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Myelinating with Mo

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The recent LABBS Harmony College brought lots of interesting resonances with the blog post I had scheduled to come out the day after I got home from it. This is not entirely a coincidence of course – at the time I was writing about practice processes and shunting between local and global, I was also refining my notes for a session on rehearsal techniques that focused on Daniel Coyle’s Talent Code, and its accounts of how we acquire skills.

But our guest educator Mo Field also gave us a lot to enrich that understanding. Her coaching under glass session with Soundhouse and Avalon quartets on Saturday evening was a masterclass in myelination. She took very little time before she started to delve deep, paring down to two singers each on a single note and spending a long time there before building up to four singers and three or notes at a go. Then when she pulled the camera back to take in wider stretches of music, the singers were able to continue accessing the new paths they had gone down as they had spent long enough there to get them at least partly established.

So it was quite wonderful the next to display a slide outlining the behaviours that constitute deep practice, and for each item to be able to say, ‘…and we saw Mo do this last night…’

There was also something Mo said in a different context that started a chain of thought related to this. (Mo does this a lot – she gets you in a frame of mind to be interested in stuff, and then you spend the next week with your brain saying, ‘Hey wake up, I want to process some intriguing ideas for a couple of hours!’ at 4 every morning.)

Her context was the way that a musical director can sometimes find themselves at odds with a management team, because they work with different structures of process. Management committees like a linear approach: it’s rational, it’s clear, it’s controllable. They have an obligation to the chorus as an organisation that is fulfilled effectively using lists.

But creative processes aren’t usually linear, they’re a matrix. So the board can get frustrated when the group’s musical growth isn’t proceeding by steps, and/or the MD can get frustrated when their board tries to impose a linear structure on them, which boxes them in and makes it harder for them to be successful.

So that was an interesting dynamic to think about in itself. But her point that creativity works in a matrix, not a line also detached itself from that context and got me thinking about the process of shunting between macro and micro I had just been thinking about in the context of skill-acquisition.

The image that formed in my head is of an artist at an easel. They stand back and look at the whole canvas, where they’ll likely have started with a sketch or outline of how the whole will occupy the space. Then they’ll zoom their attention in on a specific spot to apply paint. There is always specificity in this: the place where brush or palette knife touches canvas is a defined locus of attention. Then they’ll need to stand back again to integrate that work into their concept of the whole.

To make the comparison by contrast. A painter doesn’t typically start in the top left corner and work their way across then down until the painting is finished. Neither do they start doing all the blue bits, then all the red bits, then all the green bits. Those are rational linear processes, and they make no sense for painting a picture.

Arranging a song is very like this. Years ago I outlined the overall process in an ostensibly linear fashion:

Arranging Process

But all the key stuff goes on in the box marked ‘magic happens here’, which is perhaps another way of saying the linearity breaks down at this point. The metaphor of the painter’s work describes it very well though. Song-map, key scheme, and primary harmonies give you your broad-brush sketch, but the actual notes you choose have to be specific, like the arrival of brush on canvas.

And you don’t start in bar 1, and just carry on through to the end. The problem-solving you do at the start of verse 2 make you go back and revisit verse 1. The idea you get for the tag changes what you want to do in the intro. The elegant solution for what looked like an awkward little bit of melody provides you with a motif that can pop up here and there throughout to enliven the whole.

To say creativity is a matrix casts the envisioned work as a multidimensional space that the creating mind moves through. It isn’t irrational: even at the sketchiest initial state, there is a clear sense of what kind of space it occupies, how big it is, the kind of shape it will be. But the path around the space is complex, and not entirely predictable as it responds flexibly to the emergent properties of the whole.

To return to our starting point of myelination, the shunting between detail and whole is the same in rehearsing music as it is in creating it. As is the sense of what constitutes ‘progress’ not being evenly-paced. You don’t count progress on an arrangement in number of bars written, since most of those are going to be rewritten three times before the chart is ready to sing. Likewise, number of bars learned is a very basic measure of progress for a performer. There’s going to be a whole lot of stuff that needs doing beyond absorbing notes and words before you’re ready to share that music.

And once you understand that skill is about building sheaths of myelin around neural pathways, the apparent unevenness of progress makes a lot more sense. Yes, we have just spent 20 minutes on 5 chords, and if you extrapolated that out to the whole song we’re not going to be ready to perform it until 17 months after the performance we’re booked for. But you don’t need to do that extrapolation.

Having the patience to dig deep and nurture your neural pathways when you’re setting them up will save you so much time in the longer run as you’ll be better at doing everything. Investment in the nitty-gritty is investment in production capacity.

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