What I learned about card reading from Charlie Parker

Music and cards is about all I do – and sometimes they teach me about each other.

Charlie Parker, a saxophone player who was a major force in the music world both when he lived and beyond his lifetime, has something to teach us all about becoming a master at something.

At age 16 or so, when he had learned to play the sax well enough to gain some confidence in the most common keys played in the most popular tunes, he showed up to play his first jam session.  He was in the early stages of mastery, when excitement and freshness trump experience.  As it is said, he fell flat on his face, because he couldn’t play in the scales and keys required for the tune called at the session.

This was a major turning point for him, and he radically changed his practice.  Not only did he learn to play anything and everything in any key, he also vowed to never play the same thing twice in the same way.  This insistence on freshness means that he did not get comfortable and rely on loads of stock riffs and phrases – much in the way a reader should never stick with a canned meaning for cards or combos. He also did not neglect his musical education, steeping himself in the traditions of classical music.  As a result, his musical vocabulary and technique were stellar, and he had complete control of his choice of improvised notes.  Interestingly enough, when these improvisations are transcribed, any musician worth his salt will admit that the melodic construction, harmonic choices and beauty of the line are on a par with near perfection. Charlie played and played, for hours a day every day, and then he began playing with others and testing himself under pressure. His musicianship developed over time, with dedication and diligence.  While many would recognize him as the greatest jazz sax player to date, he worked for that title through hard work and feedback from his peer musicians.

While he had nothing to do with card reading, I can clearly see how easy the transition can be made from his musical journey to one of any card reader’s journey. The initial excitement and learning of the basics is only the first stage, and yet it is essential to begin reading as soon as possible in order to fall flat on our faces – to see where we still need to take our minds for growth. Next, we need to study the traditions well enough to understand the rules, the culture, the thinking behind any oracle or system.  How can we master any system without knowing its roots? How can we respect a tradition of which we are a part if we just dive right in and make it all up as we go or claim to be an expert when we are honestly not even very well experienced with something?   Next come the innovations that are fruit of experience and insight.  Here we find new techniques, methods of interpretation and styles, all inspired through use and the test of time.  Being a student of something does not make you an expert, nor does oodles of knowledge or even just doing something because of tradition – tradition dos not carry any more momentum in the validity of something than actual practice.

This is, in fact, very common in the music industry. There are those who love to perform and make music, and those who love to analyze and discuss it, and rarely do the two overlap by much. Most performers I know also do not have the time to amass recording collections, books on the subject, and other particulars.  Most music collectors, fans, concert goers and the like do not perform.

So it goes in card reading. Most readers just read, study and replace their decks when they get tattered. Above all, our goal is performing a service and keeping our skills as sharp as possible. How can one do that when one is always on the surface like a butterfly – going from one thing to the next, ever attracted by the new?  My advice to any readers is to understand where you are in your journey and realize that the journey is never finished, but it should also never stagnate.

Find spreads and decks that you resonate with and stick with them. Learn about the deck systems to the point that your grasp of that language is mature and competent, journal your progress, and give yourself YEARS to become proficient, but begin helping others as soon as you are ready. Every reading is like a jam session – randomness with a thread of coherency, collaboration and hopefully fun, every reading a step in the direction of improvement.

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