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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Improving Skills 2

Daniel Coyle's The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills Tip #3 is, "Steal without apology." This is something I've long believed—it's one of the best ways to acquire new skills. When you see a fine conductor do something—gesture, rehearsal technique, etc.—that works, follow the advice given in the first post, quoting Coyle, "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." Then . . . add it to your repertoire. As Picasso says, "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal."
 
An interesting example is given:
Linda Septien, founder of the Linda Septien School of Contemporary Music, a hotbed near Dallas that has produced millions of dollars in pop music talent (including Demi Lovato, Ryan Cabrera, and Jessica Simpson), tells her students, "Sweetheart, you gotta steal like crazy. Look at every single performer better than you and see what they've got that you can use. Then make it your own. Septien follows her own advice, having accumulated fourteen three-ring notebooks worth of ideas stolen from top performers. In plastic sleeves inside the binders, in some cases scribbled on cocktail napkins, reside tips on everything from how to hit a high note to how to deal with a rowdy crowd (a joke works best).
I know I can trace some specific gestures or rehearsal techniques I use to particular teachers, mentors, or conductors I've observed. But you have to find a way to make these skills yours. That comes with practice. You have to absorb it so thoroughly that it now belongs to you. And, of course, to quote Ecclesiastes, "There is nothing new under the sun." Those you "steal" from have no doubt "stolen" it from someone else.
 
You can also absorb certain things unconsciously . . . and that can be good or bad. I know some things I learned as a singer in Rod Eichenberger's University of Washington Chorale as an undergraduate—notably a sense of rhythm and phrasing—gradually became a part of me and my approach to music, and for that I'll be eternally grateful.
 
But at the same time sometimes we copy things that aren't an essential part of a conductor's success. If you copy Robert Shaw's rehearsing with a towel around his neck instead of his amazing score study habits, it's unlikely your conducting will improve!
 
So, steal freely. But make sure you practice until the new skill belongs to you . . . and then someone else can steal it from you.

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