just say Haaheim is spelled H-A-A-H-E-I-M. So you can go to jasonhaaheim.com for Jason’s blog and links to those projects. And of course, we will have direct links in the show notes of this episode of Musicalitypodcast.com. All that remains is to say a huge thank you again, Jason. This has been a pure delight for me and I’m sure my listeners have learned a ton along the way too. So thank you for sharing so openly and yeah, again just to applaud you in the message you’re getting out there and how well you’re doing that.

Jason: Again, thank you. It’s a privilege, I love to be able to do this stuff. Any listeners who are interested, I mean, they can get in touch with me through my website, through a variety of means. If they have questions, they’d like to follow up, I’d love to hear from them.

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