Henry Ford had a problem with a boilerplate.
None of his engineers could figure out where the problem was. When Ford asked Nikola Tesla for help, Tesla looked, listened, and then walked over and marked an X on the plate with a piece of chalk. The other engineers went to work and the problem was quickly fixed. When Tesla sent his bill, Ford was surprised that it was $10,000. “That’s a lot of money for a couple minutes work,” he said, “can you break it down for me?”
“Sure,” said Tesla, “That’s $1 for the mark, $9,999 for knowing where to put it.”
The story is almost certainly a legend, but the principle behind it speaks volumes. Of the Three Pillars of Peak Performance (Direct Practice, Domain Knowledge, and Self-Management), Domain Knowledge is the least understood, the most neglected, and hardest to come by.
It’s also one of the fastest roads to universal improvement.
First, what is Domain Knowledge? It’s a deep, structured understanding of a field of study. In the case of music, it means understanding how music is put together (i.e., scales, forms, meter, harmony). It allows us to make correct decisions around phrasing, interpretation, and intonation, to name a few.
Here are three ways to systematically improve your domain knowledge. Each of them is hard work, but the dividends are profound.
1. Study organizing principles
The way music is organized should play a role in the way it’s performed. I’ll never forget my first concert at the San Francisco Symphony. Mahler Symphony 1 was on the program, and at the climax of the first movement, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas stretched out the orchestra’s crescendo for a full extra count before he delivered the resolution.
It was a hair-raising moment, and it exhibited the depth of his musicianship more than any flashy gesture or impressively-fast tempo ever could. He knew exactly where to stretch the climax, and for exactly how long and with what intensity, because he understood the organizing principles of the music: the form, the phrasing, the harmonic structure.
We don’t need to wait until we have decades of experience to begin to understand the organizing principles of music. There are literally thousands of videos about music theory on youtube. If you can spend ten minutes a day adding to your knowledge of the structures that music is built on, you’ll improve faster than if you spent that same ten minutes practicing.
2. Look for similarities, exceptions and variations
As you begin to build your mental models, compare and contrast different pieces of music. If you are working on a sonata, for example, compare it with other sonatas. Notice how they differ and try to figure out why. Perhaps the development section is longer in your piece—is that related in some way to the thematic material?
This practice helps deepen your understanding of the underlying structures. It is especially important at the higher levels of performance, when the structures become more complex.
If this sounds like gibberish to you, don’t worry, it just means you’re working with a different set of organizing principles. Keep working on step one, and you’ll be here in no time.
3. Practice your perceptual skills
It’s one thing to understand a concept, it’s another to apply it. In music, we need to be able to hear the organizing principles, not just see them on a page. To put this idea into practice, listen to music consciously as if you were going to transcribe it. This will put your domain knowledge to the test: Can you sing the melody on solfege syllables? Can you recognize the transitions between themes? Can you identify the harmonic relationships? The more you do this, the more depth and nuance you’ll be able to bring to your performance.
My students are often amazed that orchestras can perform such complex music after only 3 or 4 rehearsals. They spend weeks and even months working on music with much less complexity, and end up with a result that doesn’t compare. At the same time, they sometimes wonder why we spend so much time on ear training, scales, and rhythms.
There’s a larger life lesson here. Most of us spend too much time jumping from one urgent task to the next, and too little time working on developing systems and knowledge that will save us time down the road. Setting aside a little time every day to build domain knowledge is a habit that compounds over time.
The cellist Pablo Casals continued practicing scales to the very end of his career. When asked why, he said “Because I think I am making progress.”