The Talent Code

The Talent Code
The oft repeated phrase "practice makes perfect" has recently been adapted by those in the know to "practice makes permanent." The brain will reinforce any repeated action (whether it is a desired activity or not), so practicing accurately is a key to success. Recent research, however, has shown that the 'how' of practicing is also important: practicing near the edge of ability causes much quicker improvement than does practicing in the center of the competence zone. In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle examines how the brain learns, and he exposes the best practices for learning. The efficiency gained by understanding how the brain learns is truly a game changer.

Coyle identifies three key elements to learning:
  • Chunk it
  • Repeat it
  • Feel it (concentrate)

The first technique described is 'chunking'--yes, that is the actual name coined by psychologists--and it is simply the idea of taking a small piece of a larger task, mastering that piece, then moving on to the next part of the task.

The brain learns through repetition, with each repetition adding a layer of myelin to a set of synapses, thereby making them more efficient the next time that activityis repeated. The myelin will layer on undesireable activity just as easily as a preferred activity, so it is important to be accurate. The sweet spot is 'deep practice,' where one is struggling at the edge of one's abilities, thus fully engaging one's concentration; in these circumstances, synapses fire more quickly, creating more myelin.

The third technique, concentration, is perhaps the most important--it is the gateway to deep practice. If you simply 'play though' your piece, you are training yourself not to pay attention. Remember, deep concertration layers on more myelin.

The Talent Code is written to be applicable to any field, and yet Coyle draws enough examples from music that one can come away with specific practice techniques. Coyle went to the string camp Meadowmount and describes a few chunking techniques used there:

  • Changing running eighth notes into a dotted rhythm--micro chunking--forcing your brain to master two notes above tempo, then allowing a small 'rest' before tackling the next two notes.
  • Cutting a score into one-stave strips, then randomly pulling those strips out of an envelope forcing a more macro chunking. (In this instance setting a limited, specific, immediately attainable goal, thereby forcing concentration on a limited task, may be as important as the 'chunking.')

Coyle goes on to examine the techniques of great coaches and teachers and finds four fundamental elements:

  • The coach/teacher needs a thorough understanding of the material (what Coyle calls the "matrix").
  • Perceptiveness: the teacher must not simply observe errors, but understand their causes so they may be pulled put by the roots (hence the need for the matrix of knowledge).
  • The teacher must provide hyper-direct and immediate feed back that is specific, praises the good, and identifies the bad.
  • The teacher must exhibit a theatrical honesty: criticism must be honest, though not necessarily fair. They must praise their worst student for an acheivement that they would criticize in their best, meaning, and push each individual to their next step.

Finally Coyle tells us to explain the brain to our students:

"Tell [your students] how myelin works. Carol Dweck split seven hundred low-achieving middle schoolers into two groups. The first were given an eight-week workshop of study skills; the second were given the identical workshop along with something extra: a fifty-minute session that described how the brain grows when it is challenged. Within a semester the second group had significantly improved their grades and study habits. The experimenters didn't tell the teachers which group the kids were in, but the teachers could tell anyway. " --page 217

Upcoming concerts: Fall 2015

Tuesday, September 8, 5:30 (Old Town Park, Tacoma): Brass Band Northwest performs our last summer pops of the year.
Monday, September 21, 7:00
(Puyallup Fair Grounds): Tacoma Symphony with Patti LaBelle
Saturday, October 3, 7:30pm, (Pantages Theater, Tacoma): Tacoma Symphony, Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition.
Friday, October 16, 7:30 (Nordstrom Hall, Seattle): Northwest Sinfonietta plays Copland, Music for the Theater, Beethoven, Symphony 8.
Saturday, October 17, 7:30 (Rialto Therater, Tacoma): Northwest Sinfonietta plays Copland, Music for the Theater, Beethoven, Symphony 8.
Sunday, October 18, 2:00, (Puyallup Pavillion): Northwest Sinfonietta plays Copland, Music for the Theater, Beethoven, Symphony 8.
Sunday, November 1, 2:30 (Bellevue Presbyterian Church): Brass Band Northwest performs music by Sparke, Curnow and Gregson with Stephen Abeshima, euphonium soloist.
Saturday, November 7, 7:30 (Westminster Chapel, Bellevue): Lake Washington Symphony Orchestra performs Tchaikovsky Symphony 5.
Friday, November 13, 7:30, (Nordstrom Hall at Benaroya, Seattle): Northwest Sinfonietta performs Rossini, Feldman, Golijov, Verdi and Schubert.
Saturday, November 14, 7:30, (Rialto Theater, Tacoma): Northwest Sinfonietta performs Rossini, Feldman, Golijov, Verdi and Schubert.
Sunday, November 15, 2:00, (Pioneer Pavillion, Puyallup: Northwest Sinfonietta performas Rossini, Feldman, Golijov, Verdi and Schubert.
Friday, November 20, 7:00 (Blessed Sacrement Church, Seattle): Messiah, Mathew Loucks conductor.
Sunday, December 6, 2:30
(Pantages Theater, Tacoma): Tacoma Symphony Orchestra performs Sounds of the Season.
Tuesday, December 15, 7:30 (Bellevue Presbyterian Church): Brass Band Northwest performs Unto Us a Child is Born, our annual concert of Christmas classics and pops with David Hall, cornet soloist.
Thursday, December 17, 7:30 (Chapel Hill, Gig Harbor): Tacoma Symphony performs Messiah.

The Art of Learning

Josh Waitzkin and his effort to become a chess champion--he first won a national title at age nine--is depicted in the movie, Searching for Bobby Fisher. After mastering the game of chess, he went on to win national and international championships in Tai Chi Chuan, a form of martial arts. Mastering two disparate disciplines--one entirely cerebral, the other partially cerbral and partially physical--and winning international competitions in both suggests that Josh Waitzkin has figured out how to learn.

His book, The Art of Learning, offers solid advice on the fundamentals of efficient learning illustrated with entertaining personal anecdotes. The strength of the book is this combination of advice and illustration. I am sure that while living through the events depicted the path was not always as clear as he makes it sound, yet he has laid out an approach one can imagine following.

The book presents an approach that could be applied to any field where excellence is a goal. This is, of course, why a book drawing examples from Tai Chi Chuan and chess is of value to a musician. One can't help but wish for a companion work book that applied these techniques in a concrete manner, however, there are books that can fill the gap, and, for trumpeters, I recommend diving into Daily Fundamentals for the Trumpet by Michael Sachs with the Waitzkin approach in mind.

Usually a book of fundamentals is a collection of exercises that expose basic techniques to scrutiny. There is some of that here, but Mr. Sachs focuses on extracting fundamental exercises from whatever music you are studying. As an example. he delves deeply into the opening of the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn exposing the fundemental structure of the passage in a manner one could imagine Mr. Waitzkin using.

From The Art of Learning

"The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a state of static, safe mediocrity." --page 33

"While I learned with open pores--no ego in the way--it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits." --page 107-108.

"I have long believed that if a student of virtually any discipline could avoid ever repeating the same mistake twice--both technical and psychological--he or she would skyrocket to the top of their field."
--page 108

". . .my vision of the road to mastery--you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central personal lucus point." --page 138-139

"I started practicing. First I worked on each step slowly, over and over, refining my timing and precision. Then I put the whole thing together, repeating the movements hundreds, eventually thousands of times." --page 145

"Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around , or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn't even notice." --page 187

Performance comparison: "Mysteries of the Macabre" by Gyorg Ligeti

Great performances only come about when musicians are willing to explore all of the available paramaters to create deeper meaning. Arias from Mysteries of the Macabre by Gyorg Ligeti is a somewhat obscure and exceptionally difficult work that happens to have two amazing performances available online.

The arias are selected from an opera so it is not surprising that a vocalist would choose to present the music with an element of theater, however, Barbara Hannigan does not simply add a few hand gestures. With costume, wig, and dynamic staging this is not simply a concert performance, but a fully theatrical performance presented in a more resticted venue.

Her entrance immediately makes clear that she has drammatic as well as musical intentions, that she conducts as well adds to the impact. An alternate performance is available to those who subscribe to the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic. In Berlin, Sir Simon leads the orchestra and he seems happy to engage in a bit of theater himself.

Hannigan performance

Brian McWhorter is a trumpeter who brings a different, though still theatrical approach to this work: his performance is a product of contemporary video techniques. Not reproducible on the stage--not because of the ability of the players, but only because of the liberal use of camera cuts--McWorter has over seen the production of a unique music video: the images don't simply create a genial atmosphere for the music, but instead engage as counterpoint, enhancing meaning and underscoring effect.

McWorter performance*

This piece could easily be considered off-putting, and yet, the combination of virtuoso technique and theater create engaging performances; and, both Hannigan and McWorter have the technique and imagination to fully realize this difficult music.

*Although this performance is the greatest comercial they could want, it appears that Schott, the publisher of this music, has forced the removal of the previous links. This link will take you to a potentially dodgy web site in China.

Congratulations to Eliza, Ben, Jacob and Alex!

Congratulations to a graduate of the studio, Eliza Block, currently at St Olaf College, who was just accepted to the National Syphony Orchestra Summer Institute with a full scholarship.

Congratulations also to high school sophmore, Ben Sahlin, lead trumpet of the Roosevelt Jazz Band, who will be travelling to New York to compete at Essentially Ellington.

Congratulations to Jacob Shaffer who won the Commencement Bay solo and ensemble competition and to Alex Moore who was runner up!

Congratulations to Nicholas Ordoff whose brass quintet took third place at the WMEA State Competition.

Lip Slur World Headquarters


In the summer of 2012 lip slurs started appearing in my Facebook feed. Scott Belck was working on a book of flexibilities and was trying them out on his Facebook trumpet buddies. (I don't know Scott, but I have a few friends that do and it was their comments that invited Scott's lip slurs into my Facebook feed.) I was quite taken with the exercises at the time. Scott was mixing meters and changing valve combinatons within patterns to challange trumpeters' ears along with their faces in musically intriguing ways.

In June of 2013, Modern Lip Flexibilites for Brass was published by Meredith Music and, in January of 2015, I finally got around to ordering a copy. I confess that at first glance I was somewhat diassapointed: many of the most outrageous lip slurs that Scott had posted on Facebook were not in the book. As I spent a few days playing through the exercises I realized that rather than being ourtrageous these lip slurs were approachable by nearly the entire spectrum of trumpeters and consequently very useful. There are plenty of exercises in the book that will provide a work out for the established professional, but, perhaps more importantly, there are exercises to spark interest in the progressing trumpeter.

The few lip flexibilites to be found in the Arban's are unimaginative and tedious at best, and, perhaps worst of all, can promote a 'static' approach, i.e. because there is little sense of moving forward to a goal the student can fall into mediocre breath support. Scott has written exercises that are melodically intriguing with a light scent of jazz that create a feeling of forward motion thereby enouraging good breath support. Plenty of lip slurs with enough repetition built in to work the muscles well, but with enough variety to engage the musical imagination. I already look forward to playing these!

Belck  1A-1
For a many years the core of my teaching has rested upon the A Trumpeter's Daily Routine by Michael Chunn, Technical Studies by Herbert L Clarke and the Daily Drills and Lip Flexibilites by Max Schlossberg, but I believe that this fall my students will be buying an additional book.

Northwest Brass Festival

Charles Villarrubia sm

Don't miss the Northwest Brass Festival on March 7-8. Featured guests include Stephen Bulla, composer, conductor, and arranger--formerly staff arranger for the Presidents Own Marine Band--Charles Villarrubia, tubist with Rhythm and Brass and David Gordon, principal trumpet of the Seattle Smphony Orchestra. Highlights appear below.

Saturday, March 7

10:00 Exibits open
10:30 Masterclass: Charles Villarrubia
1:00 Masterclass: Jamie Hood, cornet
1:00 Brass band clinics with Stephen Bulla
2:00 Masterclass: Randi Bulla, alto horn
2:00-4:00 Youth Brass Ensemble
4:30 Youth Brass performance
7:00 Brass Band Concert

Sunday, March 8

1:30 exhibits open
2:00 Masterclass: Charles Villarrubia
3:30 Masterclass: David Gordon
5:00 Student Competition
7:30 Artist Concert

First Free Methodist Church 3301 3rd Ave W
Seattle, WA 98119
$25/day; $40/Festival

The Northwest Brass Festival is hosted by Brass Band Northwest and Common Tone Arts.

Concert schedule - winter/spring, 2015

January 29 (Seattle) 7:00: Don Quixote with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
January 30 (Seattle) 7:30: Don Quixote with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
January 31 (Seattle)1:00 & 7:30: Don Quixote with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
February 20 (Seattle) 7:30: The Three Divas with Northwest Sinfonietta.
February 21 (Tacoma) 7:30: The Three Divas with Northwest Sinfonietta.
February 22 (Puyallup) 7:30: The Three Divas with Northwest Sinfonietta.
March 7 (Seattle) 7:00: Brass Band Northwest at the Northwest Brass Festival.
March 8 (Seattle) 7:00: Puget Sound Trumpet Ensemble at the Northwest Brass Festival.
March 15 (Bellevue) 2:30: American Landscapes with Brass Band Northwest at Bellevue Presbyterian Church.
March 22 (Tacoma) 2:30: Songs from the Emerald Isle with the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.
April 2 (Bellevue) 7:30: Messiah with Lake Washington Symphony Orchestra and Westminster Chorale.
April 3 (Bellevue) 7:30: Messiah with Lake Washington Symphony Orchestra and Westminster Chorale.
April 16 (Seattle) 7:30: Swan Lake with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
April 18 (Seattle) 7:30: Swan Lake with Pacific Northwest Ballet.
May 2 (Bellevue) 7:30: Scheherazade with Brass Band Northwest at Bellevue Presbyterian Church
May 9 (Tacoma) 7:30: The Planets with Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.
May 15 (Seattle) 7:30: The Taiwanese Connection with Northwest Sinfonietta.
May 16 (Tacoma) 7:30: The Taiwanese Connection with Northwest Sinfonietta.
May 17 (Puyallup) 7:30: The Taiwanese Connection with Northwest Sinfonietta.


(From the pit during final bows at Don Quichot with PNB.)