The Ecology of Mistakes

I recall receiving admonishment as a child when crafting or baking, not to “throw out my mistakes.” That misshapen cookie was still edible; that cutaway construction paper scrap could be found useful in another project.

The other day while practicing, I was attempting a thorny passage up to tempo for the first time in a new piece. My fingers, seemingly having a mind of their own, followed a new finger pattern that I had not yet tried. When I got to the end of the passage, I was astonished at how well it had worked and how natural that “new” pattern felt. My “mistake” actually ended up being a better choice after all, and I decided to change my fingering to the new pattern.

Not all mistakes are as useful as the one described above. Most of the time, a mistake is not something that we wish to repeat. That being said, it can still provide worthwhile information, by highlighting an area of weakness that needs more practice, for example, or reminding us of where we need to focus our attention.

In either case, taking apart and considering our mistakes certainly helps make them less frustrating and makes practicing more creative and enjoyable.

“If They Only Knew!”: a funny thing about competitions, and how to deal

A young student, wise far beyond her years, said something to me recently that summed up, in a simple way, one of the hardest things about competitions.

We were discussing a competition in which she had won first place, and a friend of hers had won fourth.

She and the friend shared an accompanist, so they had been hearing each other’s progress over the course of several rehearsals before the big day.

My young student noticed how much improvement her friend had made between the first rehearsal and the competition day. She expressed regret that the judges were unaware of that fact.

“I wish that they could hear [the other student]’s recording of the first rehearsal, and see how far [that student] has come,” she expressed.

I nodded in agreement, and her mother and I exchanged rueful smiles, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s pretty much IT.”

I agreed with her that because the judges had no way of knowing the history of every student, they had to make their decision solely based on what they heard that day.

If the competition were tomorrow, the results might be different.

It follows, then, that the only recourse we have to this conundrum is to increase our consistency in performing — that is, our Repeatable Good Performance.

For ideas about increasing your aptitude for Repeatable Good Performance, check out this post:

Performing While Introverted: How Introverts Can Leverage their Strengths

audrey and book

Following on the heels of recent research by Susan Cain (author of “Quiet”) and others, the qualities and strengths inherent to introverts are being increasingly recognized and celebrated. Leaders in a wide range of fields, including business, politics, and the arts, often self-identify as introverts. This may seem surprising, given the stereotype of public figures as extroverts — outgoing personalities who typically crave the spotlight and thrive on social interaction.

Indeed, the parent of one of my students expressed shock when I admitted that I identify as an introvert — “But, you are a performer!” was her surprised reaction to what she saw as a contradiction.

The fact is, some of the very qualities that classify individuals as introverted, are also qualities that enhance their ability to perform well in public.

1. Introverts work well independently. This is extremely beneficial in the practice room, where a strong internal drive and conscientiousness are indispensable. The ability to work independently is also helpful during the long, isolated and sometimes lonely hours of practice that are required of a good performer.

2. At the same time, introverts work well in groups, because of their good listening skills and ability to compromise. Sometimes, more-outspoken extroverts are less likely to give equal time to other group members.

3. They make excellent public speakers and presenters, owing to that same conscientiousness — they come thoroughly prepared.

4. Introverts are often subtle communicators, noticing the smallest details and making thoughtful connections that may go unnoticed by others. This can translate to a great range of expression and subtlety in performance. In addition, their love of quiet reflection paves the way for deep and meaningful interpretations.

If you are an introverted sort, I hope that you’ll be encouraged to appreciate these qualities and others that can enhance your performances and above all, to share your abilities.

“It Sounded Better at Home:” Achieving Repeatable Good Performance

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why did my playing sound better at home/in the practice room than in my lesson? You should have heard me on Tuesday afternoon – my neighbors thought it was Heifetz!”

Impersonating deceased violinists aside, it is frustrating when our efforts in the practice room yield less-than-stellar results. It can feel almost like all that practicing never happened! Here’s where the concept of RGP (repeatable good performance) comes into play.

Sports psychology researchers define RGP as the ability of athletes to consistently perform at an optimal level. Notice that it doesn’t state, “at peak level,” but at an optimal one. In other words, an optimal level is the best possible performance given the circumstances, which may be less-than-ideal.

So it would follow that the real challenge is to increase your optimal level on any given day, through practice.

What are the steps to achieve that? Below are a few guidelines.

  • Set an outcome-based, i.e., a measurable goal for your practice session or even a small part of a session. For example, “I will play measures 90-100 five times with 100% accuracy.”
  • Simulate a pressure-inducing environment by imagining an auditor or by recording yourself.
  • Use mental imagery to picture yourself performing the specific task successfully. Hear what it sounds like, visualize the movements involved. Define a path to execute the action.
  • Concentrate! Do your best to block out distractions. The more you practice doing this, the more adept you will be when you need it most.

TBT: Ravel Sonata

In the spirit of the longstanding tradition of “Throwback Thursday,” I’m posting a video that Louise and I recorded live back in February – it’s the Ravel Sonata, which we performed at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. It was kindly recorded by a staff member of the church.

This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music — the first movement has a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of “Ma mère l’Oye.” The second movement is a wonderful French take on the blues form; and the third is a riveting perpetual motion. I hope that you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed playing it!

Talent is Overrated, Part 2

My quest to uncover the meaning and question the validity of talent continues!

I’ve been reading an excellent book by a two-time Olympic table tennis champion, BBC commentator and journalist, Matthew Syed. The book is called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.

Here are a few key points from the book:

  • Physical skills such as reaction time, which would be seemingly transferable if inborn, in fact do not transfer to other areas. For example, the author explains that his lightning-quick reaction impulses in table tennis do not carry over when he plays “regular” tennis.
  • Physical equipment such as “amazing hands” in tennis are not, in fact, inborn, but rather are the result of amazing coordination between the brain and the nervous system, created and honed through hours of intense practice.
  • Expert performers step outside of their comfort zones continually, in order to make progress. Even given their extraordinary ability, they constantly attempt new challenges that are just outside their ranges. I.e., expert skaters fall more often than average skaters do.
  • Child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence.

Notwithstanding the amazing benefits of deliberate practice, Syed cautions against the so-called “Tiger Moms” (and dads). He writes, “It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision [author’s emphasis] to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.”

Sports scientist Peter Keen concurs, “Starting kids off too young carries high risk…The only circumstances in which very early development seems to work is where the children themselves are motivated to clock up the hours, rather than doing so because of parents or a coach. The key is to be sensitive to the way the child is thinking and feeling, encouraging training without exerting undue pressure.”

The findings shared in this book are exciting, hopeful news for anyone who has ever considered attempting a new activity, but was afraid that they “didn’t have the talent for it!” As it turns out, a strong desire to learn, coupled with good practice, may outweigh the importance of talent after all.

Is Talent Overrated?

How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t do that; I just don’t have the talent”?

In this case, talent is seen as a mystical endowment, a gift bestowed at birth. Or in less flowery terms, a “knack” for a particular activity.

But when you really look into the matter — examining the childhoods of geniuses with super-ability — you see a different story.

In Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overratedhe examines just that. Looking at research in various realms, as well as case studies, he tries to uncover what the source of talent might be.

Is it intelligence? Not necessarily, as evidenced by the fact that “some people have become international chess masters though they possess below-average IQs.”

Is it superior memory? Not so, because scientific experiments have shown that memory can be greatly expanded through proper training.

Is it some kind of physical propensity, such as faster reaction times or the right kind of body build? Not really, because “endurance runners, for instance, have larger than average hearts, an attribute that most of us see as one of the natural advantages with which they were blessed. But no, research has shown that their hearts grow after years of intensive training; when they stop training, their hearts revert to normal size. Athletes can change not just the size of their muscles but even the composition of them (the proportion of fast-twitch fibers to slow-twitch) through years of practice.”

Or, is it inborn? If so, this would suggest the existence of a “talent gene” – and to date, none has been found.

Well, what is the answer then, you ask? Drumroll……………………………………………………………………

……….it is deliberate practice, carried out for many years, and often starting earlier than the norm (for other practitioners of an activity).

That’s it, you ask? But what about geniuses like Mozart, who composed music when he was five years old?

Colvin examines the case of Mozart, only to find that “Mozart’s father was of course Leopold Mozart, a famous composer and performer in his own right. He was also a domineering parent who started his son on a program of intensive training in composition and performing at age three…he was deeply interested in how music was taught to children…he was highly accomplished as a pedagogue.”

Colvin goes on to note that many of Wolfgang’s early compositions are in fact compositional studies – arrangements of the work of other composers. The earliest work by Mozart that is today considered a masterpiece, his piano concerto No. 9, was in fact written when the composer was 21; in other words, after he had amassed some eighteen years of intense training.

Another groundbreaking fact to note is that, contrary to what many of us were taught, Mozart did not in fact write down pieces that had been fully formed in his head. “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.”

So, now that we’ve seen the incredible results of deliberate practice, one question remains: what separates those who partake in this type of practice from others? Since deliberate practice is difficult and a great time investment, what motivates people to do it in the first place?

Colvin proposes a few possibilities to this mysterious question. One is “the multiplier effect.” It purports that “a very small advantage in some field can spark a series of events that produce far larger advantages.” Take, for example, a young child who has better-than-average forearm strength to begin with, who then joins a baseball team, and receives positive feedback for his slightly superior ability, which in turn motivates him to work even harder, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Also, the better he gets, the more he seeks out more advanced opportunities and has the chance to work with better players and coaches. In this way, each increase of ability is matched by a better environment, creating the conditions for superior performance.

Another factor that motivates people to engage in deliberate practice is believing that they are uniquely capable. “In all fields most of these young students were regarded as fast learners by their first teachers…Whether or not they were really faster learners than others is not known…As they began to receive recognition for the talent in the early years of instruction, the children’s investment in the talent became greater. No longer was the prime motivation to please parents and teachers. It now became the individual’s special field of interest.”

Colvin points out that “talented” youngsters are compared with others their age, not with the best in the field, using Tiger Woods’s youth as an example. By starting earlier than the norm, a child has the chance to amass more deliberate practice than their peers of the same age, creating a sense of “talent” and competence, which in turn fuels their motivation to continue to practice. As Colvin states, “Standing out at any given age is an excellent way to attract attention and praise, fueling the multiplier, and it can be done without relying on any innate ability.”

What do you think? Do you believe that talent is innate, or is it a result of the right mix of factors?

Catching the Wave: Flow

Flow is a mental state characterized by total immersion in the task at hand, coupled with a sense of enjoyment of the activity and an overall feeling of well-being. A lot of what propels musicians to pursue their art is that they can experience this state of flow.

Do you recall a time when you experienced this feeling? Maybe it was while finger painting as a child. Or becoming wrapped up in a video game for hours, not realizing how long you’d been sitting there, because “time stopped.”

Wouldn’t it be great to live life constantly in this state? Unfortunately, a flow state, much like creativity in general, cannot be forced or willed into existence. That being said, there are a few key components that make a person more likely to get into this all-encompassing state.

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

(Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow,

Human Factors International)

For musicians in particular, this boils down to: playing a piece that is at once challenging and enjoyable, but that also falls within your own perceived skill level. Keep in mind that this can be either during practice or performance — you can experience this state at any time, and in almost any place!