Pain and Achievement

I was never very good at reading music.  I got very good at it in my forties.  Now I teach people how to do it.


Reading music is not, in and of itself, that hard.  There are very few symbols you have to know.  What makes it hard is how they are organized on the page.


I read a study called “How Abstract Is Symbolic Thought” by Libby and Goldstone.  In it they describe just how much of an impact the way something is visually laid out, like a math problem has on our ability to understand it.  That’s what makes reading music so hard.


Because there’s such a terrible disconnect between what we do with our eyes and our bodies in reading music, I would describe the learning process as actually painful.  It can make you feel worse than a failure, actually incompetent, incapable, idiotic.  The best thing to do is find an effective way to practice it, and endure that pain while you are learning.


Writing a book isn’t particularly hard either, from a mechanical point of view.  It’s just very, very slow.  I would describe the process this way: 


1) Write a little.  Repeat each day until the first draft is done.  2) Read the first draft.  Fix whatever needs fixing.  Repeat until you can no longer stand to read it.  3) Let other people read it.  Fix whatever sounds like it’s not working.  Repeat until you are sick of the process.


The fact is, often what’s hard isn’t the doing of the thing, but the pain you have to endure while doing the thing.  Walking on hot coals isn’t hard.  It just hurts (so I’ve heard)!


It’s a good idea to learn to tolerate discomfort, uncertainty, even a certain amount of pain.  Of course, the no-pain-no-gain idea is fraudulent.  Certainly you can put yourself in a lot of pain and not gain anything!


There’s a difference between the pain of enduring something versus the pain of being in an abusive learning situation.  You needn’t, and shouldn’t be going through that sort of pain.  If someone tries to convince you otherwise, you should probably get away from them.


It is helpful, though, to know what kind of pain or discomfort a certain situation is likely to require in order to get through it.  Biking up a mountain?  Expect sore legs, at least in training.


Knowing the extent of the difficulty, or at least the nature of it, can help with the endurance.  As a teacher, I tell my students when a particular learning situation, like scales, are going to be difficult.  All they have to do is be patient and keep returning to the task every day.


Playing scales isn’t particularly difficult once you understand exactly what the fingers are to do.   Getting your mind wrapped around the physicality of the task however can be the painfully boring and frustrating.  Being able to tolerate the discomfort of learning is the real skill I’m teaching them.


Have you found this blog painful to read?  Did you make it to the end?  Worth it?




News From a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books

Five features this week, including a story about my wife and my songwriting in the print edition of Psychology Today.

You can see these and others on my press tab.

Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books.  Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life.  To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit

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