Recently, my parents very generously gave myself and my family the old piano that was a massive part of my life for so long. This is the piano that I first discovered a love for music on when I was a child. It’s the piano that I wrote broken-hearted love songs on as a hormonal teenager. It’s the piano that supported my study of Jazz Performance on the Double Bass when I pursued music after finishing my computer engineering degree. It’s also the piano that I returned to time and time again during the few years I spent playing music professionally as a Double Bass player before I returned to software development. It’s also the piano that, just this morning, I sat down at with my youngest baby daughter on my knee and just started playing. I didn’t know what I was going to play. I ended up just playing a very simple bass line on my left hand that moved between 2 chords. On my right hand, I played a couple of very simple 2 note little melodies. I didn’t care what fingers I used; what the chords would be; if this was going to advance my technique; if this was going to be worth practising in order to get a promotion or even higher paying job; if this was a skill that is sought after in the industry — whatever that industry is; if this was following exactly some pre-determined process — how could it when there wasn’t one. My daughter joined in and banged out a few notes here and there and they didn’t sound out of place — they just added to the playful creativity.
This made me reflect on my life as a musician and my life so far as a software engineer. I first got into music when I was studying computer and electronic engineering in university. Myself and 2 great friends started jamming together and formed a rock band. It was a time of great creativity. I didn’t have too much technique on the electric bass at the time but I had enough to make up bass lines for our music. In those early days I didn’t really practice scales or other techniques. I spent nearly all of my bass playing time making up bass lines for the band. We would go to my friends house and literally just set up and play for hours with no pre-determined agenda. We just recorded the sessions and listened back to see that worked and what didn’t.
When I finished my degree, I went on and studied Jazz Performance and switched to the Double Bass. After that, I played on the jazz scene in Ireland for a few years and played in a soul band playing at weddings etc. When I reflect back on those years, I realise that gradually, without realising it, more and more I was forgetting how to play. I don’t mean forgetting how to literally play my instrument. I mean I was forgetting how to just pick up the instrument and just start having fun with it and to be creative. When learning to do jazz improvisation, it is very important that one masters their chosen instrument technically and also masters the language of jazz aurally. This involves an incredible amount of commitment to rigorous deliberate practice of things like scales, arpeggios, running scales and arpeggios and bass lines through complex chord changes etc. This is all important and ultimately enables creativity. However, I became pretty obsessive about it to the point where, whenever I picked up my instrument that was all I was doing. There were creative moments during performances but, even still, my mind was thinking quite technically about what I was doing. If I was to look back, this obsession with rudimentary technique was probably the main reason that playing music full time started to become a chore for me instead of being fun like it’s supposed to be. It’s probably the main reason I lost interest in playing music full-time — that along with other reasons such as a growing yearning to get back into software engineering and the realisation of the financial difficulties I would have supporting myself in a life of full-time music.
I wonder could things have been different if I hadn’t forgotten how to be playful.
Software engineering is a lot of fun. When returning to it about 8 years ago now, I quickly fell in love with computer programming. The ability to be able to literally type text into a text editor, have it compiled into instructions that the machine can understand and perform and then to see it executing completely captured my imagination — way more so then it ever did when I was studying my degree. It’s a beautiful thing! Like looking at a piano before touching the keys, looking at a blank text editor before entering code is just like looking into a world of endless possibilities. When I adopt this mindset, programming is magical and so much fun! It’s a mindset of innovation and creativity.
On my software engineering journey, I see myself obsessing about deliberate practice and study to become a better software engineer. To a certain degree, this is very healthy and, without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. However, after playing the piano playfully and creatively this morning, I am reminded that, while rudimentary deliberate practice and study is important in order to ultimately be creative, innovative and to have fun building software, focusing too much and too obsessively on it can also be to the detriment of fun, creativity and innovation.
In the same way, I look at our software industry as a whole. I think about how much of our time is spent on things like making sure a Jira ticket is in the correct “swim-lane”; making sure any idea is channeled through the organisation’s system correctly before it can be built and rolled out to even one user to try it out; having to have communication with end users and business stake-holders filtered through the layers of people in the organisation; following every agile ceremony imaginable; constantly “sprinting” before we can even take a breath; making sure we stand up at “stand ups”; obsessing over the colour of our text editors and IDEs and what text editors we should even use; obsessing over having 2, 3 or more monitors. Don’t get me wrong, some of these things are important and there does need to be processes but I fear that it can be so rigorous that sometimes we forget how to play.