The Importance of Billiards

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I’m pondering the feasibility of appealing to the federal government for a grant.  I want to buy a pool table for New Horizons Music Studio.  No, I’m not joking at all; if scientists can get grant money to find out why mice like cheese, why can’t I… I mean New Horizons, of course… get a simple pool table?  I would like to teach all of my students the basics of a good billiard strategy.  Bear with me now, as this all will tie together with the brilliance of a Bill Cosby monologue.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you might remember an article titled Geometry, Pool and Piano Playing.  (You can read that article by clicking the link.)  In this I touched on the relationships I found in pool playing and the art of piano playing.  Recently with one of my gifted students I found myself relating the tale of my pool “mentor”, Gary McCarty.  In this time and in this place I hereby relay the story to you, dear reader.

I do love pool a lot; I never called it billiards.  First, that sounds way to British and proper.  The places I went to learn to play pool were called Pool Halls.  Some of them were called bars and taverns.  They all smelled musty and moldy and I loved everything about them.  The drawback was that they cost money, and I didn’t have much.  I would go with my friend Doug Boyce and we would play as many games as we could.  Doug was always better at it than I was, but I found out soon enough that he was getting extra practice.  He had a friend, Gary McCarty, who had a pool table in his garage.  So, I acquire a “friend of a friend.”

Gary could really play.  He always beat me.  It made me mad; partly because he beat me, and partly because I was a little jealous of his pool table.  But Gary did me a real service.  He taught me, in a few simple lessons, how to play pool and the piano much better.  I don’t think I ever thanked him, but let the good thoughts go out to wherever he is today.

It’s all about the cue ball, you see.  I used to take a shot, hard and aggressive like most things I undertake.  I’d spy the “2” ball, cherry-red… just sitting there on the table.  By calculating the angle, using the cue ball to hit the 2 in just the right spot, I could slam that sucker into the nearest pocket.  Such a triumph!  And then… I’d look around and Gary McCarty’s balls blocked all of my balls.  Damn, such bad luck, and always happening to me!  Curses, Gary McCarty!  I will tolerate you, but only for your pool table.  Is that a superior smirk I see on his face?

I think I must have been overly unobservant back then.  I never could figure out why Gary had so many good shots.  Why?  I asked him.  The master then gave me my first lesson.  He declared that he decided ahead of time where his cue ball should be… AFTER his shot!  I had never thought that far ahead.  I didn’t even know it was possible to “place” your cue ball.  He explained.  He demonstrated.  Did you know that you can make the cue ball freeze at the exact spot where it strikes your “2” ball?  Or, did you know that you can make it move to the right or the left, quickly or slowly, depending on where you would like it to be AFTER you nail the 2 ball, and send it to pocket-heaven?  This gave my game a whole new direction.  Think ahead.  What a concept!

Gary McCarty taught me to think ahead, and plan out my moves.  He taught me the technique of achieving that goal.  I would learn later that this is what has to happen in my piano playing.  And now, I teach my students to think that way.  By the very method that we choose to practice the piano we are constantly targeting wrong notes and wrong rhythms.
My students’ first reactions seem to be to “fix” the problem by playing the right note, the right chord, and move on.  If they are very persistent they might do that ten times during a practice session.  When they come to their lessons, I listen for these places.  I call them “stutterings” and “hiccups.”  I tell them that if they continue faithfully to practice their mistakes INTO their pieces they will get very good and playing very badly.

The problem is one of strategy.  As in pool, you have to think ahead when you play the piano.  If your wrong note comes up and surprises you every time, you will play the wrong note.  This, it seems to me, is much like taking your one shot in a pool game, and leaving yourself with “no shape.”  When I make the object of my practice the AVOIDANCE of the wrong note, I am thinking ahead to where I want to be.

I am positive that I learned to practice better by making the association between pool playing and piano playing.  This is the notice to all government grant-givers that piano teachers are now entitled to one pool table, and private lessons from one Gary McCarty.  I’m sure the government will be able to find him.  Please thank him for me when you do.

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