Someone walks into your restaurant and orders a ham sandwich (I know, you don’t have a restaurant, just work with me for a minute). Your primary objective should be which of these?

1) Be really concerned that it be good enough to satisfy the mysterious desires of the customer.
2) Labor over the overwhelming nuances of flavor combinations, consulting the internet as necessary.
3) Make sure that, at minimum, there is some ham between 2 pieces of bread.

When you look at it this way, #3 is the only sane choice, right? If the tables were turned and you were ordering a ham sandwich (I know, you’re a vegetarian and gluten-intolerant, just work with me for another minute), your first and foremost expectation would be . . . that you be delivered a ham sandwich. Ham. On bread. High quality would be nice, of course, but only insofar as you get the thing you ordered. If they brought you ham on a bed of rice, you’d send it back without first checking if it was good. You’d probably be frustrated as well if you got a turkey and goat cheese sandwich, even if the bread was artisanal and the flavors were exquisite. After all, if you wanted “chef’s choice” of something that resembled a ham sandwich but wasn’t actually that, you’d have gone somewhere that doesn’t have a menu. If you got something other than the thing you ordered more than once, you would not likely return to that restaurant, regardless of the craftsmanship that went into the chicken and broccoli that you were served instead of the ham sandwich.

So, choices #1 and #2 above have validity, but only insofar as #3 is satisfied, and once that happens, #1 and #2 become a lot less stressful, because the core objective has been met. This is all so self-evident that it seems silly. Lately, though, I’ve become hyper-aware of this phenomenon in many facets of life – significant effort going into a task with a hazy sense of the objective. I honestly don’t know (and maybe, loyal readers, you can tell me) if this phenomenon is becoming more prevalent or if I’m just becoming more crotchety about it.

I thought about calling this post “attention to detail,” but it’s not as simple as that, because sometimes there IS attention to detail, just not the RELEVANT detail. This is where I’m kind of baffled. Though I don’t appreciate it when people simply don’t what they’re supposed to, there are all kinds of reasons for just blowing stuff off that I can at least relate to philosophically. You’re too busy with other stuff. It’s not that important. The consequences of blowing it off aren’t daunting. You just don’t wanna. If you don’t give me my sandwich at all, there are consequences for that and things proceed fairly naturally from there.

But in the scenario that opens this post, there is a great deal of concern for getting it right, yet that concern doesn’t translate to making sure, first and foremost, that there is ham on bread. I should be used to this by now, yet continues to surprise me when I, for example, grade an assignment and see that significant effort went into trying to navigate it, but no effort went into reading the guidelines to determine the expectations for the assignment. The converse is also true – other students will do what appears to be the bare minimum, but they will actually do reasonably well AND learn what they needed to learn if that relatively small bit of effort is focused precisely where it’s supposed to be. Woody Allen is quoted as saying “80 percent of success is just showing up.” I think that’s pretty valid, BUT with the clarification that you have to show up in the correct place at the correct time.

I remember vividly the first time I experienced this as a teacher. I was a 23-year-old grad student at Rutgers and teaching a “jazz styles” survey for freshman jazz majors, and there were two students who were like night and day. One of them consistently did the bare minimum (or slightly less) but was super-attuned to the details and nuances of the assignments. The other one submitted things that were elaborate and thoughtful and also clearly not what the assignment dictated. For example, they were asked to write a 1-chorus 12 bar blues with lyrics exhibiting the standard AAB rhyme scheme. Student 1 showed up with just that – it was generic and simple and he had probably done it as he walked to class, but it was precisely what I asked for. Student 2 wrote an elaborate, 3-minute verse-chorus-bridge song that reflected the tradition of folk-blues in the style of Mississippi John Hurt, and it was beautiful, and it showed zero indication that he had absorbed the simple, formal structure that was the basis of the extremely straightforward assignment. Student 1 made it very clear that he didn’t intend to put significant effort into the course, while Student 2 was giving it his all, except that he was not paying attention to the instructions. In the end, Student 1’s grades were slightly better, and I felt great ambivalence for the fact that the rewards did not match the effort, at least insofar as effort is measured in hours spent and thoughts and emotions invested.

Of course, this makes no mention of Student 3, who put in the time AND paid attention to the instructions (guitarist, composer and recording artist Mike Baggetta, take a bow). That is, of course, the ideal. It has consistently impressed me how the greatest musicians with whom I’ve worked cover both ends. When I was younger, I assumed that a more established musician would be attentive to detail only if playing with somebody sufficiently “important.” In fact, over time I have found the opposite to be true. Part of why my “Patch Kit” record came off so well is that Ron Carter really dug into the music, not just relying on his ability to sight-read it (which he could certainly have done). A week prior to my “Soul Force” session, I got a phone call from Robin Eubanks and an email from Steve Wilson asking some very detailed questions about the music I’d sent them. These guys can sight-read brilliantly, but they wanted to make sure they were prepared for the specific things that would be asked of them in the studio. At the risk of giving away “trade secrets,” I dare say that any success I’ve had playing others’ music has a lot more to do with my attention to these sorts of details than with my talent.

So the next time you find yourself overwhelmed by a task, try stepping back to look at whether the guidelines for the task are straightforward if you look in the right place. And, for that matter, if you’re feeling really nonchalant about a task, step back from that too, and make sure you’re not charging ahead with a misguided sense of the outcome towards which you’re working. Either way, the time you spend clarifying that upfront will invariably mean more success with less effort!

(dag, more success with less effort sounds pretty appealing, maybe I need to make an infomercial or something . . .)

3 Responses

  • Matt

    I think about these things constantly while teaching elementary and middle school bands, and frequently with

  • Matt

    The high school. When I began teaching, I could get students to play “over their heads,” and have great concerts, but when we listened to the recording, you could see the energy immediately drain out of the room. The problem was largely that I had been glossing over the relevant details: nagging rhythmic issues, transitions, that ONE note that never really got fixed, and the like. When I started paying more attention to these details, while the rehearsals became a little more laborious, the final result was something that the students were more proud of, and one with which (because they in how much work went into it) they felt more satisfied. Not to mention their increased sense of personal musical growth. Paying attention to the art AND the craft, while more challenging, is more rewarding!

  • There was one woman who use to come to my jam session. I guess she’d have been an extreme example of a “Type 2” in your classification. She claimed to have had taken lessons from Ted Dunbar, but she had absolutely no clue as to how to improvise. She also had an annoying habit of interrupting us in the house band in the middle of a performance and positing some arcane question about Jazz or music in general. In this she was aided by a non-musician friend of hers who appeared to be playing the part of an an enabler I tried to politely brush them off but some of the other people in the house band weren’t so nice. Thank God they no longer show up.

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