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Friday, October 31, 2014

Improving Skills 3

From Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: Tip #5 - Be willing to be stupid.
The point, of course, isn’t to be stupid, but to be willing to fail, to take risks. Coyle uses the example of Wayne Gretzky falling in practice and says, “As skilled as he was, Gretzky was determined to improve, to push the boundaries of the possible. The only way that happens is to build new connections in the brain—which means reaching, failing, and yes, looking stupid.”
There is a great Nike ad with Michael Jordan, which you probably already know, but it makes the same point: without taking risks (and failing) you won’t fail . . . but you’re unlikely to grow either.
But what does this mean for the conductor?
It certainly means challenging yourself. How can you push yourself beyond your current boundaries, your current skill level?
Repertoire is one logical area—it’s the basis for all we do, after all. Eric Ericson always maintained that his choirs (and he) grew through the challenges of particular repertoire:
You asked how technique and proficiency developed, and I can almost mention certain pieces which were "rungs on the ladder" . . . because that's how I feel so strongly when we've learned a difficult and very good piece. I'm thinking naturally from the viewpoint of the Chamber Choir with [Lidholm's] Laudi from 1947, Fyra körer from 1953, then the big pieces of Stravinsky, Nono . . . Dallapiccola perhaps most of all, which is where we learned to read notes and rhythms. And then of course we have a Swedish piece, again by Lidholm [1956--Canto], that we struggled with for half a year. I have a certain sense that, when you "come out on the other side" after having done a piece like Lidholm's Canto, you are a better musician, a better conductor, a better chorister. Canto feels like a final exam for the '50s choral life . . . early pieces that were difficult tonally and rhythmically became less so. Canto combined all the difficulties one was thrown between.
What repertoire will push your musicianship, your conducting technique, your ability to teach a particular style? The risk of failure or looking stupid is there, but believe me, it’s worth it.
Coyle says, “Feeling stupid is no fun. But being willing to be stupid—in other words, being willing to risk the emotional pain of making mistakes—is absolutely essential, because reaching, failing, and reaching again is the way your brain grows and makes new connections. When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes—they are the guideposts you use to get better."
Another worthwhile book I’ve written about is Mindset by Carol Dweck—the full post is here.
It deals with two different mindsets regarding learning. From that blog post:
Dweck says, "Everyone is born with an intense drive to learn. Infants stretch their skills daily. Not just walk and talk. They never decide it's too hard or not worth the effort. They walk, they fall, they get up. They just barge forward."
Somewhere along the line, though, some children learn that they are being evaluated and become afraid of challenges (and paradoxically, continual praising children as being smart or supremely talented can lead to the fixed mindset).
She tells of a study where they offered four-year-olds the choice between redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle or trying a harder one. Even at this age, kids who had a fixed mindset--that is, they believed in fixed traits--chose the safe one. They told the researchers, kids who are born smart "don't do mistakes." The other children with a growth mindset--who believed you could get smarter--couldn't imagine doing a puzzle they'd done before. One girl said, "I'm dying to figure them out!"
Again from Dweck, "So children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It's about becoming smarter.”
All of us have things we’re comfortable with: our conducting technique, rehearsal technique, our usual way of doing things. Sometimes in order to grow, we have to give up our comfortable ways and change our technique—in a very real sense, change who we are. This almost certainly will mean that for a period of time you’ll be uncomfortable and, in fact, probably won’t do as well. But you need the time to grow those new connections in your brain—and perhaps, feel “stupid” for awhile. But if you’re not willing to go through that process you won’t grow.
So, if you want to grow and improve, don’t be afraid of mistakes and failure: "be willing to be stupid.” Challenge yourself, put yourself in situations where you’re certain to struggle. And give yourself the opportunity to change and grow.

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.

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!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Books Worth Your Time IX

One more book before I go in a new direction: Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.
I'm fascinated by creative people in other arts than music. Since I'm married to a visual artist (who loves music, luckily), I often get cross-pollination of ideas from another viewpoint (and she has good ears, too!).
Twyla Tharp is a choreographer who's done work that ranges from her own company, choreography for other companies (premieres of 16 of her works at the American Ballet Theatre), Broadway (particularly her successful show based on Billy Joel songs), and film (she worked with Milos Forman on Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus).
Her underlying point is that creativity is a habit, a product of preparation and effort, and she then explores the exercises she does to create ideas.
She begins each day going to the gym. As she tells us, rituals of preparation are important to the creative artist—the habits we build. She says the ritual is not the exercises she does, the ritual is the cab. "The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual. . . . It's vital to establish some rituals—automatic but decisive patterns of behavior—at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way." She gives examples of different artists' rituals, including Igor Stravinsky, who played a Bach fugue at the piano every day when he entered his studio.
A list of chapter headings is vague, but will give you a few ideas:
  • Your Creative DNA
  • Harness Your Memory
  • Before You Can Think out of the Box, You Have to Start with a Box
  • Scratching
  • Accidents Will Happen
  • Spine
  • Skill
  • Ruts and Grooves
  • An "A" in Failure
  • The Long Run
As "recreative" artists we may think that the kind of creativity needed by a choreographer, visual artist, playwright, author, composer, or architect has little to do with what we do. But we have to "re-engineer" the compositions we perform, imagine them through the composer's mind and spirit. Programming is a mightily creative act (or should be)! And, although I've spoken of rehearsal technique as craft, it is also art when we're at our best. With one of my choirs right now I've needed to re-think aspects of how I normally rehearse—and the creative energy I put into planning those rehearsals will ultimately affect what I do in other ones. There are so many ways in which creativity is at the heart of what we do. Following a great creative artist such as Twyla Tharp through her process, seeing her "toolbox," and getting inside her mind is enormously helpful.
I hope you get a chance to enjoy and learn from it!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Books Worth the Time VIII

I think the best of the books about John Wooden's teaching (which really was the bulk of his approach to coaching) is You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned, by Swen Nater (one of Wooden's players at UCLA) and Ronald Gallimore (a psychologist whose research was in teaching, and who with his colleague Roland Tharp did research with Wooden back in the mid-70s when he was still coaching). I talked about this in a previous series about Wooden, all of which can be found here and the particular posts that involve Nater & Gallimore's book here, here, here, here, here, and here.
While those posts will tell you a lot about the book . . . there's no substitute for reading it yourself. I believe there's a huge amount to think about (and learn from) in it.
By the way, I've been giving links to Amazon, just for convenience. When I'm buying a used book I also check Thriftbooks, since they often have great prices and free shipping (they work with independent bookstores from all over the country). My copy of this book came from them, although I see right now that it's out of stock (they have an earlier edition, but I'm not sure that's the same). You may have other places to look as well–let us know if you do!
A new series coming soon!