Sunday, August 25, 2019

No wasted motion

Back in March, I went to a chamber music concert by SF Symphony musicians (and only now have I gotten to organizing these thoughts). I went with my violinist and pianist friend Kevin.

For the first time, I heard the new assistant concertmaster, Wyatt Underhill, who played first violin in Dvorak string quartet no. 14. Listening to and watching him play, I thought of something Kevin said at the last chamber music concert we’d been to, where the concertmaster Alexander Barantschik had sat first violin in Mozart and Brahms string quintets: "This is someone who’s played a lot of violin and figured out the most efficient way to play, and there’s no wasted motion."

That phrase, "no wasted motion," came to mind as I watched Wyatt. The other striking thought was: everything he played was so intentional. The phrasing was intentional: you could hear two notes, and how each note had its own place in the phrase—one note is (actually) a little louder than the next note in a crescendo, and so on. The easy thing to do is have two notes be the same loudness, then decrease the volume by step functions… and other people in the group doing that became much easier to hear in contrast.

The outcome of being so intentional is that Wyatt would bend the will of the entire group. Both listening and watching him play, you could tell clearly where he was going. Pauses between phrases were clear and held for just the right amounts of meaningful silence. (I could then start to hear how the cellist came in a little too early than he could have, right then…) This reminded me of the different chamber music performances of the same Mozart quintet at the 2018 Joseph Joachim violin competition where Timothy Chooi won. I remember watching the 5th place winner—still amazing—in this round, and noting how the rest of the group—the same people—just being way more solid and elevated, playing the same piece, when Timothy was first violin.

Coming back to the chamber music concert: there was a contrast to Wyatt in the next piece, the Tchaikovsky piano trio. The violinist was good, but one of the first things Kevin said after was, "She was very good, but it was a shame she didn’t have a bigger sound." "Yeah," I said, "I remember you saying that thing about the concertmaster last concert. I thought she had a lot of wasted effort—the contact point [of the bow] wasn’t firm." That extra motion took away from her ability to convey the music and to physically lead.


The idea of "no wasted motion" applies to the ground technique. It notably does not apply to how creative people spend their time—there’s nonlinear exploration and wide inputs and "wasted" time that is expected and needed in that process. In comparison, people will not say to a baseball player swinging the bat that they ought to be more expressive about how they do it. It reminds me of what one of our cofounders said about management: that he does wish it was a bit more prescriptive sometimes. He used the analogy of rowing crew, which he did one semester of in college. "It’s not about: how does the oar make you feel?" You row this way, all the same way, or else the boat doesn’t move the way you want.

It might be a useful exercise to figure out which things in your life or profession are the things you want to have no wasted motion in. It’ll be the somewhat mechanical things that are not the essence of art in your field. The field changes the point of view: the same activity that is art for one field can be no-wasted-effort-landia for another. Take what writing is to a writer, versus a (generic, yes I’m simplifying) "business person." But even with this example, there are aspects of writing that a writer wants to have down cold, such as a large vocabulary that one can readily draw from.

For programmers, if you’re going to be a heads-down engineer IC for a long time, the no-wasted-motion goes into learning command-line tools, IDE functionality, how to minimize mouse usage. For someone who’s going to spend less time coding as they progress, that same advice might not apply.

A final thought: "Wasted motion" doesn’t just apply to physical motion. In addition to the vocabulary example above, another that comes to mind is the effortless efficiency with which my former manager would run a meeting. "No wasted motion" applies to approach and even how you feel about doing something—no wasted emotional motion or stress. For example, I just noticed that I felt a pang of stress in thinking about writing a certain document for work. Why do I feel that way? One, because I want it to reach a certain bar. Second, and most importantly, because I am unfamiliar with doing this—it’s not my 100th time. Yet I also recognized the pang I felt as unproductive. Yes, it tells me to try harder, but beyond that it’s not helpful to worry, and eventually, with enough practice I know I won't.

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