Month: August 2009

A Star is Grown

Danyl Johnson is apparently the Next Big Thing — a humble, unknown teacher from Reading, England, who came out of nowhere to star on the British talent show “The X Factor.” You can see it all in his first audition: the technique, the joy, the quicksilver shifts in mood and expression with which he works the crowd, telling a story with his body and voice. He hits the mark: the performance is remarkable and inspiring by any measure (and unlike Joe Cocker’s version, doesn’t require subtitles).

Consider too that Danyl is, at 27, a former member of not one but three bands (one of which, Street Level, was a boy band a la the Backstreet Boys). He attended Starmaker stage school, where he now teaches, and has a background chock full of ignition (broken family; a baby sister who passed away). So are his skill circuits amazing? Absolutely. Did they come from nowhere? Absolutely not, whatever Simon Cowell might say.

Tiny Island, Huge Talent

Talk about a talent hotbed: Curacao is back in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, this week, having won the tough Caribbean Region for the ninth consecutive year. For reasons why, check out this trailer for this upcoming documentary film, “Boys of Summer”–and note the slow, deep practice happening around the 45-second mark. (BTW, here’s the film’s facebook page.)   So far so good: Curacao beat powerhouse Venezuela in their opener yesterday, 2-1.

Actors and Generals

I’ve always enjoyed Ben Kingsley’s work; I will enjoy it even more after hearing him talk about his craft on Charlie Rose, comparing the skill of acting to the skill of being a general in the military. As Kingsley explains, “there’s a discipline, a training, a code of practice that’s invisible to the public eye… we have to make decisions between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ in microseconds.”  In other words, it’s a high-speed neural circuit, built and maintained through deep practice. (Though those other words would sound a lot cooler in Kingsley’s accent.)

Learning Perfect Pitch

I was listening to my latest obsession, RadioLab NYC, and came across a great story about perfect pitch — that rare ability to precisely identify any musical note possessed by Mozart, Hendrix, Ray Charles, etc — and which is, quite obviously, a genetic gift. Right?

fa-mozart-kopfhoererUh, no. A rather amazing study by Diana Deutsch tells a new story. Kids who grow up speaking a tonal language (languages like Mandarin where meaning is connected to subtle but precise shifts in pitch) are nine times more likely to develop perfect pitch — and this holds true regardless of genetic heritage. In other words, perfect pitch is not about genes. It’s about firing the circuit.

As Deutsch puts it, “Perfect pitch for years seemed like a beautiful gift – given only to a few genetically endowed people. But our research suggests that it might be available to virtually everybody.”

Look Who’s Thinking!


A fascinating piece by Alison Gopnik (who happens to be the sister of Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite writers — talk about talent hotbeds!) about how smart babies really are. The short answer: a lot smarter than we think. And the kind of learning they are built to do is all about exploring–not about achieving specific goals. The takeaway for parents: chuck the flashcards and dvds (which are narrow, reactive, goal-oriented) and let the kiddo play with the wooden bowls; let those circuits fire. As Gopnik writes:

There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.

(The Gopnik family must’ve had a lot of wooden bowls.)

Sparks Flying

The Shot Heard Around the World
The Shot Heard Around the World

It’s a terrific story: a 37-year-old, 110th-ranked Joe Nobody comes back in the final round of the PGA Tournament to defeat Tiger Woods. What makes Y.E. Yang’s story even greater, however, is his backstory.  As the BBC reports here:

[Yang] only took up the sport after a knee injury in his teens ended his dreams of becoming a bodybuilder and he took a job collecting golf balls at a local driving range. Encouraged to hit a few balls by his brother at the Ora Country Club practice facility on his home island of Jeju, Yang found he had a natural aptitude for the game.

Kim Young-chan, executive director of the driving range, said: “After the guests left the range, he practiced late into the night. It is testament to how hard he worked to learn the game.”

He initially taught himself by watching other people and then imitating their style.

Sound familiar?

Also: mark the date. Like fellow South Korean Se Ri Pak’s U.S. Open victory in 1998, this will likely be the spark that creates a hotbed.

Les Paul, Guitar Hero

Of all the inspiring quotes about the life of the recently departed guitar inventor/virtuoso, this one is my favorite. It comes from a letter to Paul’s mother written by his piano teacher:  “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.”