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

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!

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