Journey to the Expert Level

I have had the honor of performing the last two seasons with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  As a financial professional who has always tried to fit music into his life, being able to perform with world-class musicians has been a real pleasure.

Last year we performed Haydn’s The Seasons, a classic choral piece which features a group of soloists along with a full choir.

At the dress rehearsal, we ended up cutting much of the solo sections, which is often done to shorten rehearsal time.  But this time I caught the conductor mention something to the baritone soloist about saving his voice.

The next evening, we arrived at Severance Hall for our preconcert warmup, only to find that two of the soloists had to cancel at the last minute due to sickness.

While this may not sound like a big deal, it was actually a huge issue.  Without any backup soloists, we were faced with a concert hall full of patrons expecting The Seasons and we were undermanned in some key positions.

Luckily, the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra are experts.  The conductor sketched out which movements we would perform and planned on augmenting those sections with background commentary for the audience. 

The instrumentalists had the experience of playing this piece many times and were comfortable enough with the music and their instruments that they were able to adapt in the heat of the moment.

This may look a bit chaotic, but once the conductor takes the podium, it’s all focused.

This may look a bit chaotic, but once the conductor takes the podium, it’s all focused.

In the end, the piece came off beautifully.  Although we didn’t perform The Seasons in its entirety that evening, we gave attendees a unique mix of performance and discussion.  It remains one of my favorite experiences on stage at Severance Hall.

So what does it take to reach the expert level with an instrument?  And what enabled the orchestra to adapt so easily to unusual circumstances?

I attended the CMT Symposium last week in New York, and on the flight home I was struck by how the process of learning an orchestral instrument and the process of learning technical analysis are more related than you might think.

When you’re a beginner and learning an instrument for the first time, you’re just trying to get the basic techniques down.  It starts with making a sound, and over time you’re able to turn those sounds into something coherent.

This is sort of like reading a book on technical analysis; trying to learn the toolkit and getting a basic command of the analysis.

At the intermediate level, a musician is able to focus more on the interpretation.  Now you’re being exposed to different musical styles and learning how your instrument relates to all the other instruments.

A candidate going through the CMT program is at this intermediate level.  You now have a sense of what the technical toolkit can do, and you’re filling in all the blanks in your process.  How does your process relate to other forms of analysis?  Where are there gaps in my approach?

Amateurs know the rules, but experts know the exceptions.
— Ralph Acampora

Finally, we have the expert level, where a musician can adapt musically to the instrumentalists around them with maximum flexibility.  You have a deep familiarity with different musical styles, and now have the confidence to chart your own course (pun intended) musically.  This is where musicians are able to not just consume music and interpret music, but also create music.  You are defining the performance standards that future musicians will aspire to.

So what does the expert level look like for investors?

I see three capabilities that an expert-level analyst is able to wield in their efforts to maximize returns and minimize risk.

First, an expert brings experience.

Learning a toolkit is one thing.  Modeling that toolkit to see how it performs over time is even better.  But there is no substitute for putting money behind your analysis and applying a toolkit real-time in the markets.

An expert is able to share how they applied the toolkit in different environments and how they evolved their process over time.

Second, an expert is a savvy exclusionist.

What I mean is they are able to say with authority what does not have a place in their process.  An intermediate investor is trying anything and everything to see what works.  This is part of the learning process as they see how others have tried to outperform.

An expert knows what is in their routine, and more importantly, they know what is not in their routine, and for good reason.

Finally, an expert is able to adapt to new conditions.

Last week at the CMT Symposium I was fortunate to be able to spend time with one of my mentors, Ralph Acampora.  Many years ago, Ralph told me that “amateurs know the rules, but experts know the exceptions.”

An expert is able to leverage market experience and has a strong command of the technical toolkit which allows a better sense of where technical analysis fits into the overall investment process.  More importantly, they are able to recognize when their process needs to evolve due to the changing market environment.

That last point is the toughest of all, and over time some experts lose the ability or the drive to adapt. If the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra were unable to adapt to an unexpected surprise, that concert would have been a major disappointment for all.

Ask yourself, “What can I do to thrive at each of these levels?”

As a beginner, be a voracious reader.  Try everything you can.  Make mistakes.  Learn from them.  Enroll in the CMT program.

At the intermediate level, connect with others that are at a similar place in their journey to compare notes and share experiences.  Help those at the beginner level to get closer to where you are.  Speak with experts (now that you have some expertise of your own!) and ask questions to get closer to where they are.  Attend the CMT Symposium.

Once you’re an expert, resist the temptation to rest on your laurels.  Share your experiences.  Encourage others.  Push the Body of Knowledge forward.  Speak at the CMT Symposium.

Regardless of where you are in your investment education, enjoy the now.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mindfulness journey, it’s to celebrate the moment.  Be thankful for how far you’ve come, be excited for what the future may bring, but focus on what’s happening around you.


Disclaimer: This blog is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as financial advice. Please see the Disclaimer page for full details.