Toronto Summer Music Community Academy participant Robin Roger looks into a new book by the inventor of the 10,000-hour rule, which explains techniques for developing mastery of any skill.
A week before the Toronto Summer Music Festival Community Academy, I was working against time to prepare my Scriabin preludes when I learned of a new book I could have really used: Peak: How To Master Almost Anything, by Anders Ericsson. A U.S.-based Swedish scholar who has studied elite performers including chess grand masters, world-class musicians, and golf champions to determine how they developed their advanced skills, Ericsson has identified common principles applied in all these areas and distilled them into a concept he calls “deliberate practice”.
Though I harbour no fantasies of appearing on the concert stage, and it was too late to adopt any of the recommendations I might find in this book in time for the Academy, I was extremely eager to get my hands on it. Scriabin’s Opus 16 No.1 was getting the better of me. It was very pleasing to discover that another member of my piano masterclass was also reading Peak, an immediate indication that we shared a similar level of commitment to learning. The feeling that each and every participant in the Toronto Summer Music Community Academy is genuinely interested in improving his or her musical skills is one of the most satisfying aspects of the program and the core of what makes it a pop-up community.
There’s a buzz during morning coffee when clusters of people tell each other how their coaching, rehearsing or practising is going; and over lunch, when conversations about the lessons learned during the morning continue, only to end because people are going off to practice. The feeling continues when we chat during intermissions at the evening concerts, especially because our teachers and coaches, the Academy mentors, all of whom are peak performers who have graduated from the most competitive programs in the world, are performing in the concerts, demonstrating the very skills they are trying to impart to us. Everyone is stimulated by his or her efforts to get closer to the peak, regardless of how great that distance may be.
“Deliberate practice” has a very precise meaning, which applies only to fields in which there are longstanding measures of excellence as well as extensive pedagogies, not to pursuits that are more subjective in nature. The principles of deliberate practice, according to Ericsson, are clearly observable in elite musicianship, so it’s not surprising that they were apparent in my piano masterclass, even though the instructor, David Jalbert, wasn’t familiar with Ericsson’s work.
For example, deliberate practice emphasises the development and refinement of mental representations of the information needed to master the pursuit. In a nutshell, a mental representation is a condensation of information held in the mind that facilitates masterful performance. Creating a mental representation requires extensive study, analysis and memorization beyond the mere repetition of a skill. Without mental representations, a musician is just following orders by doing what the score says to do. With mental representation, the score is deeply internalised so that it becomes embodied and integrated emotionally and intellectually. Jalbert encouraged us throughout the week to strive for this level of sophistication. In my private lesson, he diagnosed the limit I had reached with my prelude as being due to “relating to the music as a series of dots on a page.” One outcome of that is ongoing reliance on short-term memory, resulting in constant cross checking between the score and the keyboard. Jalbert’s observation is truly catalysing, (not to mention daunting) providing me with a way to move forward. It also exemplifies another feature of deliberate practice: ongoing feedback from an experienced teacher or coach who knows how to break down the skills into narrowly targeted exercises and goals.
This is eventually replaced by another feature of deliberate practice, conscious self-monitoring, once the student has developed an enhanced ability to observe, evaluate and adjust performance. Jalbert also encouraged this capacity. “What did you do differently that time?” he asked me after I played a difficult section with jumps more accurately than in previous attempts. Jalbert already knew, but by forcing me to identify it myself, evoked an extra measure of self-awareness. Musical performance is highly fleeting, so this is not easily developed. Recent understandings from the field of neuroplasticity reveal that focused awareness is key to activating learning, something that practitioners of deliberate practice have been harnessing all along.
Lest this week of challenging instruction and public performance doesn’t seem like fun, I should point out that there is still room in the midst of all this earnest effort for humour and relaxation. Our morning warm-up routine with Chamber Choir conductor Matthias Maute seemed like a session of laughter yoga, and in the afternoon there was true yoga instruction, aside from optional lectures and public masterclasses. Over lunch every day my group traded pianistic anecdotes and tips and got to know each other a bit more. A sight-reading party and an after-concert party were two events I skipped in order to practice but were enthusiastically enjoyed. And the final two Community concerts were culminating moments of sharing and savouring the impressive results of our efforts.
According to Ericsson, deliberate practice is emphatically not fun. But the musicians who strive to reach the peak would not survive if they didn’t have a laugh between efforts. Jalbert’s ironic comments,(“Beethoven’s emotional world is not one which you wish to inhabit every day”), and musical anecdotes, (“Stravinsky accused Ravel of being a Swiss watchmaker”) and his good-natured recognition of how hard it is to get all this right, set the tone for a rigorous but relaxed experience. Spending a week in the company of these peak performers is better than fun, it is stimulating and inspiring, leaving a lingering impression, like a beautiful and textured piece of music.