by Sidney S. Stark

Last week a young musician sent me a link to an article she’d saved from the New York Times. The article my friend sent can be read here in its entirety if you’re interested. It’s called The Young and the Perceptive, and was written by Joseph T. Hallinan for the Op Ed section. You’ll find it engaging if you click on the link. But if you don’t, I can tell you the main theme of the article is about pattern recognition in music. Mr. Hallinan describes an incident with famous piano teacher Boris Goldovsky when a young student was the only person to recognize an error in some sheet music by Brahms that had eluded the composer, his publisher and every single experienced pianist who’d played the piece.

After running tests to prove this point, Goldovsky determined that the more experienced pianists “rely on their recognition of familiar patterns and on their ability to organize the music into those
patterns and dependable cues.” He concluded that “pattern recognition is a hallmark of expertise in any number of fields; it is what allows experts to do quickly what amateurs do slowly.” I witnessed just such a revelation myself one summer when I attended a master class for chamber musicians where the maestro corrected a mistake he’d heard them all play only to find that it was indeed marked improperly on the music and the young musicians had simply read what was in front of them. So I know this phenomenon is true.

But reading this piece made me reflect further on pattern recognition in everything we do in life. I’ve always been intrigued by patterns but uncomfortable with them at the same time. Moving on from the patterns in music or finance (addressed in the Hallinan article as well) I could hear the lyrics to a favorite blues song playing in my head. It’s called Patterns and it’s by Liz Callaway on her recent Passage of Time album. The song describes how reassuring patterns of behavior can seem due to their repetitive nature. They seem to give life a shape or frame. The lyrics say that patterns make you feel “safe with what you know”. But the song’s tension builds throughout and concludes with the realization that the patterns don’t actually lead anywhere; they just repeat, a bit like the path in a maze that never lets you out. She ends by crying that she must “change” or she’ll “break apart”. You can listen to this song and the whole album on ITunes if you’re curious. It’s well worth the effort.

But how about patterns? Don’t they also have a different context when they’re made of material objects? Outlines, blueprints or molds come to mind so I recognize the similarity to the physicality of the musical notes that Goldovsky mentioned in his studies. These objects of the tangible world are all positive foundations for the crafts they support. But just as the article presents the case that it took the young student who could “look at the world with new, unblinking eyes” to recognize the error in the score, I think it takes a fresh eye and a lot of courage to see the way out of the habitual patterns we create for ourselves in life. That repetition and reinforcement can really lull you into complacency when you think you’re feeling safe and secure. In the instance of pattern recognition in life, it doesn’t take a young person to recognize the errors; but it does take a courageous, honest outlook to break them. The realization that you’re not necessarily “safe with what you know” can be a lifesaver.

Question @ You: Can you recognize the signs when you’re repeating a behavior pattern you want to change? How can you effect the change? Please leave a comment.

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