What's the trick?

I’ve been ruminating about something my wife, a vascular surgeon, told about a medical student who rotated on her service. He said that he was hoping to “learn some tricks.” I’m not exactly sure what surgical “tricks” are but I assume he was referring to little shortcuts or efficiencies that you gradually learn through practice. This bothered me for a long while for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Now I think I understand why.

It bothers me because it seems to imply the expectation of unearned knowledge. A desire to advance one’s practical knowledge without actually doing the practical part.

I’m fond of looking for unintended consequences, mainly because they’re overlooked and usually unpredicted. I like finding things that change the fundamentals. This phenomenon is an unintended consequence. I think that what underlies this generational expectation is the culture of convenience and immediacy that has sprung up around the internet and its mobile spawn. “After all, if I can purchase and download a song or book immediately, and I can research any subject without impediment, then the slow process of learning something that you thought was difficult and time consuming is just an artifact of your generation.”

I’ve been struggling recently with an unusually difficult passage in a early work of Beethoven, the Op. 1 No. 3 Piano trio. In the trio section of the third movement there’s a fast descending octave passage. The notes are those of the C major scale; but the run doesn’t start on C, so the fingering is entirely different. It’s unexpectedly difficult for no other reason that it requires you to forget the fingerings that your hands fall into reflexively when playing something that looks like the C major scale, but isn’t at all.

So, what’s the trick?

The trick is that there is no trick.

There are still things to be learned and perfected that are impervious to tricks.[1] You can’t say a magical incantation and make your hands play the notes in perfect synchrony. You can’t cross your eyes and look at the score differently and expect your hands to fly across the keys without stopping to wonder what finger goes where.

The trick is that there isn’t any trick. It’s just accepting that some things can’t be rushed; and that doing is the price of knowing.


  1. And I think that these disciplines, at the far trailing edge of contemporary and distracted culture, are a gold mine for kids. (Only in a metaphorical sense, mind you.) As more kids get more and more distracted by their phones and social media, the ones that are anchored by a patiently earned passion will race ahead of the pack.