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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Books Worth Your Time VII

For this blog series I started out with the idea of alternating books on music with books on other subjects. But I've realized that most of the great music books are fairly well known or are are so specific that they might have limited interest (maybe I'll combine some in a post later).
So I'm going on with books on other subjects that I hope you'll find of interest.

Next we go to Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent--52 Tips for Improving Your Skills. Coyle is the author of The Talent Code, a book I can also recommend.

Coyle is a journalist who, for an article, researched places—training centers, camps, charter schools, etc.—which created a much higher level of talented people than others ("hotbeds of talent"). He also visited with scientists doing research, notably K. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University, who coined the term "deliberate practice" to describe a very focused, intense type of practice (it's also his research that led to the "10,000 hour rule," which Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book, Outliers, the Story of Success). And if you want to know more about deliberate practice (it's worth it), this article has some great links.

Honestly, all of those books are worth reading, but The Little Book of Talent is exactly that, a little book, the hardback edition the physical size of a paperback, 119 pages long. Since Coyle himself is a "father, volunteer basketball coach, and husband of a hockey-playing wife," while he did his research he wondered about all sorts of practical problems:
As a family, we struggled daily with the usual questions and anxieties that revolve around the process of acquiring and developing skills. How do we help our daugher learn her multiplication tables? Howe do we tell a genuine talent from a momentary interest? What's the best way to spark motivation? . . . As it turned out, visiting these remarkable places was not just a chance for me to be a journalist. It was also a chance to become a better coach and a better dad.
So, he started taking notes when he spotted a great tip for teaching or learning. And those notes became the basis for this book, divided into several categories (his words quoted below):
  1. Getting Started: ideas for igniting motivation and creating a blueprint for the skills you want to build.
  2. Improving Skills: methods and techniques for making the most progress in the least time.
  3. Sustaining Progress: strategies for overcoming plateaus, keeping motivational fires lit, and building habits for long-term success.
Tip #1 is "stare at who you want to become." This is about using role models—those people who already can do those things you'd like to be able to do—and truly and deeply observe what they do and how they do it (in Coyle's words, "the kind of raw, unblinking, intensely absorbed gazes you see in hungry cats or newborn babies"). For example, very early on I started to focus on and track how the conductor of the choir rehearsed (Rod Eichenberger was my undergrad teacher). After doing this for awhile, I would try to guess what Rod was going to do when he stopped the choir. Would he address pitch, rhythm, sound, intonation, phrasing? Did he stop to address the altos or the tenors? And I got pretty good at knowing what he was going to do. I was not analyzing what he was doing—I didn't write things down or classify the kinds of things he'd did. I was simply absorbing how he prioritized in a rehearsal and, of course, was listening intently to what the choir did. And in doing this, I was absorbing a chunk of his rehearsal technique without thinking about it consciously. I continued to do this with any conductor I worked with and could often start to catch on to what a conductor would most likely do after a relatively short period of time. This was even true when I visited Wilhelm Ehmann in Germany when I was 21. I didn't understand any German at that time, but could still begin to make good guesses at what he'd do after even a few days. We all have people we admire. Don't be afraid to do all possible to absorb what they do.

Tip #15, "break every move down into chunks."
Every skill built out of smaller pieces—what scientists call chunks.
Chunks are to skill what letters of the alphabet are to language. Alone, each is nearly useless, but when combined into bigger chunks (words), and when those chunks are combined into still bigger things (sentences, paragraphs), they can build something complex and beautiful. . .
. . . ask yourself:
  1. What is the smallest single element of this skill that I can master?
  2. What other chunks link to that chunk?
Practice on chunk by itself until you've mastered it—then connect more chunks, one by one . . .
. . . Musicians at Meadowmount [one of his hotbeds of talent] cut apart musical scores with scissors and put the pieces into a hat, then pull each section out at random. Then, after the chunks are learned separately, they start combining them in the correct order, like so many puzzle pieces. "It works because the students aren't just playing the music on autopilot—they're thinking," says one of the school's violin instructors, Skye Carman.
In teaching vocal skills, most teachers separate out elements of good singing—posture, breathing, onset of tone, vowels, etc.—and work on each separately, then combine in order, since breath builds on posture, etc.. However, I found the Meadowmout idea fascinating and it reminded me of some aspects of Eric Ericson's rehearsal technique. He'd often take a piece and work on just one section of it in a rehearsal (the one that needed most work, of course!). But over the course of the rehearsals, all would gradually fit together and make sense.

Re-reading that little tip was already worth it for me! See if the book can offer you some ideas as well.

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