From Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: Tip #5 - Be willing to be stupid.
The point, of course, isn’t to be stupid, but to be willing to fail, to take risks. Coyle uses the example of Wayne Gretzky falling in practice and says, “As skilled as he was, Gretzky was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain—which means reaching, failing, and yes, looking stupid.”
There is a great Nike ad with Michael Jordan, which you probably already know, but it makes the same point: without taking risks (and failing) you won’t fail . . . but you’re unlikely to grow either.
But what does this mean for the conductor?
It certainly means challenging yourself. How can you push yourself beyond your current boundaries, your current skill level?
Repertoire is one logical area—it’s the basis for all we do, after all. Eric Ericson always maintained that his choirs (and he) grew through the challenges of particular repertoire:
You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were "rungs on the ladder" . . . because that's how I feel so strongly when we've learned a difficult and very good piece. I'm thinking naturally from the viewpoint of the Chamber Choir with [Lidholm's] Laudi from 1947, Fyra körer from 1953, then the big pieces of Stravinsky, Nono . . . Dallapiccola perhaps most of all, which is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956--Canto], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you "come out on the other side" after having done a piece like Lidholm's Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister. Canto feels like a final exam for the '50s choral life . . . early pieces that were difficult tonally and rhythmically became less so. Canto combined all the difficulties one was thrown between.
What repertoire will push your musicianship, your conducting technique, your ability to teach a particular style? The risk of failure or looking stupid is there, but believe me, it’s worth it.
Coyle says, “Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and makes new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better."
It deals with two different mindsets regarding learning. From that blog post:
Dweck says, "Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just walk and talk. They never decide it's too hard or not worth the effort. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward."Somewhere along the line, though, some children learn that they are being evaluated and become afraid of challenges (and paradoxically, continual praising children as being smart or supremely talented can lead to the fixed mindset).She tells of a study where they offered four-year-olds the choice between redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or trying a harder one. Even at this age, kids who had a fixed mindset--that is, they believed in fixed traits--chose the safe one. They told the researchers, kids who are born smart "don't do mistakes." The other children with a growth mindset--who believed you could get smarter--couldn't imagine doing a puzzle they'd done before. One girl said, "I'm dying to figure them out!"Again from Dweck, "So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It's about becoming smarter.”
All of us have things we’re comfortable with: our conducting technique, rehearsal technique, our usual way of doing things. Sometimes in order to grow, we have to give up our comfortable ways and change our technique—in a very real sense, change who we are. This almost certainly will mean that for a period of time you’ll be uncomfortable and, in fact, probably won’t do as well. But you need the time to grow those new connections in your brain—and perhaps, feel “stupid” for awhile. But if you’re not willing to go through that process you won’t grow.
So, if you want to grow and improve, don’t be afraid of mistakes and failure: "be willing to be stupid.” Challenge yourself, put yourself in situations where you’re certain to struggle. And give yourself the opportunity to change and grow.