Daydreaming The Way To Better Performance

Tyler Cowen shared a link on his Marginal Revolution blog about Hillary Hahn discussing daydreaming as a form of practice. The link went to blog post by Bill Benzon featuring a video of an interview with Hahn. Benzon transcribes the relevant portion of the interview, but I listened/watched the whole thing.

Hahn talks the challenges of touring, including difficulties practicing for the next tour; reading between the lines on Yelp reviews to find decent coffee in a new city; and her “Ice Princess” nickname which seems to be more about scrutiny of her facial expression and range of motion when performing.

But as Benzon says, the real prize comes around 55:54 when she discusses daydreaming and playfulness when she practices. As someone who has come out of the theatre acting tradition, I was intrigued when she talked about being honest to the moment rather than executing a rigid conception of the music. While this is considered important in acting, my perception has been this isn’t valued in classical music.

In theater, if an actor says “I’m sorry” more defiantly today than they did yesterday, as the person performing opposite them, the way you move and deliver your next line has to be an authentic response to that .  Hahn says when she is doing master classes and she sees a student is clearly censoring their playing because they think it would be improper to do otherwise, she says she talks to them about it. She says when she has low energy during a performance, she doesn’t try to pump herself up, but uses that and plays a little more mellow so that when she reaches a point in a piece where the energy starts to increase, the audience is even more aware of the palpable change.

What classical musicians might think of all this I don’t know,  but as someone from the outside it runs contrary to my conception of the philosophy and practice of classical music and begins to align more with what I know of the process of theatre, dance and visual artists.

Around 1:22.00 in the video she does a demonstration of what she means by daydreaming during practice. It isn’t so much daydreaming in the woolgathering sense as it is paying close attention to what one is doing and playing with different options to imagine what might happen during a performance. (The following comes much closer to the 1 hour mark, but expresses her approach)

I reverse the assumptions that I have. I just neutralize everything and then I’m…Kind of letting my mind wander. I’m thinking about what is going on with the orchestra. Waiting for something to occur to me. I think people don’t ever think that happens in practice.

For a lot of people, I think practice is about being more accurate, improving your playing, being more expressive, being more this or that. But for me, yes, there’s that, but… Those are the tools to get to the point where you can let your mind wander and get ideas.

During her demonstration of her practice process, she verbalizes what she is thinking:

“…so right there I heard the violin kicked into a certain resonance and I was really listening for that and that felt like it had a certain tone quality that I like.

And that feels good so it gave me a little bit of inspiration…

[…]

Perhaps I can take that further…how far can I go?…how long can I hold it?…can I get away with that?…I imagine the conductor is looking at me like…” (makes ‘get on with it’ hand motions)

She talks about how having this bit of fun helps her feel creative, cleanse her system of instincts she has and find answers to questions she has about the music. Earlier in the interview, in a bit that Benzon transcribed, she seems to indicate this approach also helps keep her nimble enough to practice with unfamiliar musicians on short notice:

I’m always trying to trigger in mind into new phrasing ideas, so I don’t get stuck and so that when I’m working with other people, I don’t have a lot of rehearsal time and I need to present a unified concert. So, when I’m working with other people, how can I play it in a way that’s authentic to me, but really coincides with what they’re doing and brings out a better version of the music than we could arrive at ourselves separately.

As I said, for musicians this may all be familiar equipment in a potential toolbox, but as an outsider I found it helped make unfamiliar material more relatable.

Arts Marketing Is About Shared Interests, Not Demographics

Back in October Sara Leonard made a blog post for Americans for the Arts about marketing in the context of the “false-consensus effect,” the idea that your personal opinions, beliefs and interests are more widely shared than they actually are. She says this gets in the way of effectively promoting an experience to others

It makes sense; it’s such a logical starting point! We go to market an event and think to ourselves, “What do I think is cool about this?” or “Why would I want to go?” Or maybe we’re repeating what the artist themselves thinks is the key source of attraction to a given event, believing that the artist must know what’s good about their own work. But here’s the problem: we—you, me, artists—are NOT our average audience members…. Our job, as arts marketers, is to serve our current and prospective audiences a picture that connects with their interests and values in a package that evokes an experience they want to have. And to do that, we need to cast our imaginations beyond the limitations of our own perspectives and experiences, get to know what makes our people tick, and to imagine the other complexly and with respect.

She says the best approach is to employ three  W questions- Who? Where? Why do they care? But in addition to using these questions to segment the universe of potential audiences in order to properly target them, she suggests applying them in slightly different ways with those whom we already know versus those we don’t know yet. The latter group being people who rarely, if ever, participate in events we sponsor. (Though I suppose it could equally apply to people who might attend frequently with whom we have a pretty tenuous relationship in terms of understanding their motivations.)

What I appreciated about Sara’s perspective on this was that she reversed the order of her 3W questions when it came to people we don’t know yet. She asks “Why do they already care”   about some part of what is being offered first. From there she goes on to identify Who those people are and where connections with them might be made.

Perhaps the most salient point she exhorts readers to keep in mind came toward the end (my emphasis):

Your “who” groups should not be based solely on demographics. There is nothing about our demographic characteristics alone that explains WHY we spend our time and money the way we do, so let’s imagine and create connections based on shared interests and values first. Then, look around the room and see what demographic groups are missing. (Hint: That’s a “who” for next time…)

 

What About “Make Sure You Draw All Your Work” On The Test?

Hey all. Dan Pink linked to a round up of education research that came out in 2019. There were studies on how good teachers were better than awards when it came to raising attendance rates; the benefits of sleep on learning; gender differences in math ability are social construct; black students get fewer warnings before heading to the principal’s office, and many others.

As you might expect, among the “many others” were studies on the benefits of arts:

As arts programs continue to face the budget ax, a handful of new studies suggest that’s a grave mistake. The arts provide cognitive, academic, behavioral, and social benefits that go far beyond simply learning how to play music or perform scenes in a play.

In a major new study from Rice University involving 10,000 students in third through eighth grades, researchers determined that expanding a school’s arts programs improved writing scores, increased the students’ compassion for others, and reduced disciplinary infractions. The benefits of such programs may be especially pronounced for students who come from low-income families, according to a 10-year study of 30,000 students released in 2019.

Unexpectedly, another recent study found that artistic commitment—think of a budding violinist or passionate young thespian—can boost executive function skills like focus and working memory, linking the arts to a set of overlooked skills that are highly correlated to success in both academics and life.

The one that drew my attention most was a study that found while doodling distracted from learning, intentional drawing reinforced learning and memory better than reading and note taking.  The way I read it, this approach may be the easiest way to integrate creative expression and the arts into any subject AND improve test scores.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers compared two methods of note-taking—writing words by hand versus drawing concepts—and found drawing to be “an effective and reliable encoding strategy, far superior to writing.” The researchers found that when the undergraduates visually represented science concepts like isotope and spore, their recall was nearly twice as good as when they wrote down definitions supplied by the lecturer.

Importantly, the benefits of drawing were not dependent on the students’ level of artistic talent, suggesting that this strategy may work for all students, not just ones who are able to draw well.

[…]

Why is drawing such a powerful memory tool? The researchers explain that it “requires elaboration on the meaning of the term and translating the definition to a new form (a picture).” Unlike listening to a lecture or viewing an image—activities in which students passively absorb information—drawing is active. It forces students to grapple with what they’re learning and reconstruct it in a way that makes sense to them.

It made sense to me that drawing was beneficial because it forces one to take the information they are receiving, process it and then execute it into a meaningful depiction. Reading and writing down lecture notes don’t require that you be able to process the concept, only that you recognize and understand the individual words. If you have studied a foreign language you may have had the experience where you can pronounce the words flawlessly and know what each word means separately, but can’t translate the meaning of an entire sentence accurately.

The article discusses other reinforcing actions in of the increased number of steps and synaptic connections which are required to execute a drawing which helps to solidify concepts in memory, but that is how is how I conceptualize I read.

If you are interested in putting this into practice either for your own note taking or to assist students, there are suggestions of implementation – student created learning aids, interactive notebooks, data visualization (which apparently can be applied to literature); book/comic book making; and one-pagers where students visually show the teacher their understanding of the concept.

The (Maybe) Final Recordings of the 2019 NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge

This week the National Endowment for the Arts posted the final recordings of works created for the NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge. Last Spring, six works by seven high school students were chosen as winners of the competition.

The subjects of their works were: mermaid kingdoms threatened by pirates; The American Civil War; Australia’s Great Emu War of 1932; choosing whether to attend college; Greco-Persian wars; and time travel.

The thing I really appreciated about the release of the final recordings is that the NEA also posted the original songs each person submitted alongside the final song they developed in conjunction with a mentor. This helps reinforce the reality of the process in creative process. Many of the songs have different lyrics and music by the time it came to do the professional recording.

Having the initial and final pieces side by side helps people understand the adage about genius being 98% perspiration and 2% inspiration is very much real. If the creators continue to work on these projects, in all likelihood these final recordings will turn out to actually be an intermediate step in the development process.

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