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Friday, April 23, 2010

Michael Jordan: Failure is why I succeed

I'd read this quote from Michael Jordan about how many times he's failed (lost games, missed shots), but never seen this video. Or this one.

Powerful for all of us who rehearse, practice, and struggle every day to do better--and a reminder that our successes come out of our many mistakes and failures. See my post on Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success about the differences between the "fixed" or "growth" mindset.

Summer Reading II

This recommendation is for two books, both approaching the same topic from a slightly different vantage point: Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.

Both deal with the modern science (neurological, psychological) behind how we develop skills (and the nature of world-class talent). Coyle speaks a lot about recent studies of the development of myelin in the brain and how that works in the development of skills: myelin is the substance that forms a sheath around nerves. In the case of disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis, myelin is destroyed and nerve impulses can no longer travel, leading eventually to total loss of muscular control (Jacqueline du Pre is the best known musician who suffered from MS). In the case of skill development, myelin in the brain is deposited around the incredible mass of interconnections in the brain and speeds up the electrical impulses as we repeat tasks over and over. This laying down of more myelin happens because of what scientist Anders Ericsson calls "deliberative practice" (both authors use his work extensively). This is a focused practice of tasks that are challenging, to the edge, but not beyond, what is possible to do (and, much like moving progressively heavier weights will cause or muscles to get stronger and bigger, causes myelin to be laid around nerve fibers with many layers, improving the  conductivity of those nerves, and therefore the speed of impulses). Coyle calls this "deep practice" (a term I rather like). This is connected with other research that shows that extraordinary skill takes many hours (usually estimated at around 10,000 hours) to develop, but which only happens when the practice is of this nature (i.e., challenging, difficult). You can read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success for more about this. In a way, both authors take up Gladwell's style, which relies on many individual, anecdotal examples from different fields--and all three are superb writers.

Colvin's book was developed from an article he did for Fortune Magazine (he's a senior editor there), "What It Takes to Be Great," which you can find here.

I think both books are superb and have much to offer the musician, conductor, and teacher. Coyle speaks a lot about places where extraordinary numbers of talented people originate (and more importantly, why): soccer players in Brazil, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools, South Korean female golfers, etc. He also looks at teachers and coaches who have had special success, from John Wooden (former UCLA basketball coach) to Linda Septien of Dallas, who's had extraordinary success teaching/coaching pop singers.

These books offer a glance into the world of "genius," which science is now showing is much less of an inborn/genetic thing, and capable of being developed more than we've ever thought before. They're also a guide to developing your own, or others', talent. As with Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (written about in an earlier post here), they're well written and, in fact, "easy reads," although both will repay repeated readings and study to translate into just how you will adapt this information to yourself, your students, your teaching, and your choirs.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Summer reading

Philip Copeland, who writes the excellent choralnet blog, has asked what else I've been reading lately, after my post on Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Well, there are a lot more than these, but I'll highlight the books I've found most interesting and important over the next week or so.

First is a little book about practice, focus, meditation and discipline: Thomas M. Sterner's The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life. Sterner is a musician, worked for years as a piano tuner/technician, as well as having an interest in Eastern philosophy. It's one of the best books I've read about developing better habits of discipline and focus. He has a wonderful little section that speaks to our habit of rushing through things and multi-tasking: with a day ahead that included getting two pianos ready (one for the piano soloist with the local symphony), then travel to do other tuning work, then back in the evening to check both pianos before the concert. He notes that he'd done this kind of thing many times and knew very well how much time it took, and that it was about two and a half times the amount considered a day's work in the trade. I'll let him speak from here:
When I started on the first piano, I put all of my effort into "being slow." I opened my tool box very slowly. Instead of grabbing a handful of tools and thinking I was saving time, I took each tool out one at a time. I placed each tool neatly in position. When I began setting up the piano, I performed each process individually, trying to deliberately work slowly.

It's a funny feeling when you try this. At first, your internal dialogue is howling at you to get going and pick up the pace. It is screaming at you, "We'll never get this done, you are wasting time." It is reminding you of the whole day's worth of work you have to get done to meet everyone's approval. You can feel the anxiety start to build and the emotions floating up to the surface. However, your ego quickly loses ground to the simplicity of doing one thing at a time and doing it slowly, on purpose. It has no place to build stress and work up internal chatter. That is because working slowly in today's world goes against every thought system. You can only work slowly if you do it deliberately. Being deliberate requires you to stay in the process, to work in the present moment.

After I finished the first instrument, I even went through the process of packing up my tools with meticulous care, just to walk ten feet away and unpack them slowly, one at a time, to start the second piano. Usually I would grab two handfuls of as much as I could carry and scurry through the orchestra chairs on stage trying to sve time. Not this day, however. I was determined to carry out my goal plan of just trying to work slowly. We spend so much time rushing everything we do. Rushing had become so much of a habit that I was amazed at the concentration it took to work slowly on purpose.

I took off my watch so I wouldn't be tempted to look at the time and let that influence my pace. I told myself, "I am dong this for me and for my health, both physical and mental. I have a cell phone and, if need be, I can call whomever and tell them I am running late, and that's the best I can do."

Into the second piano, I began to realize how wonderful I felt. No nervous stomach, no anticipation of getting through the day, and no tight muscles in my shoulders and neck, just this relaxed, peaceful, what-a-nice-day-it-is feeling. I would even go so far as to describe it as blissful. Anything you can do in a rushing state is surprisingly easy when you deliberately slow it down. The revelation for me came, however, when I finished the second piano. I very slowly put my tools away one by one with my attention to every detail. I continued my effort at slowing down as I walked to my truck in the parking garage a block away. I walked very slowly, paying attention to each step. This may sound nuts at first, but it was an experiment on my part. I was experiencing such an incredible feeling of peacefulness in a situation that usually had every muscle in my body tense that I wanted to see just how far I could intensify the situation with my effort.

When I got to the truck, the clock radio came on with the turn of the key and I was dumbfounded. So little time had passed compared to what I had usually experienced for the same job in the past that I was sure the clock was incorrect. Keep in mind that I was repeating a process that I had done for many years. I have set up these pianos together sometimes five and six times a week. I had a very real concept of the time involved in the project. I pulled my watch out of my pocket as a second check. It agreed with the clock-radio that I had cut over 40 percent off the time. I had tried to work as slowly as possible and I had been sure I was running an hour late. Yet I had either worked faster (which didn't seem possible, given my attention to slowness), or I had slowed time down (an interesting thought, but few would buy it). Either way, I was sufficiently motivated to press on with the experiment throughout the remainder of the day. I got so far ahead of schedule that I was afforded the luxury of a civilized meal in a nice restaurant, instead of the usual sandwich in the truck or no lunch at all.

I have repeated these results consistently every time I have worked at being slow and deliberate. I have used this technique with everything from cleaning up the dishes after dinner to monotonous areas of piano restoration work that I don't particularly enjoy. The only thing that foils the result is when I am particularly lacking in stamina and find myself drifting back and forth between working with slowness and succumbing to my feeling of, "I have to get this work done quickly."
The rest of the book is certainly as good and as interesting as this passage.

How often do we rush our own work? Whether in preparation (score study, prepping for a class), teaching or rehearsal, does rushing (because we know we have so much to cover!) help?

I noted in an earlier post about working with the Swedish Radio Choir, that their ability to work in a slow, concentrated way on intonation, for example, is extraordinary. And I also mentioned how my sense of how much had to get done when I prepared Rachmaninoff's The Bells with them led to a too-fast pace and frustration (and not faster results). We need to think of this in our rehearsals: rushing (and not really mastering a passage in the music) rarely accomplishes much and may in fact build in bad habits or mistakes. It also means we have to build up the ability of our singers to focus, concentrate, and do the patient work necessary to succeed in difficult music. This is perhaps even more true today with all the distractions (cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, etc.) of the modern world.

Lots to think about, but this is certainly a book that's worthwhile!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Brahms Requiem--Piano Four-Hands

I just got back from Edmonton, where I conducted Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem with Pro Coro Canada in the version with piano four-hands.

This was done by Brahms himself and published not too long after it was premiered (the manuscript is in the Library of Congress) and now reprinted by Carus Verlag. This was common at the time for larger works (symphonies, concertos, oratorios, etc.) as this was a practical way to get to know new music (no recordings in those days!). And, of course, Brahms loved the medium of piano four-hands (his Liebeslieder Walzer were written just the year after than the Requiem). The piano part includes the vocal parts--i.e., could be done purely by two pianos--but was also intended for smaller performances, and was first done that way in England in 1871.

This version fell out of favor until about a decade ago when chamber choirs in Europe (especially some of the professional radio choirs) started performing it.

I decided to do it with Pro Coro for our Good Friday program this year. I'd only heard one performance of that version, which wasn't terrific. There are now several recordings extant: with Accentus, the wonderful French choir; Vasari Singers; The Sixteen; the King's College Choir; and a version just for piano. I decided not to listen to any since I wanted to approach this version with a fresh ear to the differences.

I conducted the Reqiem first in 1993 with the Anchorage Music Festival, substituting for Robert Shaw after he'd had a series of TIAs (mini strokes) and his doctors had told him to cut back on his schedule. Since, I'd prepared with the Seattle Symphony for conductor John Nelson, and then twice (in 2007 and 2008) with the Swedish Radio Choir.

With Pro Coro I had five 3-hour rehearsals and we'd expanded the choir to 33 from our usual 24. We ended up with four and a half rehearsals--one of our pianists was involved in a car accident coming to the dress rehearsal, so we ended up with only the last hour and a half for the run-through. The choir was very well prepared by this point, so it was no problem and I would probably have let them go early anyway. We were also lucky in having the hall for two rehearsals, so we'd already worked in the concert hall (Winspear Centre) for Wednesday's rehearsal, allowing us time to figure out balances with the piano and for the pianists to get used to the instrument.

What a great experience to do this version with a small, excellent choir! I still love the full orchestral version and would do it anytime a performance is offered, but the ease of balancing accompaniment with choir, the ability of the choir to sing pure pianos and pianissimos, plus the extra flexibility with rubato made this a great experience.

Our regular accompanist, Jeremy Spurgeon, was joined by Roger Admiral--both are superb pianists and sensitive musicians, so it was a joy to make music with them.

Soloists came from the chorus, with Janet Smith singing the soprano solo in number five and two different baritones, Michael Kurschat and Jihwan Cho, singing numbers three and six, respectively. All did a great job, Janet singing hers from memory. Jihwan is moving to Vancouver, B.C. to pursue doctoral study there at UBC next year, and we'll miss him with Pro Coro.

For anyone with a skilled, smaller choir (anywhere from 30 to 50 or 60), able to handle the vocal demands (and the Requiem IS vocally demanding!), I'd highly recommend it. It isn't just a cheap alternative for those who can't afford an orchestra, but a version with a different artistic sensibility.