Sunday, April 21, 2013

Back to the Basics

This morning I started reading a new woodworking book; The Foundations of Better Woodworking by Jeff Miller. I waited a while to buy this book because like every fifth grade band student, my eyes glaze over when the the thought of having to do any work to get better comes up.

I read the introduction this morning and have to say I am now very excited to read this book. If I didn’t have to work today, I probably would try to read the whole thing.

What got me jazzed up about it, you ask? The last episode of The Highland Woodworker had a nice interview with Jeff Miller. I didn’t know before, but Jeff used to be a professional trumpet player and teacher. I could tell where he is going with this book by the first sentence of the preface:
Over the course of a long teaching career, I have found that a large number of students – even the most thoughtful and well-equipped – lack the most fundamental level of knowledge and skills.
I was also trained to be a music teacher and a professional brass player. I completely understand what this means, and would agree. I don’t think this is going to be a book about how the author cuts a mortise and tenon with his table saw and a $500 jig to make a project that is one of the chapters of his book, this is going to be a book about the nitty gritty basic skills that you will be able to use on the project you are working on right now. Or, better yet, how to practice those basic skills so you can use them with authority on every project from now on.

Another great woodworking teacher who is a former music teacher and musician is Shannon Rodgers of the Hand Tool School. I haven’t taken one of his classes yet, but I have watched a lot of his videos on YouTube. He also constantly speaks of Basic Skills, practicing certain operations and improving skills to use on your next project.

Let me tell all of you engineers what it means when one of us musicians keep harping on fundamentals, basic skills, or any other of our music education buzzwords that you have been programmed to ignore since your fifth grade band class. The most skilled musicians have only done a good job at internalizing these basic skills (such as breathing, posture, efficiency of movement, background knowledge of the piece, style, genre, etc.,) to such a degree that they can focus not on their technique, but on the overall effect of their performance.

I can remember one lesson I was teaching a young trombone player. I had assigned him a lyrical etude to practice the week before. Once he played it, I asked him how he thought he did. He said that it was hard, but he thought it was pretty good. He played all of the notes on the page. 

I wanted him to see his performance from a new angle, so I told him to imagine that he just played that piece for a whole audience that had paid $20 each to be able to sit in the theater to experience that performance. “Did they get their money’s worth?” I asked.


“Try it again. This time your job is to make those people think they were lucky to be able to hear it.”

I could not believe the difference. Once this student learned what the goal of learning all those notes was, he put the piece he played in perspective. He actually did a good job over the week of practicing the fundamentals of that piece. He just needed to be shown what he could do with those fundamentals and what he should be thinking about and how to apply them once he had them.

I have noticed that just a few years ago I also was a fifth grade band student as far as my woodworking goes. Enthusiasm and nice tools are no substitute for knowledge of the foundations of woodworking. I don’t think it was really until I took a class and started interacting with other woodworkers and teachers that I feel like I am on the path to learning to be an effective woodworker.

Getting back to the book, I am looking forward to this read as I think I can relate with Jeff's style and I know the importance of maintaining the basics for becoming a better trombone player woodworker.


  1. Fundamentals are so important. They are the foundation upon which any development of a craft can be built.
    Very interesting stuff.

  2. Fundamentals are everything. Besides being a passionate woodworker I am a tennis player. And it never gets old ... watch the ball. It is amazing how one has to learn how to watch the ball ... track the ball.

    Music (I play guitar badly), language, and woodworking ... and life.

    We go through our craft one step at the time and working on a foundation, building blocks. If our foundation is weak eventually the product will show it.

    There is an new educator who is amazing and speaking about building blocks, basic skills. Check out he is amazing.

    Nice book. I may have to buy this one. Nice blog entry.

    1. It is weird how you can spend so much time and energy learning anything like music, golf, or tennis, and forget a fundamental at the most inconvenient of times.

      The more we remind ourselves and practice good habits, the fewer those errors occur.

  3. Well said. I find that woodworking is one area that artistic vision and engineering attention to detail come together.

  4. A great book by a very talented man. I found that I had slipped in some areas of "basics" and was reminded to get back to it. In my humble opinion this should be one of the first books a beginner reads.

  5. I've been considering purchasing this book, but I am going to take the Hand Tool School class first. Funny thing that you studied to be a music teacher because I did the same thing. I received my degree in performance but I never got the certificate for teaching. That doesn't mean that I never gave lessons, which I did for a time, but without the certificate you cannot work in a state school district, at least not as a full-fledged teacher. It's one of my regrets that I never got it. On the other hand, I was also finishing up my electrical courses at the time and getting my electrician certifications. There wasn't enough of me to do everything I wanted to do.

    1. I only wound up teaching in the public schools for one year. It wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. My first day in the Army band was amazing after that. I earned more money, and I had no responsibilities other than playing my trombone. After dealing with angry parents, PIA school boards, budgets, lesson plans, mandated topics, and parents who didn't give a rats, this seemed like heaven!