The Last Steam Engine Train (Issue 1009)

In which we are reminded that, to learn new technique, we must be patient.

“If it sounds like music, you’re not doing it right.” Guidance about learning a new piece of music. I don’t remember which of my teachers shared that with me or whether I read it in an article about training musicians. And it stuck with me. “If it sounds like music (when you’re practicing), you’re not doing it right.”

Although I studied with sheet music and enjoyed playing the Euphonium in concert bands, I fell in love with American folk music and the acoustic guitar. A good ear, some music theory, and a chord book enabled me to learn to play the guitar by listening and imitating what I heard. For the most part, the music was simple enough that I could quickly learn and play folk songs and many popular songs. Very satisfying.

But that ease and satisfaction led to a short fuse when attempting more challenging pieces. I would find myself leaving a new, challenging piece and playing bits that were familiar and, therefore, satisfying. The result is that I’m really good at what I do and I haven’t significantly expanded my repertoire.

So, now I’m working on a finger-picking piece, “The Last Steam Engine Train,” written by John Fahey and made most famous by Leo Kottke, a giant in the American acoustic guitar field. It is his most copied piece.

The chords are easy – E, A, and B7. The hard part is Kottke’s style, the speed and clarity with which he picks and the syncopation and muting he includes.

About this song, one fan wrote, “It’s not hard to play, but it’s hard to play well.”

Another wrote, “You almost forget how difficult the song is when you listen to him play it.”

Wrote a third, “I’ve played this song for 35 years. So, that’s how it’s supposed to sound. :)”

Yeah, that’s where I am with it, too. So, I’m now working on it and we’re back to, “If it sounds like music, you’re not doing it right.” I’m unpacking Kottke’s performance and technique and, phrase by phrase, note by note, relearning it.

If you’ve ever watched someone walking a powerful dog, like a Husky, that’s pulling hard on the leash, that’s how I feel as I’m practicing. In my head, I feel like a big dog that wants to pull hard and “make it sound like music” when what I need to be doing is walking slowly and patiently step by step next to my master, in this case, Kottke. “If it sounds like music (when you’re practicing), you’re not doing it right.”

When I give salespeople a conversation structure or design that’s new or a bit challenging, they behave the same way when we practice or role play. They quickly abandon the new, challenging bits and go back to what’s familiar and satisfying. The result is that they’re really good at the way they have always done it and they haven’t significantly expanded their repertoires, meaning, they haven’t experienced the success they could have achieved in sales any more than I did with the guitar.

Nick Miller and Clarity train banks and bankers to attract and develop deeper relationships with small businesses. Many more Sales Thoughts like this and a host of other articles and resources at .

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