Month: June 2009

Viva Mr. B

Check out this choir from PS 22 in Staten Island — proof of the equation:  regular kids + master teacher + time = complete and utter brilliance. The thing I take away is how much Gregg Breinberg has ignited these kids to link their identity to singing, a moment that’s evident in their faces and body language.  This is not simply emotion — thanks to Mr. B, singing is who they are.

Here’s more, but be warned — they’re addictive.

Piano Magic

Meet the Next Big Thing in classical music: 20-year-old Nobuyuiki Tsujii, winner of last week’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Tsujii, who the first blind winner in the contest’s 13-year history, embodies some basic truths of deep practice and ignition. From Barry Schlachter’s story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

[Tsujii’s parents] sensed their son’s tastes at age 2 when he reacted with a pronounced physical expression of joy to a symphony played on the home stereo, Itsuko Tsujii recalled. 

Ignition? Check.

While blind pianists often learn scores in Braille, [Tsujii] learns a piece by listening to others, either live or on a recording, memorizes the notes, then hones and re-hones his own take — muscular or delicate, depending on the music.

“In Japan, students generally are expected to bring all the ingredients and the teacher does the ‘cooking,’ ” said his mother, Itsuko Tsujii, who accompanied her son as assistant instructor and manager. “But with Nobu, his teachers expect him to do the cooking on his own and then would advise him on the final seasoning.”

Deep Practice? Check. 

The larger pattern is how a handicap can sometimes be turned into an advantage when it comes to constructing skill circuits. Like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and entrepreneurs with dyslexia, Tsujii’s condition, combined with his intense desire, forced him to develop his own system for learning — a neural roadbuilding machine, so to speak. That machinery turns out to be far more effective than that of many sighted musicians, who learn in conventional ways.  The lesson echoes something Robert Lansdorp, the great tennis coach, once said: every coach’s ultimate goal should be to get the kid to teach themselves. 

ps — For a terrifically insightful portrait of how handicaps can fuel brilliance, check out In the Key of Genius: the Extraordinary Life of Derek Parvacini.

David Byrne: How Did He Get Here?

1r38p20cWhile in NYC last week — a slight cultural change from Alaska — I was pleased to spot David Byrne at a Chelsea restaurant. And since he’s one of my alltime favorite artists, I nobly resisted the urge to get an autograph and instead checked out Byrne’s blog. It’s delightfully random — including his musings on Costa Rican snorkeling to food reviews to reports from his concerts–and along the way, we get insight into how Byrne built his own considerable talents. Here’s one where he talks about his artistic ignition.  

So, was art good for me? It got me out of gym class, that’s for sure. Working on these detailed and obsessive pictures took a lot of time, and the high school art teacher kindly sent a slip excusing me from gym. I made a bunch more of these pictures, and at some point they were “exhibited” in a display case in the school hallway. Probably due to their resemblance to record covers, they were deemed OK and even hip by some of the students, and I was cool for a day — which was pretty great for someone as shy as I, who managed to make this, and later music, a way to be in the world. So in this sense, art was certainly “good” for me at the time.

It’s a classic story of the artist as a young person– the shy kid who finds fulfillment through detailed, obsessive, time-consuming art. What I take away is a better appreciation of the unsung hero, the kind art teacher who broke the rules so shy David could paint. Without that sharp-eyed person — completely anonymous, their name apparently lost to history — would David Byrne have become David Byrne?

Crazy Tennis Parents

Venus and Serena's mellow dad

Venus and Serena's oh-so-mellow dad

 Here’s a provocative idea to save American tennis, entertainingly floated by Huan Hsu in today’s Slate: junk the expensive academies, the fancy training programs, and the sophisticated scouting systems, and replace them with what really produces champions: nutjob tennis parents. Huan writes:

Tennis consists of only a handful of basic strokes and strategies. As such, parents who wouldn’t dare try to teach, say, golf can read a book, watch a few videos, and give capable instruction. What separates the best players from their peers isn’t superior teaching. It’s maniacal devotion.

It’s a good point. Of course, that maniacal devotion often comes with a hefty price–namely, the generous helping of pathology, abuse, and all-purpose weirdness that goes along with it (which the article lists in frightening depth). The unspoken question is, are we willing to pay that price? Or would it perhaps be smarter to take a look at the slightly-less-insane way in which some other successful players are raised (like Federer and Nadal, for instance)?