👋 Hello reader, this blog post has aged 8 years since I originally wrote it in 2014. That's about 56 “internet years” you know, so it's probably quite stale by now and may not reflect my current thinking. I am happy to keep it here for archival purposes, but please reach out to me if something feels off or if you're relying on it for any serious purpose.
When I was nine, I began learning how to play percussion. I started out studying in the school band program. By eleven, I was surprisingly still interested enough to seek additional instruction. Driven by a family that already produced two other musicians, I began taking private drum lessons from an older jazz player.
Beyond actually reading drum charts, improvising, practicing technique, and all the things a student might do one-on-one with an instructor, I learned how a professional musician goes about honing their craft. My teacher patiently explained that this is called woodshedding. I imagined a small shack in a snow covered valley where bad musicians were banished if they messed up during a performance. Despite his best efforts, my eleven year old mind couldn’t fully understand what he was trying to explain to me.
Woodshedding isn’t a punishment. It’s a necessity. Woodshedding isn’t just practicing an instrument. Woodshedding is putting your understanding of an instrument and a song under a microscope. All of the ugliness and the mistakes come into focus. Woodshedding is working through it. Meticulously figuring it out. Dissecting a song until it’s a big mess, and then cleaning it up. Going at it until every dynamic is observed, every note and every rest is understood. Not just playing the song, but becoming so familiar with it and the theory behind it that improvising on top of it becomes the next step.
I don’t study music anymore, but I still think about woodshedding. As a younger designer, I had an idealized misconception that my craft was a precise, structured practice reliant on organization and cleanliness. Straight lines, stainless steel tools, white rooms and all that. Quite the opposite of how a jazz drummer might describe their profession. At a certain point—maybe after painfully working through projects that challenged this notion—my perspective shifted. These things really don’t seem that different to me anymore. Tearing up my work and examining all the components, consolidating, streamlining, rethinking, understanding, and rebuilding are daily rituals. I work on systems until extending and improvisation are possibilities. Making a mess is almost essential in order to maintain that kind of focus. When successful, the mess fades away with out a trace. The end result, whether it be a musical performance or a product or a website seems effortless to its audience.