I’m into scales right now. —John ColtraneJohn Coltrane
Fundamentals are the launching pad for expertise. Every field has them: they’re pieces of knowledge and practicable skills without which one cannot excel in a particular discipline. They’re conjugated verbs, times tables, and heavy machinery operating procedures.
Most of us groan when think about teaching them or learning them.
I think it’s most befitting to discuss the importance of fundamentals, with all their boredom, restriction, and requirements, in the context of the ultimate free form, unregulated, and expressive art: jazz. I’m choosing jazz in particular because it’s a form of composition that happens on the fly—it’s the product of real-time creativity. When the jazz musician’s mental network of fundamentals is robust, those fundamentals yield the kind of music the lasts through generations. However, when the jazz musician’s fundamentals are weak, he’s not equipped for the type of complex connection and creativity jazz requires, resulting in The Worst Thing On Earth: BAD JAZZ. (think of the last time you rode the elevator)
When a musician learns a Western diatonic scale, the ultimate fundamental, she’s doing two things: first, she’s learning the prescribed relationships between seven notes. These seven notes take dozens of forms and appear in multiple keys/transpositions (meaning higher and lower frequencies). Intellectually, she’s equipping herself to recognize a scale when she sees or hears it, whether in a chunk or in its entirety. Second, she’s physically internalizing the relationship between those notes so that she can call upon that reflexive physicality when she’s playing a particular piece of music.
John Coltrane, arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, once remarked that he was “into scales.” It’s imperative that we consider the implication of Coltrane’s embrace of, literally, the A-B-C’s of music. Coltrane knew that the discipline of practicing scales, revisiting the most basic structure of any style of music, was vital to his extraordinary and inventive jazz.
(You may recognize this as a modified slide from a previous post about creativity.)
It’s pretty telling that we use the word discipline, the fuel for mastering fundamentals, in reference to both structured training and punishment; admittedly, it can be easy to get the experiences confused. After all, each of us comes out of the womb needing some taming, so to speak, and the process of being disciplined is rarely pleasurable.
Learning fundamentals is the ultimate exercise in discipline, a learned skill in and of itself. By definition, a fundamental is just that: a basic, nuclear benchmark. Either it’s attained or it isn’t. While fundamentals are often tasks that can be executed, they’re rarely the point, which is what makes them so painful. (e.g. Fundamentals are why we hate to run at soccer practice but we’re always excited to play in the game.) Sometimes it takes a great deal of time or mental energy to master one; often one competency has multiple facets, like a multiplication table—it’s actually 144 different math problems that need to be committed to memory.
In a culture as devoted to instant gratification as ours is, the discipline attained from approaching and mastering a core competency becomes an exceptional skill that can be applied thereafter to any undertaking.
Embracing discipline is a commitment to quality, to recognizing the relationship between practice and outcome, and to developing patience and insight. When we discover the beauty of discipline, the process of revisiting old fundamentals or exploring more advanced becomes a meditative exercise that enhances our ability to create and problem solve.
I firmly believe that Coltrane was still learning while he dug into those scales. He knew that, without them, he wouldn’t have been as good.
What fundamentals in your field can you revisit today?