Plan B: Developing Versatility

To those of you who don’t enjoy sports, I’m sorry to make yet another basketball post. For some reason, sports analogies seem to get at the core issues of performance art and life.

In the words of Boston sports analyst Tommy Heinsohn, the best basketball players know how to respond when the other team “takes away what they do well.” In other words, if they can’t make their go-to shot, they have a backup plan. If they can’t shoot threes because of a defensive switch, they’ll drive to the basket, or if they’re not making jump shots they’ll create opportunities for other players. Rookies find that kind of adjustment especially difficult, since they’re still learning what they can do. It’s hard to think about plan B when you’re still developing plan A.

I may think about plan B more already because of my liberal-arts upbringing, but the best advice I’ve heard often focuses on how to tackle problems from a variety of angles. Classical piano masterclasses often focus on the left hand rather than the right, the harmony rather than the melody, and the larger structure rather than the individual phrase. Of course, older musicians have more perspective on

music because of their experience. More than repetition though, that experience contains many contrasting approaches that lead to the same point. Those angles, however opposite they might seem at first, develop synergy. Mind enhances ear, which enhances technique, which enhances sound.

So given that, what’s the point of practice? As Wynton Marsalis advises his students, you have to practice what you can’t do. To me, this is the best life advice of all. If you go fast every day, focus on going slow. If you’re a very athletic person, focus on developing your mental abilities. In denying yourself the things you’ve mastered, you allow new aspects of your personality to develop. That isn’t to say that keeping up those strengths isn’t important; it’s crucial to have an “ace in the hole” to use yet another sports expression. However, those weaker elements of your game can greatly play to your strengths if you work on them. They offer perspective on what you’ve already got. At the very least, they’ll show you what you’re not, which makes you appreciate what you are.

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