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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Building Skills 15

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #24, Visualize the Wires of Your Brain Getting Faster.
 
In this tip, Coyle is referencing his earlier book, The Talent Code. In it he looks at research into the way the brain works with particular reference to myelin (you may have read about the "myelin sheath") that surrounds the axon of a neuron in the brain. It is an electrical insulator and as you repeat actions, the myelin sheath grows (myelination) and increases the speed with which electrical impules flow from one neuron to another. In essence, it's the way practice—repetition—makes those repeated actions easier, more automatic, and better. In the appendix of The Little Book of Talent Coyle quotes Dr. George Bartzokis, a scientist at UCLA: "What do good athletes do when they train? They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelate that wire. They end up, after all that training, with a super-duper wire—lots of bandwidth, a T-3 line. That's what makes them different from the rest of us."
 
To get back to Tip #24, Coyle suggests, "When you practice, it's useful and motivating to visualize the pathways of your brain being transformed from simple copper wires to high-speed broadband, because that's what's really happening."
 
In much the same way as telling my choir about the difference between "drill" and "scrimmage," and increasing what I've called the "density" of their rehearsals, I suspect that their understanding of myelination and what's really happening in their brains as we practice (or they practice individually in the practice room) could also increase the focus and effectiveness of their work.
 
Something to think about—and also useful for us individually as we work to improve our own rehearsal and conducting skills.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Building Skills 14

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #22 - Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake.
 
Coyle notes that, "Most of us are allergic to mistakes. . . Brain scan studies reveal a vital instant, .025 seconds after a mistake is made, in which people do one of two things—they look hard at the mistake or they ignore it. People who pay deeper attention to an error learn significantly more than those who ignore it."
 
This reminds me of the practice in many British choirs (and many influenced by the practice here in the US) where the choir member raises their hand immediately after they make a mistake. I've always thought of this as a way for the chorister to let the conductor know they acknowledge the mistake, meaning it'll be corrected and no need to stop the rehearsal.
 
But this makes me think that perhaps there's another reason for this practice: it could literally help the singer learn more quickly from their mistake—and repeat a mistake fewer times (or not at all).
 
If some of you use this practice regularly in your choir, let us know in a comment if it's made a difference in the number of times a mistake is made before it's corrected.
 
An intriguing idea! And perhaps a good reason for me to ask my singers to do this, too!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Building Skills 13

More from Daniel Coyle: Tip #17 Embrace the Struggle
 
Coyle:
In all of the talent hotbeds, from Moscow to Dallas to Brazil to New York, I saw the same facial expression: eyes narrow, jaws tight, nostrils flared, the face of someone intently reaching for something, falling short, then reaching again. This is not a coincidence. Deep practice has a telltale emotional flavor, a feeling that can be summed up in one word, "struggle."
Well, I don't want my singers having tight jaws (!), but I do understand the image—one of individuals or a group focusing on doing something they can't yet do.
 
Much like teaching your choir to embrace drill—not as something to avoid, but as a way to internalize and make automatic music or a skill—we need to teach them to embrace that which is truly difficult for them. Coyle again,
Most of us instinctively avoid struggle, because it's uncomfortable. It feels like failure. However, when it comes to developing your talent, stuggle isn't an option, it's a biological necessity. . . The struggle and frustration you feel at the edge of your abilities—that uncomfortable burn of "almost, almost"—is the sensation of constructing new neural connections.
I remember working with a voice student years ago and sensing his growing frustration in the lesson. I finally asked him what was bothering him. He replied by asking why I was so negative and spent so much time working on the things he couldn't do instead of praising him for the things he could. I answered that I did recognize (and told him) all those things he did well, but if we spent most of our time on things that were easy for him, he wouldn't make progress. We then worked together to find ways for him to feel good about his accomplishments, but also to put up with spending most of his time practicing those things that weren't easy—which were, in fact, a struggle.
 
In the same way, we need to find ways to teach our singers to embrace struggle. This is a great lesson for them not only in the choir, but in the rest of their lives as well. And of course, it's a lesson to us, too—not to be content with those things or the repertoire which we already know and do well. We need to explore, to push boundaries, to try new things—to live with uncertainty and the possibility of failure. Those things that are worthwhile do take struggle, but that's the only way we grow.