Month: October 2009

Baby Einstein: The Real Story

einstein_babyBig news: Disney is offering parents refunds on Baby Einstein DVDs because… they don’t work worth a darn. As this article explains, the corporation settled with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, tacitly admitting that watching shapes and colors doesn’t make kids smarter. In fact, it does precisely the opposite, reducing vocabulary gains.

Brains, exactly like muscles, need to work and stretch in order to grow. Doing is better than observing. Playing is better than watching, no matter what’s on the screen.

I wonder: is this the start of a wave? What other so-called educational products will be next?

The Slow, Wondrous Writing of Junot Diaz


When writers produce marvelous, big-hearted, prize-winning books, they are always asked the same question: How’d you do it?

At this point, the vast majority of writers do exactly the same thing. They lie their heads off. They say that writing book came naturally–“like taking dictation from God,” as the old saying goes. They talk about the burning-bush flashes of miraculous insight through which the book suddenly comes to life. Perhaps for some writers this is actually true.

Junot Diaz (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) is not one of those writers. In this article from Oprah Magazine, he gives an insightful and moving account of how he came to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book.

I wrote every day. I actually worked really hard at writing. At my desk by 7 A.M., would work a full eight and more. Scribbled at the dinner table, in bed, on the toilet, on the No. 6 train, at Shea Stadium. I did everything I could. But none of it worked….

There were no sudden miracles. It took two more years of heartbreak, of being utterly, dismayingly lost before the novel I had dreamed about for all those years finally started revealing itself. And another three years after that before I could look up from my desk and say the word I’d wanted to say for more than a decade: done. That’s my tale in a nutshell. Not the tale of how I came to write my novel but rather of how I became a writer.

I can relate. So can the Bronte sisters, I imagine. Miracles happen all the time in writing, but they’re almost all little ones, that get strung together through time and persistence into something worthwhile.


PS — I’m headed off to the PopTech conference in Maine this week — looks completely fascinating. Authors Michael Pollan, Jonah Lehrer, Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot schools, Ashley Merryman, who co-wrote NurtureShock, Kurt Anderson, and more.  I’m giving a presentation with legendary master coach Hans Jensen where, among other things, he’s going to teach a beginner to play cello. Stay tuned.

Slow is Beautiful

One question that pops up often: why does super-slow practice work so well?  After all, we see it over and over in the talent hotbeds, where it’s used to learn everything from algebra to tennis to writing. And yet slow practice grates against our instincts. Speed is good, right? Shouldn’t we always push ourselves to go faster, faster, faster?

Here’s the deal: super-slow practice works because practice is about construction.  We are literally building a neural circuit — connection by connection. Slowing down lets us pay deeper attention to those connections; it lets us fire the circuit more accurately. Super-slow practice allows us to not only perform the action, but to also simultaneously observe that performance; to coach ourselves. When we go fast, on the other hand, we are only performing.

I just came across a interesting new book: Slow Practice Will Get You There Faster, by Ernest Dras.  Dras points to the above video, where we can watch all-time-great Ben Hogan perform his super-slow golf swing (check out the incredible fluidity and control Hogan displays at 1:45 and beyond; it looks like the film is slowed down, but as the waves in the background prove, it’s pure Hogan). Dras points out that Mozart and his father did essentially the same thing.

The elder Mozart would place ten dried peas in his son’s left coat pocket, and for each successful attempt at a difficult passage, Mozart would move a single pea to his right pocket. When he failed on any piece, even if it was the tenth repetition, all the peas had to be placed back in his left pocket — Wolfgang had to begin anew. What usually happens when using this method is that the student slows down his tempo in order to play the passage perfectly.

Naturally, I’m writing this as I race out to catch a plane. Imagine how much better this post would have been if I’d only gone slower!

Superheroes of Rock

It’s the oldest cliche: the orphan superhero; the Harry Potter/Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent dwelling in quiet exile amid the unsuspecting citizenry, secret possessor of magical talents.

It also turns out to be sort of true — well, at least with rock guitarists. While it’s possible to conjure up all kinds of bellyaching about the rankings of Rolling Stone‘s top 100 rock guitarists of all time (Les Paul 46th? Shouldn’t Mark Knopfler be a nudge higher than 27th?), it’s not possible to overlook a more revealing and important pattern: the top three lost parents at young ages.

Jimi Hendrix’s mother died when he was 16, shortly after he’d taken up guitar. Greg Allman’s father died when he was only three; B.B. King’s mother died when he was nine. (The pattern has some twists: No. 4 Eric Clapton was a teen when, in a “Chinatown”-worthy moment, he discovered that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. Talk about playing the blues.)

As is usual with the truth, there’s a paradox at work here, which we can see if we can imagine a simple picture: a kid alone in his room for hundreds, thousands of hours, lost in a cool fury of mastering this riff, this song, this sound; carving out a new identity, proving that unspeakable tragedy can be transformed — literally, neurally, magically–into unspeakable beauty.

It’s not just guitarists, btw. Check out this list of orphan greats, which starts with Julius Ceasar.

Dudamel and Little Dudes

Fact #1: my fourth-grade daughter just started playing in her elementary-school band.

Fact #2: last night, 28-year-old  Gustavo Dudamel — a.k.a. The Dude, a.k.a. classical music’s newest rock star — conducted his first piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night.

These two events seem unrelated — and tell the truth, they probably are. But let’s give this a shot anyway.

The Dude is a product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s incredibly successful national music program. It works like this: the Venezuelan government helps enroll kids into after-school music programs, and creates a competitive ladder: 100 or so orchestras taught by top-flight teachers. There’s lots of individual instruction.  The best high-school players get to travel the world as the Simon Bolivar Orchestra (seen above).

In short, El Sistema treats music exactly like a sport — complete with heroes, leagues, identities, emotion. You can see it in the way they play.

My daughter, on the other hand, is in an American school-music program. In their school the band is a class, three times a week. There’s a bit of individual instruction, but not much. The horizon of possibility consists mostly of the end-of-term teacher report.

In short, the American school system serves up music exactly like food: it’s nutritional, virtuous, and temporary: the educational equivalent of granola.

It’s clear that El Sistema works; the real question is, how can we make learning music less like eating granola and more like playing a sport?  How about:

  • Master teachers: hire and, more important, copy successful music teachers like Roberta Tzavaras and Gregg Breinberg, who know how to ignite motivation.
  • Interlinked programs. Lots of interaction between the elementary, middle-school, high-school, and college bands. Let the younger kids see who they might become.
  • Elite travel bands. If it’s good enough for baseball, soccer, and basketball, why not orchestra?

The Next Mozart

I love Emily Bear. She’s an eight-year-old kid from Rockford, IL, who plays piano incredibly well.  I also love how her story embodies some of the patterns about developing talent. Let’s set aside some of the slightly breathless storytelling of this news clip and examine the facts:

  • Emily was born into an extremely musical family (check out Grandma at 1:25 — a concert pianist and music teacher).
  • Emily grew up being ignited by the presence of her musically skilled older brother and sister. (I saw this pattern — let’s call it the Michael Jackson syndrome — again and again at the talent hotbeds. The younger kids have the most musical chops–not because they have some musical gene, but because they grow up in a musical hothouse, filled with models, visions of who they might become. Simply put, they have more fuel.)
  • Emily showed remarkable immediate interest, but not remarkable immediate skill (check out the home-movie clip of two-year-old Emily at the 2:00 mark). But she is having great fun — a quality that shines through all her playing.
  • Emily got great instruction and, more important, a bond with her instructor (evidenced by the song she wrote for him).

Magical gift?

Or is this a case — as with Mozart himself — where a kid was ignited to fall in love with music, then used that love, guided by a master coach, to fuel hours of deep practice, to construct fast, beautiful skill circuits?

Or do we chalk it up to some combination of the above?

(What do you think?)

Igniting Passion: The “Side-Door” Method

896730_64677562How do you ignite passion? I like these two examples, both of which use what might be called the “side-door” method. First, from a recent New Yorker article, the tennis-playing Bryan family set out to motivate their twin boys this way:

Who can topple that stack of tennis cans? Who can hit the most forehands in a row? At home, rather than giving his sons music lessons [Wayne, the father] turned them into the rhythm section for an oldies cover band…. “It’s motivation first, playing first, learning later, [Wayne] says. “Lessons are bullcrap.”

(It kinda worked. Mike and Bob Bryan are the top-ranked doubles team in the world; they also just released their first album.)

Second, Po Bronson, co-author of the new book NurtureShock, tells a similar story here — though his side door came in more unlikely form: Pokemon cards, which led to huge advances in his son’s math abilities and organizational thinking.

This kind of advice can risk sounding toweringly obvious. (Make it fun? Duh.) But here’s the point of both stories: this isn’t about mere fun. It’s about creating the conditions for immersion, total absorption — the deepest kind of fun, where our identities blur with the task we’re attempting (a la these kids from Liverpool or these kids from New Jersey). It’s about providing environments that turbocharge our attention systems, when we anticipate, shut out distraction, and fire those skill circuits like crazy.

(BTW, NurtureShock looks terrific — I’m buying it now.)

The Beatles, Before They Were The Beatles

With the Beatles in the news so much these days, it’s revealing to look back at the band’s earliest days. They weren’t original — quite the opposite. As we see (and hear), they faithfully worked at copying other people’s work, right down to Buddy Holly’s hiccupy vocals. For them, as for the rest of us, originality happens much later, after you build the platform of skills. And the best way to build that platform is to imitate, copy, mimic — to fire the circuit over and over toward a clear goal and see how close you can get. (The same philosophy apparently applies to hairstyles.)