Kenley Kristofferson

Composer.

Tag: success

Music Ed Monday – Books, Covers, and Opportunity

“Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.”

-Steve Jobs

That sounds like something he’d say, right? Except that he didn’t, the actor playing him said that.

“Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.”

– Ashton Kutcher

Yes, Ashton Kutcher.

I went to see Jobs the other day (with my amazing wife) and I was a bit leary of Kutcher’s portrayal of one of the greatest thinkers and inventors of our time.  When I think of Ashton Kutcher, I think of That 70s ShowDude Where’s My Car? or Two and a Half Men.

But seriously, he knocked it out of the park and, while the movie was pretty good, I was totally transfixed by his performance.  The pursing of his lips, the hunched and flat-footed walk, the distant stare, the speech inflection… everything.

That show taught me two things:

1) Don’t go in with expectations (read as: don’t judge a book by its cover).  I think we do this a lot as teachers – we don’t mean to, but we do.  Concurrently, the students will also do a second-order judgement on themselves as you’re doing a first order judgement on them.  They are assessing themselves based on their judgement of your judgement on them.  It becomes a cyclical process of judgement.  Both parties need to stop doing this because it doesn’t help anyone.

Go in with a blank slate, both teacher and student.  Kids are so perceptive of minute actions that I think we really need to be mindful of what we’re sending out.  It might be a small stare, an exhalation of breath, a sinking of the eyes, a slouch, a quick turn away.

A particular former flute player of mine left Band in grade 10 and dove into choir, where she was crazy good.  I couldn’t remember her name when she was in my Jr. Symphonic Band in Grade 9.  I had completely forgotten about it, but she didn’t.  Even on one of the last days of her Grade 10 year, she reminded me that I could never remember her name.

Anyway, Ashton Kutcher was remarkable, even though I didn’t think he’d done anything that really blew me away until then.  But, what really got me, was a speech he made just last week at the Teen Choice Awards (yes, I know, but we’re not going in with expectations, remember?).

2) Opportunity looks a lot like hard work.  This one ties back to expectation too because there are so many opportunities that we get, but feel like we don’t deserve.   The most common one that I see is when students bring back that acceptance letter to Music School and tell me “but I’m not good enough to be there.”  Actually, you are, because you wouldn’t have gotten in if you weren’t.

But you wouldn’t have gotten in if you didn’t work the audition piece.  Sometimes, I feel like auditions are teaching toward the test.  You work a few pieces so hard that you master them, then you can’t get through something new.  But the lesson of hard work still applies because it got you in the door to the next opportunity (and you couldn’t have even unlocked the piece if you hadn’t worked your skills for years before you started practicing the audition music).

When I got the DuckTales contract, I immediately felt like I didn’t deserve it and that I wasn’t good enough to do it.  I was just punching above my weight class.

punchaboveyourweight

(from Urban Dictionary)

Except that I wasn’t – I could do everything that the creative leads, the producers, and the game and the music wanted me to do.  That doesn’t mean that I didn’t obsess over it, or go to bed thinking about the viola part in the B section of the airship level, or if there was too much mid in the slap bass during the opening.   I even sent three or four entirely different (though incomplete) pieces away for the Cowboy level because it had to be right.   There was a healthy balance of “make it great” and “don’t screw it up,” and I suppose that both are important, to some degree.  A similar (but less crazy) feeling happened with KRE-O: CityVille Invasion.

But it’s not like these came out of nowhere.  The company, Complex Games, and I have been working together on and off for about seven years and I’m sure that they’ve had a similar experience in their growth too.  When I first started with them, we were working on a pirate game for Facebook and now we’re doing mobile games for Disney and Zynga.  And that’s growth.  That’s what growth looks like.  (And goodness, they do fabulous work and deserve all of the accolades that come to them).

The growth still comes from hours at a piano or in front of a sketchbook, like an artist in front of a canvas or a horn player in a practice room.  I really like that stuff.  I like leaning over the piano keys and sketching out ideas, then building that musical house one note at a time.

So, here’s my question: What makes you want to work hard? If you don’t know the answer that, then try this one: What do you love? Why not do more of that 🙂

I think a lot about this, about the nexus of hard work and opportunity.  Some people get lucky (and arguably, a degree of luck is still needed, even for the hardest workers) and some people cheat, but I think that’s the exception.   Yet, so many will pick that one time and try to emulate that… and fail.

“But so-and-so sightread the audition and got into honour band.”

“My friend so-and-so didn’t study for the History final and still got an 80.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  Tiny Fey explains it best in Bossypants, describing her show would succeed where all other shows about awesome 20-somethings would fail:

For years the networks have tried to re-create the success of Friends by making pilot after pilot about beautiful twenty-somethings living together in New York. Beautiful twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles. Beautiful twenty-somethings investigating sexy child murders in Miami. This template never works, because executives refuse to realize that Friends was the exception, not the rule. The stars of beloved shows like Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Newhart, and The Dick Van Dyke Show had normal human faces.

The best don’t start as the best, but they got better with hard work and time.  Put in the time, put in the work, and it works a lot better if it’s something you love.  If it’s something you don’t love (i.e. geometry), you’ll probably still be better off if you give it your best shot.  I hated learning ratios in math, but I use them everyday.  Seriously, every day.

Find something you love and work it.  If you do so honestly, you will deserve whatever comes your way.

VGM Ed Mondnesday – “Dying Over and Over Repeatedly” or “Why Super Meat Boy Makes Students Into More Successful Human Beings”

Once upon a time, console platformers (Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Wonder Boy, etc.) gave the player three lives to beat the level.  In the case of Super Mario Bros., you got three lives to beat the whole game.  You may be thinking “but you’ve got 1ups!” and yes, that’s true, but allow me to pull you into a stressful part of your past…

You (as Mario) are standing on a platform with a particularly treacherous jump.  There are hammer brothers and a smattering of koopa troopas that pass juuuuuuust at the time you need to jump.  Your heart races.  Your getting warm and your face is flushed.  Your breathing accelerates and one thought cuts into your consciousness:

I don’t know if I can make it and I only have three lives.

Then you jump… and you don’t make it.

You wasted one of your lives because you made a mistake, now you only have two lives left! You can’t get that life back!

However, you need to try again… and you die.  One life left.

In a last ditch effort to beat the level and continue forward to the game’s conclusion.  You attempt the terrifying jump… and you die.

Then you see it, what you’ve been dreading all along: GAME OVER.

Life message: You tried and you just weren’t good enough.

Let me present another scenario.  You see an amazing power-up at the top of the screen in an underwater level, but it’s being patrolled by cheep-cheeps and those squidy guys.  You mull it over in your head for a while, then remember that you only have three lives and you can’t risk it.

Life message: The best things in life have risk attached and, if you want to get to the end, it’s best not to go for them.

Now, I’m no educational psychologist or sociologist, but those sound like pretty bad messages to send to kids.   I know that there are no game designers laughing maniacally in some Japanese lab, trying to crush the dreams of schoolchildren, but the messages stand.  This is the plight of older console games, especially the ones at the nexus of limited lives and extreme difficulty.

Strangely, that nexus resonated with one of the game designers of Super Meat Boy.  In Indie Game: The Movie, Tommy Refenes talks about his love of hard games, especially older console games.  I say “strangely” because there is one real difference between Super Meat Boy and platformers across all gaming generations:

The player has unlimited lives.  It’s not even a cheat code, it’s a legitimate part of the game design.

The game is also punishingly difficult, and notoriously so.  And, as a player, it’s okay that the game is hard because I get an unlimited number of lives in order to achieve my goal.

Life message #1: You can always try again.

Furthermore, every level has an ending that’s really achievable and many people have done it.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, it means that success is possible for every player and, as said above, you can always try again.

Life message #2: It’s hard, but you can do it.

Life message #3: You can achieve the success that other people have also achieved.  They are not special or better than you, they just put in the work and time it takes to be successful.

Because you have infinite lives, the player isn’t afraid to take risks because you can always try again.  There are no consequences for failure.  In fact, the respawn time after you die is almost immediate.  Imagine if, every time you failed, you immediately picked yourself up and tried something new?

Life message #4: In order to succeed, two of the most important qualities you must develop are persistency and resiliency.

The game requires you to take risks in order to find the solution because it’s often not where you expect, or it demands a certain level of ability.  If you have it, you’ll beat the level and continue to one more difficult; if you don’t, then you’ll die a whole bunch of times until you finally achieve the dexterity and finesse you need to win.

Life message #5: Practice makes perfect.

Life message #6: No risk, no return.

The amazing thing about Super Meat Boy is that it not only demands risk, it also demands failure.  You need to fall down sometimes.  You may jump into a wall full of needles when practicing your jump timing.  Then you die and respawn immediately, before you get the chance to wallow in your own failure.  In fact, it often achieves the opposite effect: You get inspired to win.  By the time you’ve actually realized that you died, you’re already back at the start, ready to start again.

Life message #7: Allow failure to be motivating, instead of demoralizing.  If you don’t find it motivating, see Life messages 1-6.

Beating a level in Super Meat Boy is so rewarding because it’s just so damn hard.  Before we move on, let’s address how awesome that feels.

Life message #8: If you want a feeling of genuine success, find a genuine challenge and overcome it by being persistent and resilient.

It feels amazing because of a wonderful combination of personal risk, failure, persistance, resiliency, and finally victory.  After you beat the level, the designers put in a replay where you get to watch every round that you played on that level at the same time.  So you watch your ten or twenty or thirty or forty Meat Boys at the same time jumping, racing, running and dying.

All except one.  That Meat Boy makes it to the end and succeeds.  That’s you 🙂

There is no consequence for dying; in fact, it’s celebrated.

Watch an example of the bone-crushing difficulty of Super Meat Boy, at least from the opening to 4:15.  The re-run happens at 4:00, but it’s important to watch this player fail for four minutes straight.  He must fail thirty times.  Then watch him get back up and try something new.  Watch him keep going.  Watch him being resilient.  Watch him being persistent.

Now imagine if we all did that in our own lives.  Imagine if we picked ourselves up every time we fell down.  Imagine if we didn’t internalize failure and just treated it as something that happens whenever we start something new.  Imagine that failure was not only expected, but celebrated as risk taking.  Imagine taking a risk that was meaningful to you.  Imagine going all in on everything important to you.

What if we failed, got up, and tried something different every time?

What if you learned that at 16 years old?

Imagine how different your life could be.  If that makes you emotional, let it.  If you are a teenager/young adult, take that to heart and go for it.  If you’re older than that, it’s not too late.  It’s never too late.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now. 🙂

Cheers,
Kenley