About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, July 29, 2011

Talent = Inception + Work

The film Inception is based upon the concept that the most powerful thing in the world is an idea.  Moreover, that idea cannot be consciously planted in the mind of an individual . . . it has to be born there, if only on the conscious level.  Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code offers some compelling evidence that talent is nothing more than skill that is a product of intense and efficient practice, fueled by inception.  (Coyle calls this ignition, but the idea is the same.)

Practicing music was something I did because it was fun and interesting to me, until something huge happened.  I was listening to the radio, a program on Boston public radio called Eric in the Evening, when I heard something that blew my mind.  It was one of the Mingus Changes albums, and the late George Adams was doing things with the tenor that I never dreamed possible.  He played with speed, range, and reckless abandon.  Something in my brain jolted with electricity at the moment of inception:  If I practice hard enough, I could do that!  In retrospect, I also see that I didn't want to have to work myself to death in a factory like my father, so the idea really had the urgency of I must practice hard enough . . .

As a university professor, I have witnessed this again and again.  A student only works as hard as they want to, and the level of commitment is directly proportional to the power of the idea that lives in the mind.  The student that isn't convinced that they want to be great will never be great.  Deeper still, one cannot force an idea to take hold.  Being in an inspirational environment is a key element, but each individual must eventually turn on the engine of internal motivation.

For an individual that hasn't experienced inception, Practice Monster is the enemy, constantly expressing the subconscious feeling of "I can't do this."  Meanwhile, Practice Monster is the friend of the person who deeply believes that they can do it, and that they must do it.  While there may be something to the physiology of talent, certain body types or physical structures making some skills easier to obtain, I have my doubts that talent really exists, at least in the way we love to over-romanticize it.  We say that someone is talented after the fact.  No matter how much we wish it were true, nobody is born with skills pre-wired.  Talent is earned.

So . . . what kind of Practice Monster do you have?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Starving Mediocrity to Death

Mediocrity is infectious and contagious.  It sneaks into our work and quietly spreads into everything that we do.  If you allow mediocrity to slide into what you practice, it will feed on everything around it.  If you myelinate sloppy circuits, you will become a master of mediocrity.

As you practice, force yourself to stop when you stumble.  Go back, fix things as you go, and pay attention to the details.  It is far better to practice one measure for an hour, if that is what it takes.  By demanding perfection in the the preparation process, you can literally starve mediocrity to death.

Habits are easy to form, and tend to be one-way streets.  Myelin breaks down very slowly, and the only way to get rid of a bad habit is to "over-write" it with a good one.  You literally have to myelinate a new circuit strong enough to overpower the old one.  Be thoughtful about the things you might be accidentally cementing through repetition, and spend most of your time focusing directly on your weaknesses.  SMASH!!!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Myelinate This!

Summer reading is one of the things I truly look forward to each year.  My brother-in-law hipped me to Daniel Coyle's fascinating book The Talent Code.  Coyle does a great job of clearly explaining what he calls deep practicing, and why it works.  Practice Monster knows the deep practice zone well, and you'd be smart to read this book right away.  It has everything to do with what I've been blogging about.

Here is the basic idea.  We have something like 100 billion neurons in our brains.  (Yes, you read that number correctly.)  In order to perform tasks, the brain builds circuits of neurons that must fire in a certain order, and with perfect timing.  The problem is that electricity is leaking all over the place, mucking up the speed and timing of the circuit.  Enter the oligodendrocytes.

Axons are the nerve-fibers that literally carry the electrical signals in our brains.  When we practice, anything at all, special cells called oligodendrocytes manufacture a fatty insulator called myelin.  Myelin wraps around the axon, insulating the electrical connection.  With less leakage, the signal is stronger . . . and faster.  The more you repeat a task, the more myelin wraps around the wires in that particular circuit.

Coyle describes deep practice as slowly stumbling into errors, going back to correct, and ruthlessly repeating.  He describes the facial expression of deep practice as "Clint Eastwood."  (I love it!)  This is precisely the state of mind that occurs when Practice Monster is awake, but he's still on the leash.  Coyle does a great job of combining current scientific research with time in the field, studying everything from musicians to chess players to athletes.  Remember, skills are skills, and the brain doesn't differentiate.

If you are a student or a teacher, you need to read this book.  At the very least, it provides some concrete affirmation of what we already know, but you are likely to get some great ideas about how to refine your practice, and coaching techniques.  By taking ourselves to the very edge of our abilities, and making that the normal practice mode, we can efficiently insulate our internal circuitry.  Get to work!