The Little Book of Talent (ibid., 2012)
Upon a recommendation in an online forum, I read “The Talent Code” and followed that up with “The Little Book of Talent.” For the purposes of the Music Box, the part that is of greatest interest is Coyle’s description of what he calls “Deep Practice,” chapter 4 of “Talent Code.” In most respects, it is the way that I practice, described in a previous essay.
Coyle describes how the method works. What we normally call “talent” is the growth of myelin sheathing around neurons, which strengthens the circuitry of any action or thought that is repeated a lot.
The way to build this sheathing is repetition – but not mindlessly, playing a scale or exercise hundreds of times in a row, as one of my teachers had me do for a semester. Coyle writes: “With conventional practice, more is always better…. Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective – but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits” (p. 88). Coyle describes this earlier in the book; he finds that the “sweet spot” is at the edge of one’s ability, making a few mistakes and immediately attending to them (chapter 1).
I would emphasize that it is a FEW mistakes in the initial slow playing of the phrase. For me, that is the guide as to whether my practice is sufficiently slow. If there are absolutely no mistakes, I am not pushing hard enough; it seems important that there be some struggle to get it right, so it cannot be so slow as to be playable without focus, and Coyle would agree with this; in “The Little Book” he says to “Embrace Struggle.” In this playthrough, I stop immediately at every mistake, think about it for a moment, and play it again, perhaps just the one or two notes leading to the mistake and this time getting it right. If I cannot, I slow it down further, even take it entirely out of rhythm to move carefully from one note to the next (I often have to do this when learning Messiaen).
I should be taking a tempo where, with the work described above, the second playthrough is perfect. And the third. If not, I need to slow down, or possibly take a smaller chunk of music – a half-phrase, one measure, even down to a couple of beats or less, whatever feels like a single manageable “chunk”. The goal (with which I think Coyle would agree) is a perfect playing of the phrase, measure, or other short passage, which is then repeated perfectly. I never leave a phrase until it is as perfect as I can make it, even on the first day’s practice of it.
More than that, the passage is repeated perfectly the next day, and the day after. Coyle writes that the growth of myelin is a slow process, taking days or weeks.
As Coyle writes, this is why regular practice is essential. “Causing skill to evaporate… only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days…. Myelin… is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it’s in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That’s why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older” (p. 88)
There is lots of good material about teaching and coaching in Part Three of “Talent Code” (p. 156 and following). One insight that is especially helpful for me with my struggles with improvisation was his comparison of the training of young Brazilian soccer players with the Suzuki method. Coyle thinks that “skills like soccer, writing, and comedy are flexible-circuit skills…. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics, and figure skating, on the other hand, are consistent-circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal performance” (p. 194).
I have spent most of my life learning and playing organ and piano repertoire. In Coyle’s terms, that is “consistent-circuit” work. That is why every mistake must be immediately eliminated by slow practice.
But piano (and organ) improvisation is the opposite – it is more of a “flexible-circuit” skill. In describing the Brazilian coach who (on the surface) is simply letting the kids play scrimmages with very little instruction, Coyle writes “To stop the game in order to highlight some technical detail or give praise would be to interrupt the flow of attentive firing, failing, and learning that is the heart of flexible-circuit deep practice” (p. 194 – in another place, he likens it to a baby learning to walk).
“The ideal soccer circuitry is varied and fast, changing fluidly in response to each obstacle, capable of producing a myriad of possible options that can fire in liquid succession: now this, this, this, and that. Speed and flexibility are everything…” (p. 193)
That is Thelonious Monk playing the tune for two hours without losing the groove. That is why, in an improvisation – even in practice – you use the mistakes to take you to a different place than you intended and you most certainly do not stop, go back, and fix them.
Yes, you make mistakes. And yes, you must fix them – just as the soccer players must learn to move the ball, to make passes, to hit their shots, and they will work on drills to isolate specific moves and skills often breaking each move into its components, very much like Mike Garson’s little fifteen or thirty second “etudes.” But the fixing of mistakes in a soccer scrimmage is of quite a different sort from the work that one does with slow practice, a phrase at a time, of Bach or Messiaen, and the practice method must likewise differ. You don’t bother with that particular mistake in that moment at all; instead, you think about how you might avoid going in that direction the next time, or (in practice) take another swing at it in the next variation through the tune, and see if you can get a better sound.
That is one reason improvisation is so scary for traditionally-trained classical musicians. It goes against everything we have learned about how to make music, if we have been careful in our approach to the repertoire. I have a lot to learn about this, and am grateful for Coyle’s insight into it.
I wrote of this mode of practicing recently, as well.
What about choral singing? There are many directors who work in the “precise” way, what I call the Robert Shaw approach – he would carefully mark a copy of the choral score, place it on reserve in the library, and expect every singer to have every marking before the first rehearsal, and adhere to them precisely. Every cutoff was defined as a precise rhythm, every possible detail was specified.
There are times when this is needed, but I am more of the other school: I want the singers to use their individual musical judgement as much as possible. I would be happiest if they were singing with perfect ensemble by listening attentively to one another, without me. We sometimes come close to this with psalmody.
In the next essay, I hope to discuss another of Coyle’s concepts: Ignition. But a closing thought for today – “Deep practice tends to leave people exhausted.” (footnote, p. 89). This explains my physical and mental collapses after every major undertaking, such as the Fourth Week of Advent described a few pages back. I should be kinder to myself and accept that this is simply how it is, not a personal failure of discipline.
And what about this, from St. Paul: “Bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” (I Timothy 4:8)
Ought we not to put as much effort into “spiritual exercise” as the bodily form, and engage in spiritual practice as well as musical? How do we do this? The details surely differ, but some of the same disciplines apply. William Law’s suggestion is apt:
It would be easy to show… how little and small matters are the first steps and natural beginnings of great perfection. But the two things which, of all others, most want to be under a strict rule, and which are the greatest blessings both to ourselves and others, when they are rightly used, are our time and our money. These talents are continual means and opportunities of doing good. He that is piously strict, and exact in the wise management of either of these, cannot be long ignorant of the right use of the other. (from “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life”)
“Little and small matters…” This sounds like the musician taking a single phrase, bringing it to perfection by attending to every detail of it in slow, careful practice.
Habits result from the myelination process, every bit as much as Skills. “We are what we repeatedly do,” wrote Will Durant. At more length:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions” [from Aristotle]; we are what we repeatedly do. [from “The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers,” quoted here.]
This is one reason that I pray the Daily Office. It is but a first step, but it is at least that. And, like the learning of Music, it is not going to happen without daily repetition. And perhaps, spiritual exercise means working at what Coyle calls the “sweet spot” referred to above: “at the edge of one’s ability, making a few mistakes and immediately attending to them.”
When dealing with such matters as love for one’s neighbor or telling the truth under all circumstances, the “mistakes” are certain. It is the immediate attention to them that is the challenge.
I have posted two more YouTube clips. This one is a followup to the previous essay; it is today’s improvisation for which I began preparation on Tuesday.
Improvisation for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
This one is from our choir: a psalm setting by David Hurd. The organ part is a passacaglia, an eight-bar ground-bass.
Teach me, O Lord (David Hurd)
As I wrote above, my next essay continues with material from Daniel Coyle’s book, on what he calls “Ignition.” I will say here that I owe David Hurd for some of my own “ignition” as an organist.
On my first Sunday morning as a freshman at Duke, I was with the Chapel Choir (which was open to all comers for the first week or so, while auditions took place). Mind you, my little Baptist church back home was not quite so fine as the Duke Chapel – indeed, nothing had prepared me for processing down that aisle with the Choir – while David Hurd, chapel organist (only for a brief time, perhaps just that one year if I remember rightly) played what I learned was the Bach Prelude in B minor.
I had no idea that such music existed. Obviously, I knew of Bach; I had played many things from the Well Tempered Clavier by this time. But I had never heard any of his organ music, nor had I ever heard or seen a pipe organ.
At the time, nothing changed. I failed to pass the Choir's audition, and failed again my sophomore year, making me determined in my career as a choral director to never have the sort of choir where people must pass an audition to get in. I laid aside choral music, pretty much quit going to church, proceeded with my major in piano performance, and did not take organ lessons. Nonetheless, in retrospect I think that it was that Sunday morning when the seed was planted.
Dr. Hurd, should you read this: thank you. Thank you for taking your work as an organist seriously, and playing real literature for a run-of-the-mill church service in late August.
We never know where our music-making might lead, or what effect it may have on its listeners.