What I learned about design from inside a bathroom stall.

Once, when I was in the restroom near the front of a concert hall, I could hear the evening’s performer warming up. An international star. I’ve forgotten what he played onstage that night, but I remember what I heard through the bathroom wall: Scales. Granted, he was playing double-octave fff scales where quarter note = 144, and his notes sparkled like diamond dust as they filtered through the air ducts, but still. Scales.

I was a classical pianist

My first twenty-or-so minutes of every practice session went like this: warm up with scales. A few slow passes up and down the keyboard, then building in speed and intensity. The equivalent of stretching and a quick jog to get your heart rate up before a workout.

There’s this moment when the pads underneath your first finger-joints begin to swell. When you feel heat in the part of your hand where all the bones connect; that thick muscle at the base of the thumb is pulsing; the tendons that stretch across the tops of the wrist become elastic; the upper forearm and bicep muscles start to hum. Once you feel weight falling out of your shoulder joints and connecting through elbows and fingertips to land solid into the bottom of the key beds, you’ve hit the sweet spot. You’re ready to start the several hours of “real work” that’s ahead.

And scales are about more than warming up.

They are a means of focusing your mind and body for the rest of the practice. They are a proving ground where flaws are exposed. They are a safe place to solve problems. They are a playground where you develop your technique.

For example: most people are right-hand dominant, and lot of music is written so that the right hand carries the melody, the singing line, the important stuff. The right hand is the star. The left hand provides support and tends to stay in the background. This can mean that the natural dominance of the right hand and the typical weakness of the left are reinforced by the repertoire. Since the left hand’s main job is to stand behind the right, its weaknesses are often masked.

If you only play scales hands-together, it’s likely that you allow the right hand to carry the bulk of the responsibility, and the left one is just following. But try playing the same scale with only the left. Suddenly, you can hear those dropped notes, the note that you delivered with only half the proper weight, the note that came a fraction of a beat too soon. You identify your weaknesses in this technical exercise, and choose what to target for improvement.

In order to develop a strong and reliable left hand, you’ll start practicing a few scales each day with left hand alone. You’ll focus on perfect delivery for every left-hand note, timing each beat exactly with your metronome. You’ll soon be more confident playing left-hand solo. Then, you can add extra challenges: you play hands-together, but you voice the left-hand notes so that they are all ff and the right-hand notes are only mfOr perhaps all your left-hand notes are staccato, while the right is legatoOr, my favorite of all: the hands play counter rhythms, where one hand takes 2 notes to the beat, and the other takes 3 notes to the beat; a rhythmic balancing act.

In these exercises, you’re training the hands to function independently of each other. These are only a few of myriad ways to workshop your technique using scales.

My daily warm-up routine was earthy, sensual, gratifying. It may have been “required reading,” but it was also pleasure. Everything would start to feel better as I meditated A-flat-major, 3-against-2, medium, slow, fast.

Now I am a professional designer

I spent 14 years with the piano. Private teachers, university education. It was the best, biggest, & first love of my life. After five years with severe chronic pain (direct result of the practice), I ran out of resources. It broke me and I couldn’t recover. I quit.

I found a new career. Now I’m a visual designer.

I do quality work and I care a great deal about the end results. I do a lot of client work and some side projects here and there. I learn new things every time. I enjoy the process of creating. These projects are equivalent to my piano sonatas, concertos, etudes. They are the performance pieces, the things I prepare and deliver for a fee, the public-facing side of my practice.

But I have no design-equivalent of the musical warm up routine I described above. I don’t have a set of centering, pleasurable, objective daily design practices. I don’t know of any “design-scales” that would allow me to work out technical weaknesses. That help me to evaluate my progress. That I can check against external standards (i.e. the metronome).

Help, fellow designers! I want a set of gritty, unglamorous, private design exercises for daily use. What’s worked for you?