Coyle divides up the skills we learn into two basic types:
“Hard skills are about repeatable precision, and tend to be found in specialized pursuits, particularly physical ones.” He then gives examples, such as swinging a golf club or tennis racket, learning the multiplication tables, or a worker on an assembly line. “Here, your goal is to build a skill that functions like a Swiss watch—reliable, exact, and performed the same way every time, automatically, without fail. Hard skills are about ABC: Always Be Consistent.”
“Soft, high-flexibility skills, on the other hand, are those that have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills aren’t about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices. . . With these skills we are not trying for Swiss watch precision, but rather for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and to work past a complex set of obstacles. Soft skills are about the three R’s: Reading, Recognizing, and Reacting.”
It’s an interesting and helpful way to think of particular skills we want to master, or those we want our choir to master. In the next two tips, Coyle talks about how to develop either a hard or soft skill and I’ll deal with that in the next couple posts.
However, I think that one builds on another. You can’t be truly creative until you’ve mastered some of the underlying hard skills.
I’ll go back to John Wooden again, drawing from Ronald Gallimore and Swen Nater’s book on his teaching/coaching: "drill for Coach Wooden is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Drilling is intended to achieve an automaticity or mastery of fundamentals that opens up opportunities for individual creativity and initiative.”
In other words, the soft skills can’t come until the hard skills are well established.
If you want to improvise well, you have to have an incredibly thorough understanding of the fundamentals and great technique with your instrument. A friend told me a story recently about the late Gerre Hancock (marvelous organist and choral musician who was a prodigious improvisor) going to Paris to study improvisation with the noted pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger. He came to her apartment the first time, expecting a lesson on improvisation, but instead she handed him a fugue subject and asked him to go write a fugue. He was a bit confused, but did so (one wouldn’t argue with Madame Boulanger) and came back at the next appointed time, fugue in hand. She corrected it, then handed him another fugue subject. This continued for months. One week, after bringing his fugue, he took the subject she handed him and began to leave. “But no,” she said, “now you will come in and play a fugue based on this subject.” In other words, he’d so thoroughly mastered the art of writing a fugue that he could now begin to improvise one on the spot.
For conductors, clearly, developing the hard skill of a reliable conducting technique is a necessary prelude to being able to improvise gesture that fits the music one is conducting. As I tell my conducting students, I rarely think about my gesture—but if I know the music really, really well—have internalized it—then my gesture should do what it’s supposed to do, elicit the music I hear internally from my singers and instrumentalists.
The same is true of rehearsal technique. I’ve written about it here, here, and also here. As your rehearsal technique becomes more and more secure, it allows the freedom to improvise in rehearsal. Just as mastering the skills of cooking and an understanding of how different ingredients will combine allow a great chef the freedom to modify a recipe to great result.
In this sense, so much that we do is both craft and art: we have to work incredibly hard to develop our skills, our craft . . . but after that art has the possibility to flourish.
One of my fondest memories at PLU was taking the choir on tour and getting to that point where the details of performing our repertoire were secure in such a way that on a given night I could “play” with the music and the choral "instrument." But this was always a two-way street—the singers’ response (to the room, to the music) could also influence me—in that way at its best, performance becomes a complex, creative, and artistic dance between conductor and ensemble (and room and audience). Those are the moments (not always present, of course) when the experience transcends our usual music making. And those transcendent moments and performances are what makes it all worthwhile.