*This is the second in a series of blogs which are an in depth analysis of Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code as it relates to the “Talent Education method” developed by Dr. Suzuki.                                                       

Myelin wrapping around the neural circuitry is the “what” of developing skill/talent.  Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code,  uses the analogy of a broadband internet connection versus a dial-up modem to compare heavily myelinated neural connections versus neural connections with little myelin.  So, the myelinated connections allow much more information at a much higher rate to be transmitted. Deep/deliberate Practice is the “how” to develop skill and myelinate the neural circuits.

Daniel Coyle traveled around the world to study “hotbeds’ or places where many people develop a high ability in the same location.    In an article from the New York Times published in 2007, (The Talent Code was published in 2009),  Daniel Coyle talks about his visit to the Spartak Center for tennis in Moscow where a large number of super “talents” have come out of Russia.  Coyle says: 

“To put Spartak’s success in talent-map terms: this club, which has one indoor court, has achieved eight year-end top-20 women’s rankings over the last three years. During that same period, the entire United States has achieved seven.”(1)

The Suzuki movement was ignited in the United States when Dr. Suzuki* held the American tours and brought his young students to America to perform.  A poster from a concert held in downtown Atlanta in 1988 is on the side of this blog.  Dr. Suzuki created a “hotbed” for developing talent in the small town of Matsumoto, in Japan.   About environment Dr. Suzuki said:

“What does not exist in the environment will not develop in the child. By no means only words or music, but everything, good or bad, is absorbed by the child.” (2)

What Daniel Coyle observed in the environment at the Spartak Center in Moscow and other sports and music talent hotbeds he traveled to is what he defines as “deep practice”.

According to K. Anders Ericsson, the author of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, every talent is the result of a single process: deliberate practice. He defines this as individuals engaged in a practice activity with full concentration on some point to improve their skill. Thus, deliberate practice means working on technique using constant critical feedback from observations as well as those of a coach/teacher. K. Anders Eriksson  defined this kind of deliberate/deep practice as distinctly different and more effective than simple repetition or spending time doing an activity.

“Deliberate practice differs from the mere experience of doing the task in many different ways. Perhaps the most striking way concerns the mental attitude of the individual. During deliberate practice the individual has the goal of improving some measurable aspect of their performance. For example, a recreational golfer aims their putt toward the hole on the green and either misses or drops the ball in the hole. Every time the golfer putts the ball, it is a different situation and the golfer would not know whether the mistake was caused by their putting technique, the slope of the green, the resistance of the grass, or whatever. During deliberate practice on a practice green, the golfer has the opportunity to make the same putt many times (Ericsson 2001).”*(3)

This idea of practicing the same putt many times is part of what Daniel Coyle defines as the first component of “deep practice”  and calls it  “chunking it up”.  Basically this means that the practice is one definable part of the whole process of playing golf and that this allows the golfer to focus and build the myelin around the cirucits in that particular movement. He includes in this idea absorbing the whole concept/piece/”chunk” and then dividing it into it’s  smallest possible parts.

“People in hotbeds deep-practice the same way a good movie director approaches a scene -one instant panning back to show the landscape, the next zooming in to examine a bug crawling on a leaf in slo-mo.” (4)

In the Talent Education method, students listen to performances of the music they are studying as well as to performances by the best artists and the highest level compositions, such as Mozart concertos.  A unique benefit music has for developing this “sense of the whole” is that the music can be going on continuously and absorbed subconsciously without any effort or time consumption. Coyle cites examples of various successful sports players and teams that watch videos of the best teams and players. K. Anders Ericsson says:

“When you put yourself in the same situation as an outstanding person and attack a task that they took on, it has a big effect on your skill.” (5)

As an example of breaking skills into “chunks”,  Daniel Coyle discusses the students at the Meadowmount School of Music playing sections of their piece in rhythms or with stops on certain notes on the beat, and how this practice distinctively develops the myelination of those notes together as a smaller chunk. This is an important way of practicing scale type passages. It is important for students to practice with stops on the beat, in phrases, in sections, hands separate, etc.  This breaking down is the crucial balancing component to absorbing the whole. Suzuki students practice spots that are patterns such as the alberti pattern.  ( Left hand: Do-So -Mi-So). Also, the “Twinkles”*** are themselves a whole study in the“chunking”  of rhythmic and melodic patterns for the child to absorb.

About the Spartak tennis team Coyle says:

“At Spartak it’s called imitatsiya-rallying in slow motion with an imaginary ball. All Spartak’s players do it, from the five-year-olds to the pros.”(6)

Slowing down enables students to increase precision and develop a perception of the interlocking skill circuits. Dr. Kataoka called this “slow-motion” practice.  So, from the beginners to the advanced pros, everyone is practicing and observing others practicing  (no private lessons at Spartak) the simple movements very precisely over and over again. In studying Piano Basics with Dr. Kataoka, teachers would play the Twinkles for their lessons as other teachers observed, and worked on the most basic skills of posture, ready and tone. Teachers in Piano Basics still study in this same way.
In describing chunking Daniel Coyle says:

“The goal is always the same: to break a skill into its component pieces (circuits), memorize those pieces individually, then link them together in progressively larger groupings (new, interconnected circuits)”(7)

Dr. Kataoka  when instructing students and parents on how to practice used the term “part by part”.  It makes sense in terms of building myelin for students to build these parts as overarching waves or “nesting” with the bigger ones encompassing the smaller ones starting from a single tone, down-up feeling, or slur and adding the bigger wave to a measure or pattern, to a phrase, section,  whole movement,   to the whole piece. Each part is in turn practiced to build the correct technique to produce the best sound.

In short, technique is established through deep practice, and this is what Dr. Suzuki meant by “Ability Development”, what Dr. Kataoka instructed teachers and parents how to do at every lesson, and a critical component of core education.

Daniel Coyle relays his encounter with  77 year old coach Larisa Preobrazhenskaya of the Spartak team:

“Technique is everything,” she told me later, smacking a table with Khrushchev-like emphasis, causing me to jump and reconsider my twinkly-grandma impression of her. “If you begin playing without technique, it is big mistake. Big, big mistake!”(8)

1. “How to grow a Super Athlete” by Daniel Coyles, New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007
2.  Nurtured by Love, Dr. Suzuki, 1983; Page 12
3.”Discovering deliberate practice activities that overcome plateaus and limits on improvement of performance” – K. Anders Ericsson-from International Symposium on Performance Science 2009- Keynote Paper
4 The Talent Code by Daniel Coyles, 2009; Page 80.
5. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyles, 2009; Page 80
6. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyles, 2009 ; Page 82
7. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyles, 2009;  Page 84
8. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyles, 2009;  Page 83

 *         About the Suzuki Method
** The “Twinkles” are the beginning pieces for all instruments in the Suzuki method.  They involve the twinkle melody with rhythms on each note.  They are used to teach how to produce tone with good technique on each note/finger.

Interesting Links:
“The Brains Behind Talent”  -a short New York Times Video on Doug Fields head neuro-scientist at the The National Institute of Health explaining myelination with an example of himself and his daughters.

“White Matter Helps Brains Learn, Erik Vance- Interesting article in The Scientist on research done on myelin.

Books quoted and discussed in this post: