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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Improving Skills 1

This next blog series revolves around several books and their perspectives on increasing our skills. Those skills can range from conducting technique to rehearsal technique to score study, if we think of our own skills as conductors. It can also mean the skills we teach our singers, which are equally important.
 
As you've seen in the previous series on Books Worth Reading, I often draw inspiration from books that aren't directly about music—they can range from psychology to sports to . . . well, almost anything.
 
I'll start with Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent, which I referenced here. It developed out of Coyle's research (as a magazine writer develping an article) looking at "talent hotbeds" and how some people or schools or organizations developed an inordinate (and statistically significantly larger) number of exceptionally talented individuals. In essence, how these particular individuals showed such remarkable skill growth. The "Little Book" is his series of tips for improving skills.
 
So, let's get to work!
 
Tip #2 is "Spend 15 Minutes a Day Engraving the Skill on Your Brain" (I wrote about Tip #1, "Stare About Who You Want to Become," in the post linked above).
 
Coyle says that in learning a new skill, "Many hotbeds use an approach I call the engraving method. Basically, they watch the skill being performed, closely and with great intensity, over and over, until they build a high-intensity mental blueprint." He uses an example of Timothy Gallwey teaching a woman who'd never played tennis how to hit a forehand, without ever saying a word, in about 20 minutes. He also uses the example of Suzuki teaching, where a particular song is engraved by listening intently (and over and over) in the students' brains.
 
There are many ways to use this idea (which isn't new, of course).
 
I remember learning to do a "kip" on the high bar as a junior high school student (this video shows a kip as a way to get onto the bar—it's only a little humiliating that the person doing the kip—and something much more difficult afterward—is a 6 year old girl!). It wasn't until I'd watched it done by my fellow classmates many times that I could imagine how it felt in my brain, that I could do it myself. I had to internalize and imagine doing the move before I could do it. But it was visualizing the move intensely that made that happen.
 
How can this apply to skill development? Lots of ways, of course!
  • Learning a new conducting technique, watch someone intently on the particular technique/move (someone who does it well, of course!). Given today's video capability with our phones, get video of someone (a colleague, your teacher, fellow student) doing it. Spend 15 minutes a day watching intently and absorbing the move until you can feel it in your brain. Then see if you can do it, having absorbed it into your own physical repertoire.
  • For singers to recreate certain kinds of sounds we can teach in a variety of ways, but models—sound models—can be the most effective. If a picture is worth a thousand words, can't we say the same thing about sound? Demonstrations (by yourself if you're skilled, by another member of the choir, or by a guest—perhaps a voice teacher) can help create the sound you desire from your choir, often more quickly than other methods. Of course, you have to be careful about this. In any demonstration you may inadvertently create some things you don't want. Intonation is a particular one—a good example of quality of sound may be sabotaged by your not paying attention to your intonation. Recordings can also be used, but care needs to be taken to give examples that are possible for your singers. I wouldn't use the Swedish Radio Choir for a middle school choir! (But I might use a recording of a great middle school choir—for example, a recording of boys singing with the best possible sound for male singers that age)
  • Style can also be taught/absorbed through excellent recordings. Long ago, when I was preparing the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer with my choir at PLU, I began every rehearsal playing recordings of Strauss waltzes by the Vienna Philharmonic. It was to absorb the style (very natural to those musicians) of playing a waltz: the right kind of lilt, where the 2nd beat gets placed rhythmically, the difference between a waltz and a Ländler). How much did it help? I can't separate it out, but I believe much is absorbed unconsciously in doing this kind of listening. I should also say that I had a waltz party with our dance teacher coming in to teach the singers to dance the waltz!
Think of your own examples! Please reply and share your ideas with everyone!

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