By Stuart Hunt
Leadership is the ability to get extraordinary achievement from ordinary people.
– Brian Tracy
Never mistake activity for achievement.
– John Wooden
Have you ever pondered just what it takes to produce world-class results? Genetics . . . coaching . . . “the breaks”? Thirty years of research into this particular question produced detailed results. In 2016, authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool penned Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise to give us insight into the methods by which top performing individuals discover and develop the skills necessary to become the best at practically anything.
At the outset, the authors dispel many myths, variously stating:
- For much of what we do in life, it is perfectly fine to reach a middling level of performance and just leave it like that, but once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance, you have stopped improving.
- Trying harder vs. engaging differently is less effective in the long term in solving a challenge than rethinking and perhaps proceeding from a different direction. We should avoid repeating and solidifying bad practices.
The authors do the reader a favor by using “concept repetition” (drill) to make the same points over and over, until it becomes clear that anything other than facing the challenge head-on and creating a working improvement strategy supports ennui and stasis. Negative frustration says, “I don’t like this. I quit.” Positive frustration says, “I don’t like this, I want to fix things.” Focused solutions minimize and the negative and truly run the world. We constantly encounter and sometimes endure challenges. Our response to them moves us/others forward or backward. There is no standing still because our competition is progressing. Therefore, unless we are progressing and staying with or ahead of the competition, we are getting behind as they move ahead. Being willing to truthfully face our abilities intelligently, courageously, and honestly is a hallmark that skills are about to improve. The degree of improvement Ericsson and Pool’s research has labeled “pushing yourself,” and what they call purposeful practice, has the following characteristics:
- Well-defined, specific goals
- Putting baby-steps together to reach a longer-term goal
- Focused practice of any skill
- Paying attention to feedback
- Getting out of one’s comfort zone (tagged as perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice). The authors note, “If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”
Practice with those characteristics leads the learner to steady, measurable improvement at a rapid and skillful rate. It is always easier to learn than relearn.
Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what the authors call “naïve” practice, which is essentially doing something repeatedly and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.
The authors write “One particular approach to practice and training has proven to be the most powerful and effective way to improve one’s abilities in every area that has been studied. This approach is deliberate practice,” which differs from other sorts of purposeful practice in two important ways:
- It requires a field that is already reasonably well developed and has objective criteria for superior performance.
- It requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve and maximize their performance. (p. 25)
There is, then, a distinction between purposeful practice where a person tries very hard to push themselves to improve, and practice that is purposeful and informed and guided by the best performer’s accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. It requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions.
As we all know, key to any winning strategy that requires us to push ourselves is that we actually see and feel improvement, and, that it feels good, no matter the obstacles, pain, distractions, even “failures.”
In 2014, Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara recruited 24 children between the ages of 2 and 6. After a month’s training, every one of the children had developed perfect pitch and could identify individual notes played on the piano. The conclusion was that perfect pitch was not the gift, but, rather, it was the ability to develop perfect pitch – and, say Ericsson and Pool, as nearly as we can tell, pretty much everyone is born with that gift.
Since the 1990s brain researchers have come to realize that the brain – even the adult brain – is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined, giving us tremendous control over what our brains are able to do. Ericsson and Pool state the following: “In particular, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in various ways, and it is even possible for new neurons to grow.” The authors continue, “This adaptability explains how the development of perfect pitch was possible in Sakakibara’s subjects as well as in Mozart himself: their brains responded to the musical training by developing certain circuits that enabled perfect pitch . . . and we know that they are the product of the training, not of some inborn genetic programming.”
WHY ARE SOME PEOPLE SO AMAZINGLY GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO?
Ericsson and Pool do not shy from simplifying this when they state in the introduction, “We now understand that there’s no such thing a predefined ability. . . . This is a game-changer, because learning now becomes a way of creating abilities rather than of bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones . . . through dedicated training that drives changes in the brain.” Of significant note to choral conductors is the research-driven statement on p. xx of the introduction: “Thus the purpose of teaching or training becomes helping a person reach his or her potential – to fill the cup as fully as possible. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential. The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else (emphasis mine). Ericsson and Pool go even further when they offer a somewhat amazing statement: “Because deliberate practice was developed specifically to help people become among the best in the world at what they do and not merely to become ‘good enough,’ it is the most powerful approach to learning that has yet been discovered” (p. xxiii). Whew.
I believe that what Ericsson and Pool have written holds a mirror up for those who have always wanted an extraordinary experience or existence, who have envied those who both strove and achieved that, but never saw that in themselves. For those who wish that for themselves, their students, or both, we must begin with dogged determination to:
- Pursue objective evaluations – to measure performance
- Adopt a strong incentive to practice and improve
- Study and pursue the relevant skills having been developed over decades, even centuries
- Seek out the subset of teachers and coaches who have, over time, developed increasingly sophisticated sets of training techniques that make possible increasing skill improvement
Regarding the action 4, isn’t that what our students expect from us?
DEVELOPMENTAL MARKERS ON THE ROAD TO EXTRAORDINARY
At a young age:
- Praise from a significant person in their life
- Satisfaction in developing a certain skill
- The appeal of a particular pursuit
- Challenging activities
Introduction of deliberate practice:
- Motivational parents
- Development of intrinsic motivation
- Seeking-out better qualified teachers and coaches
Moving beyond accomplished to expert:
- Most important lesson is developing the ability to improve by oneself
- Exploring various solutions to problems
- Being bold enough to risk innovation
WHAT ABOUT “NATURAL” TALENT?
Peak does not shy away from addressing the role of innate ability. Other than body size and perhaps strength, Ericsson and Pool’s research shows “The bottom line is that every time you look closely into such a case (of natural ability) you find that the extraordinary abilities are the product of much practice and training” (p. 222). Regarding innate talents or abilities, they state, “Once we take a look at the entire journey – from beginner to expert – we develop a very different understanding of how people learn and improve and what it takes to excel” (p. 226).
But they point out that there is a dark side too. Coaches and teachers tend to “look for” those with more advanced abilities at their age than their peers. Coaches and teachers tend to behave differently toward them, even – most unfortunately –labeling, promoting, and encouraging them over others without noticing the effects on those who do not receive selective praise. They admonish that “The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us – and work to find ways to develop it.”
Ericsson and Pool posit that “education touches everyone, and there are a number of ways that deliberate practice could revolutionize how people learn” (p. 250):
- Pedagogy. How do students learn best? Answer: Deliberate practice. A major difference between the deliberate practice approach and the traditional approach to learning lies with the emphasis placed on skills versus knowledge – what you can do vs. what you know.
- Lesson planning. When preparing a lesson plan, determining what a student should be able to do is far more effective than determining what that student should know. The knowledge part comes along for the ride.
- Creating mental representations. Carefully delineate which representations are necessary for the development of a particular skill and teach in a way that builds those representations to the student.
- Structuring instruction for concept repetition – (practice / drill). Give immediate feedback that identifies mistakes and how to correct them.
All of the above are guided through the lens of examining how experts do them and teaching learners how to develop similar representations.
NO FIELD ADHERES MORE STRONGLY TO THESE PRINCIPLES THAN MUSICAL TRAINING
Ericsson and Pool state “In short, it (music) is a natural field – and quite likely the very best field – to study for anyone wishing to understand expert performance” (p. 86) – a remarkable statement for a non-musician. Is it then possible we have been given and charged to develop the keys to the kingdom, at a high level? But have we, in some measure, been playing marbles with diamonds?
Having personally plumbed those depths and been willing to scrap fifteen years of conducting and retool to pursue a much higher path, to be sure, this requires
- grit and determination to adopt high standards
- lovingly and effectively teaching all with great rigor
- adopting and projecting the highest level of standards, quality, and personal growth
We, as educators and motivators, know this spills over to every aspect of a student’s or singer’s personal life. When they realize they have in them the ability to achieve a higher standard, all that they do is affected, and we have truly done our job.
I would like to conclude by listing the chapters of Peak, to trace the arc of Ericsson and Pool’s commitment to inspire each of us to (1) consider our present path and (2) affirm our present direction, or alter course.
- The Power of Purposeful Practice
- Harnessing Adaptability
- Mental Representations
- The Gold Standard
- Principles of Deliberate Practice on the Job
- Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life
- The Road to Extraordinary
- But What About Natural Talent?
- Where Do We Go from Here?
Peak is replete with real and believable examples of the dedicated, focused practice of many skills and pursuits. During this extraordinary time in American and world history, perhaps it is a time for us to assess more precisely what we would truly like our singers to experience when “normal” rehearsals return. Arguably, there are now fewer distractions from considering the philosophical implications of our pedagogy. It is fair to ask what is indeed possible with those in your sphere where you are.
- Ericsson, A., and Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Sakakibara, A. (2014). A longitudinal study of the process of acquiring absolute pitch: A practical report of training with the ‘chord identification method.’ Psychology of Music, 42(1), 86–111. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735612463948
Stuart Hunt is now in his fiftieth year conducting public and private choirs. His company, Tools for Conductors, writes and publishes choral sight-reading and online assessments.