"How" is the lazy man's "what"

"It's not what you do, it's how you do it"
-pretty much everybody


That’s probably the least controversial thing you could ever say.  I don’t know anyone who disagrees with it.

Except for me in this post, because I'm trying to be all controversial to get your attention.

Now, I agree with the spirit of it.  I know what it’s getting at, I just think it’s a convoluted way to think about it. If you look at something closely enough, “how” disappears completely, and turns into a bunch of tiny “what”s.  

I’m a trombone player, so a Bb major scale is about the most familiar thing on the planet to me.  I can play one with a bad sound, and then play it again with a good sound.  This makes people say, “See? It’s not what you do (Bb scale), it’s how you do it (good/bad sound)”.

How do I play with a bad sound?  I pinch my lips too much.  I’m flexing muscles in my face that have nothing to do with playing, which gets in the way of a good sound.  Once I stop that, my sound is immediately better.

Knowing that takes “how” out of the picture completely.  It’s not about “the manner in which I play a Bb scale”.  In one instance, I’m using extra muscles.  In the other, I’m not.  

That’s “what”, not “how”.  I’m not doing the same thing differently, I’m doing a completely different thing.

This brings us to my problem with “it isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it”. It keeps things mysterious.  It makes it hard to see precisely what you need to change.  I don’t like mystery in my teaching, and I don’t like it in my learning. It’s a cop-out.  It means you don’t clearly see and understand something yet. Some of that is to be expected, but you shouldn’t aim for it.

If you settle for “it’s how you do it”, how do you teach a student (or yourself) to play with a good sound?  If you’re stuck thinking of it that way, you can’t. There’s no place to start.  Once you get microscopic, you can see that the good sound doesn’t use any unnecessary lip muscles, and the bad sound does.  Knowing that doesn’t automatically give you a good sound, but it does turn you facing your goal, with a clear map of where you’re going--the opposite of mystery.

“How” is the lazy man’s “what”.  Always seek to turn “how” into multiple, tiny “what”s.  It turns mysterious things into concrete, teachable, practiceable things.  That's how skill happens.