Tipping Points in culture and music

Have you ever thought about “Tipping Points” in relation to music?

I first heard the term Tipping Point when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same name. Gladwell looks at many instances where something begins in a small way, and then suddenly becomes very big or popular by spreading quickly. He cites certain fashion trends, crime-stopping strategies, cultural fads, and other instances where sudden growth happened at a specific point.

The Beatles had a Tipping Point. They had been playing small clubs, driving all night to get from one gig to another, and generally playing to enthusiastic but small audiences. And then, all of a sudden, word started to spread quickly. It became easy for them to grow in popularity. Their fan base grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands and then… a big jump to millions. All in a very short time.

Music streaming services had a Tipping Point as well. This usually happens when people start telling their friends, “Hey, you’ve got to check out this new service called Spotify.” For a while, no one used Spotify, and then all of a sudden… everyone does. (And Apple music, etc.)

The Broadway musical Hamilton had a Tipping Point too. Even though it had won a Tony Award, it was still playing to relatively small audiences. And then the cast appeared on the Grammy Awards TV broadcast and wow! All of a sudden you couldn’t get tickets anymore. (Believe it or not, it’s often cheaper for a NYC-based family of four to travel to see the show in Chicago than to pay for the high cost of tickets in New York!). Crazy, right? But that’s the kind of thing that happens post-Tipping Point.

After something passes a Tipping Point, it gets easy. The word seems to spread by itself. Tickets seem to sell by themselves. The item practically jumps off the shelves into customers’ shopping baskets.

Skype piano lessons passed a Tipping Point during this past year or so. When I first started teaching piano over Skype, in 2013, people were incredulous. “How can you do that?” and “How does that work?” were the most common reactions when people asked me where I gave piano lessons.

At some point, however, everybody began asking me for Skype piano lessons. The Tipping Point had arrived. Either pianists knew someone else who was successfully studying piano via Skype, or they had become so accustomed to doing things over the internet that they now accepted the idea as “routine.” Whatever the reason, the number of pianists asking me to teach them on Skype took off. For me, it’s been extremely gratifying to be able to help pianists all over the world, and, just in the past 6 months or so, a lot of them are asking me to teach their teenage kids as well. It’s truly amazing, and I understand the phenomenon better because of this concept of the Tipping Point.

Have you ever noticed the Tipping Points that occur as you learn music?

Yes, there is a Tipping Point with each piece we learn, as well as with each new musical concept or technique we study.

We sit down at the piano and look at a new piece of written music. At first it feels strange to play, or perhaps we have to begin by playing each hand separately. It’s a struggle and slow going for a while. And then, as if all of a sudden, we find to our amazement that our hands are functioning in tandem and the music has begun to flow. (I’m continually astounded at this moment, and I can never predict exactly when it’s going to happen!)

Or, we begin learning how to improvise over a challenging chord progression. For a while, our spontaneous melodies sound stiff. We can’t quite “hear” the progression from one chord to the next. But we stick at it, day after day, and never give up. And then one fine day, either days or perhaps months after we’ve begun, “all of a sudden” it comes easily. “Wow! This sounds great!!!”

It happens with musical techniques as well. We struggle to play walking bass lines on 2-3 tunes, and it’s laborious. Then, all of a sudden, we find to our joy that we can easily walk bass lines on any tune we try. That’s the goal!

I love studying this process because it isn‘t strictly linear in the sense of progressing in small increments. It’s a small step, another small step, and so on and so on, until one day… we leap!!! That’s the Tipping Point.

Tipping Points are fascinating to study in our music. But don’t wait around idly for them to happen by themselves. They’re the result of persistent practice which comes when we enjoy the process at every step of the way. Practice piano because you enjoy practicing piano. And then, when it suddenly becomes much easier, just go along for the ride and reap the rewards of your hard work.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

PS – I just posted a new Journey Through The Real Book video this morning. It’s the song “Easy Living” which was a big pop hit in 1937. Whether you play jazz, pop, or rock, you should be familiar with the slow stride technique I use in the video. Here it is: Enjoy!

Easy Living

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