Blanket Order

Blanket_Order_HeaderSocial Media is an odd world for me.  I tend to run hot and cold with it.  Lately, I’ve been too busy with work and major projects here at home to use Facebook very much.  When I was traveling – away from home and with a focus totally on work – I used it more.  There always seemed to be time while I was cooling my heels in a hotel room or airport.  My method for picking up Facebook friends is equally quixotic.  More often than not in these latter years, it is a matter of adding new people that I’ve met recently.  But every now and again the goddess Serendipity steps in, often with unpredictable results.

Some months back, an idle notion entered my head to perform an Internet search for some of my favorite college professors.  As I am no longer what one might call young, I did not know what I would find.  One of the people for whom I looked was my freshman and sophomore music theory teacher, Professor Suchy.  Professor Suchy was the teacher to get if you really wanted to learn music theory and the one to avoid if you did not want to work hard.  And I mean hard.  My search results showed that she had a Facebook account so I sent her a friend request.  To my delight, she accepted.  To my astonishment, she remembered me.  I have no idea how or why, because my undergraduate years were distinguished, I am convinced, only by my persistent mediocrity.

Now fast forward a couple months.  Imagine my surprise to discover that Professor Suchy had posted a comment to one of my blog articles (Learn to Play the Doglegs).   Among other kind thoughts she wrote, “I see that, in your unique way, you are applying the ’blanket order’ theory.”

This confused me for a while.  The “blanket order” was one of the key reasons that Professor Suchy’s class was not for the lazy.  The “order” applied principally to sight singing (and ear training), which is the discipline of being able to sing any melody at sight while understanding the harmonic role of each note as one sings it.  The blanket order stipulated that we practice every sight singing exercise in all possible ways.  This means using numbers (the tone numbers one through seven of the standard eight-tone scale) or solfège syllables (chromatic solfège syllables, of course), using both fixed and moveable Do (the tonic).   Oh, and we had to be able to do it in any key, not just the key written.  That was the blanket order.  Tests were excruciating, as we had to perform in front of the class, each student drawing the parameters for the test from a series of hats.  You never knew what you were going to draw.  Most of us learned to sight sing pretty well this way.  I continue to find it useful.

But Professor Suchy also used the term “blanket order” in contexts other than sight singing.  She used it to encourage us to apply a high level of rigor to the way in which we looked at something or approached an assignment. I realized that it was “blanket order” in this larger sense that she meant in her post.  In going back through the article, I realized that there was a thoroughness that I was applying to the difficulty of setbacks. I had taken the problem and turned it around several times in my head in order to look at it from different directions and in different lights. I also recognized that there is a truth there that informs our efforts no matter our field, and that the blanket order applies to Business Intelligence as much as it does to music and sight singing.

The blanket order, even after all these years, is still not for the lazy.  Just as back in theory class, inserting discipline into one’s approach to anything requires effort and a ruthless dedication to detail.  One cannot simply slop through something and expect polished results.   Thinking back over the past thirty-five years, I see example after example of where I have (or have not) gone to the trouble to perform at that level of thoroughness.  Invariably, the results have spoken for themselves.  When I have exerted the effort to infuse my work with that level of care and detail, the outcome has been of high quality.

What can we deduce from the blanket order and how do we transform it into a useful practice?  At the risk of overanalyzing a brilliant teacher’s method, I think we can examine the five essential components and extrapolate to more pan-applicable concepts.

  • Multiplicity: One of Professor Suchy’s precepts was that we should be able to solfège the same passage in a variety of ways.  While difficult to achieve, it was liberating once we could do it.  Each approach revealed unique nuances in the passage. It was not unlike having several different kinds of tools that could be used to solve the same problem.
  • Rote:  Certain aspects of sight singing had to be learned by rote, much like our multiplication tables in grade school.  At the beginning of each class, we would drill the solfège syllables by singing diatonic and chromatic scales, which made the speech-to-ear coordination automatic.  This is freeing in the way that those multiplication tables were because we didn’t even need to reflect on it after a while.  The pathways became reflexive.  For a performer, this is technique.  For the BI practitioner, this is being able to think in code.
  • Repetition:  Similar to rote learning, repetition develops pattern recognition.  Over time (and repetition), the ear develops the ability to hear the interval based on its printed pattern in the score, irrespective of the key.  Pattern recognition is an important aspect of advanced problem solving in business and Business Intelligence.
  • Application: Professor Suchy’s approach to sight singing was anything but academic.  We applied the blanket order to real music from many periods.  The exercises revealed how the key (harmonic) relationships informed the formal structure, even in the short excerpt exercises.  In the Business Intelligence world, being able to recognize relationships between different fundamental drivers is essential.
  • Testing:  There is nothing quite like pressure to up the ante on learning, and Professor Suchy’s tests (as described above) were intense.  While not all of us worked better under pressure, the adrenalin rush raised the stakes in the game as well as amplified our perceptions.  The major benefit was that because we tested in front of each other, we were able to learn from everyone’s mistakes not just our own.  This is not an opportunity that we see very often in the Business Intelligence world.

I have couched these five components of my undergraduate ear training in largely musical expressions.  Nevertheless, they translate very well into practical terms for everyday use in a manner that can add rigor to our endeavors.

  • Multiplicity:  To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  It just doesn’t pay to be a one-note Charlie.  Having some breadth to the tools you use offers more options in finding optimal solutions to problems.
  • Rote:  Mastering the underlying technique is essential for any profession.  A financial analyst should no more have to think about the difference between a simple and a weighted average than I should have to think about writing a LEFT OUTER JOIN (or, for that matter, playing a B Major scale on the piano).
  • Repetition:   Repetition is not merely doing the same thing over and over, but repeating it in a variety of circumstances.  That is easier for the consultant, of course, because we hop from client to client and often from industry to industry.  It is the repetition of a process across varied circumstances that allows us to develop pattern recognition.
  • Application:  Applying new knowledge to real world situations is hugely beneficial.  It is easy to go look up the definition of that weighted average and even to memorize it.  But putting it to work in real life situations cements not merely how it is done, but why and when it is useful.
  • Testing:  Yes, we all test our code and proofread our documents.  But at the end of the day, there is more rigor in having our colleagues test our code and review our copy.   In a reciprocal situation, we learn from each other’s mistakes.

Originally, I was going to write that not all endeavors are deserving of the blanket order.  My thinking was that if we tried to apply it to every aspect of our lives, we would succeed only in failing to achieve our priority activities because we have not left time for them.  But anything worth doing at all is worth doing well and as I thought about it, I realized that in some ways I apply the blanket order to sweeping the floor in my wood shop.  I certainly don’t do it on the scale suggested above, but I do apply it.  I have a multiplicity of tools (two very different brooms and a shop vac), which is useful depending on what it is I am cleaning up.  There is also a basic technique, acquired over time, to being able to move sawdust and other debris around without creating a cloud that just spreads back across the floor.  But no, I don’t have my wife check my work.  So the blanket order still applies, but adjusted to fit the values and priorities of the task.

This meditation on a forgotten gem of wisdom has been enlightening for me.  Beyond recalling memories of a time long past, I discovered once again how connected the things we learn and do become over time.  It had never occurred to me that my first year ear training classes as an undergraduate had in any way influenced my work as a business technology consultant.  Clearly it has, along with most other aspects of my adult life.  It illuminates once again that few experiences are wasted if we take away the best they have to offer.

How wonderful it would be if, at the end of one’s life, one could publish an acknowledgment page similar to what many authors include in their books.  For most of us, such acknowledgments would doubtless go on for pages because we are so interconnected.  Almost everyone we have met has influenced us in some way.  But there truly are people we would like to have thanked and I am not one to ignore this golden opportunity.  Professor Suchy, this blanket order is for you.  Thank you, Ma’am.

Do you have a mentor you would like to thank?  How do you think the blanket order could be applied to your endeavors?

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