Pure Danger Tech


On Code, Bird, and Coltrane

23 Jun 2008

Just read Jeff Atwood’s fantastic post The Ultimate Code Kata, which reviews many great ideas for improving your craft. There is much goodness there.

I was reminded of two of my heroes in less digital disciplines, Bird and Coltrane.

You can be forgiven for expecting me to talk about Charlie Parker, but actually I am referring instead to Larry Bird, the famed Celtics forward. When I was growing up I spent many blissful hours watching the Celtics with my dad and rooting loudly against the Lakers. I played a little ball myself, but as a clumsy white kid who spent more time writing Turbo Pascal code, I was fairly bad.

I found Larry Bird, my favorite player, to be a huge inspiration. Larry was famous for his work ethic and his habit of practicing free throws before every game. He gave me a reason to believe that if I spent enough time practicing, I would eventually suck less. I had no illusions that I was going to the NBA, but the idea of practice and determination resonated and stuck with me more than I realized until much later.

John Coltrane, the master saxophonist known for both his legendary work with Miles Davis and his innovative and genre-breaking solo work was renowned for his obsessive need to practice. I’ve read many stories about this but here’s an excellent example:

First he played an entire hour of only whole notes, focusing exclusively on his tone. Then came another hour of just half notes, then another hour of quarter notes, working on scales, arpeggios, along with his tone. Next was an hour of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and faster runs, incorporating everything he had done so far with speed as well. He would then spend a few hours working on exercise books for other instruments, such as violin and harp. Finally came time spent on actual songs or compositions, which would often consume a few more hours.

Coltrane maintained this level of practice every day for most of his life, while still managing to find time for a demanding heroin habit (try that Mr. Yegge).

In both cases, I see a mastery of craft that came only from relentless pursuit of excellence over the course of a lifetime. For that I have the utmost respect and still derive immense inspiration.

Now I gotta go write some code.