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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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Books Worth Your Time VI

How do we, given the enormous number of things we do in our jobs as conductors, keep sane and healthy? How can we deal better with stress?
 
Are there ways for us to do what we do with joy, full energy, and full engagement?
 
This week's title is The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The subtitle tells the story: "Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal."
 
Jim Loehr has been a coach to hundreds of athletes, working with, among others tennis players Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, and Monica Seles; golfers Mark O'Meara and Ernie Els; basketball players Nick Anderson and Grant Hill; and speed skater Dan Jansen. Loehr's coaching was not about their athletic skills or technique, but in helping them manage their energy more effectively. After those successes, Loehr's company expanded to corporate clients and entrepreneurs.
 
In his language, you have to become a "corporate athlete"—we might say "conductor athlete" or "teaching athlete."
 
In order to achieve great performance he outlines several principles:
  1. Full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual
  2. Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal
  3. To build capacity, we must push beyond our normal limits, training in the same systematic way that elite athletes do
  4. Positive energy rituals—highly specific routines for managing energy—are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance
This has to do with all the elements that go into those areas of energy: what you eat, how you exercise, how you rest and sleep, etc. He says, "The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in and endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion. We become flat liners mentally and emotionally by relentlessly spending energy without sufficient recovery. Either way, we slowly but inexorably wear down."
 
The space (and time to write!) I have for this blog is far too short to fully describe the book. He uses a hypothetical example of a stressed out manager who's falling apart that they work with in order to go through the steps of building capacity (in all the areas: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual). It's a good way to illustrate the process they take clients through in their work (and to imagine your own challenges).
 
I've found this immensely valuable, although I'm not equally successful in all areas! However, this year is a good test for me: last year, in addition to my teaching and administrative job at UNT, I became Interim Chancel Choir Director at the largest Methodist Church in the world: Highland Park UMC. This year, however, I've added the title (and most of the job) of Interim Director of Music & Arts in a program with a big concert series and many other things to administer. I have help, of course, and the staff at HPUMC is wonderful. But I still have to find the time to get all the work done at both jobs and not short either place.
 
I'd already learned one of the biggest lessons from the book, which is that humans work best naturally in a rhythmic, pulsing way—i.e., we need to regularly exert effort, but then disengage, even if briefly. Over the last decade or so I've gotten much better at being able to work intensely with lots of focus and energy, but then disengage for a short time with an activity (which can be surprisingly short) that allows me to recharge my batteries. Much like the waves in the ocean, the energy we exert needs to be used in pulses of both energy and rest and renewal.
 
I'm much better at giving myself time for mental, emotional, and spiritual renewal. And I find ways, when I have a day off to truly disengage, renew and recreate (and I usually schedule a massage!). All of that is invaluable.
 
I'm not nearly as good keeping up with the physical side: making time for regular exercise, eating better, and getting enough sleep . . . but I'm working on it!
 
I think you'll find this book and its ideas a valuable addition to your library. All of us need to find ways to renew ourselves to be able to give our choirs the best we have to offer! And we need it to truly live life and not just survive it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Books Worth Your Time V

My next recommendation is a book by Doug Lemov, who you may know from the book Teach Like a Champion or it's follow-up, Teach Like a Champion Field Guide. Both are terrific, all about better ways to teach. I recommend them, too!
 
But today I'll look at Doug's most recent book (along with co-authors Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi), Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better.
 
This is all about the art (and science, in some cases) of practice. Using examples from top-level athletes and established teachers, as well as those in business or even long-time surgeons, the authors show how deliberately engineered and designed practice can make us better at almost anything we do (this quoted from the inside dust jacket, but very accurate. The fact that they don't use musicians in their examples won't get in the way of figuring out how better to teach your students, or rehearsing/practicing with your choir to make them better.
 
Since much of what they did in looking at champion teachers was to try to find ways to get other, less experienced or less skilled teachers to learn how to follow those models, they discovered that it was important for them to find better ways for the teachers to practice their new skills. Otherwise they weren't successful. So now they had to discover the rules of successful practice, or their teaching technique wouldn't improve.
 
I'll give a random set of examples of chapter titles ("Rules") to give you an idea:
Encode Success
Let the Mind Follow the Body
Unlock Creativity . . . with Repetition
Practice "Bright Spots"
Correct Instead of Critique
Isolate the Skill
Integrate the Skills
Make Each Minute Matter
Shorten the Feedback Loop
Describe the Solution (Not the Problem)
Break Down the Barriers to Practice
Make it Fun to Practice
Leverage Peer-to-Peer Accountability
Walk the Line (Between Support and Demand)
 
Some of these won't be clear until you read the chapters (and remember, there are 42 "rules"). But it should give you an inkling of what's going on here.
 
Just as an example, "Shorten the Feedback Loop." This built on John Wooden's teaching (you can find a series I wrote about him here, fourteen posts about Coach Wooden's technique and approach): as a former player noted, "he believed correction was wasted unless done immediately" -- in other words, without quick correction, the player was building in the wrong thing--practicing the incorrect thing.
 
I wrote about this in terms of work with my choirs telling them the difference between scrimmage and drill. In a scrimmage, we're looking at a game (for us, concert) situation in practice--running through a section or complete piece. Whereas in drill, we focus on fewer things, much repetition, and constant corrections. While we need both (and the percentage spent in each will change as we get closer to the concert), without lots of drill, certain things simply won't get better. It's focused drill, with constant feedback, that will make the choir better in the shortest time. We still have to mix in scrimmage, otherwise they don't know how to get through a section or piece, but that's a matter of balance. I also discovered that my students quickly got the idea of the importance of drill and this made them much more patient with the quick start/stop/correction/sing it again of drill. As I put it in an earlier post, it greatly increased the density of accomplishment in my rehearsals.
 
I'm still reading and re-reading this book in little chunks, then thinking about how a particular technique or way of thinking might apply to me in my work with choirs. I suspect I will for a long time. And I hope you'll find it valuable, too!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interrupting our current program . . . (Eric Ericson)

I finally found my copy of Ron Jeffers' notes from attending a workshop with Eric Ericson. These are fantastic and illustrate many aspects of Eric's art, so I thought it worthwhile to interrupt my current blog series on worthwhile reading to give this. As the pdf states, it's from a workshop in 1981 (Haystack is a large rock--shaped like a Haystack--at Cannon Beach, OR).

Most of you will know Ron as the owner of publisher earthsongs or for his (invaluable--and this really is a book you want on your shelf!) book on translations of Latin texts (or the follow-ups in other languages by different authors). But you may not know that Ron was an absolutely first-rate choral conductor at Oregon State University and other places.

Well, so I did recommend a book after all!

Enjoy Ron's notes!