Music

A remote, rustic (to put it nicely) classical-music camp in New York’s Adirondacks where students cover a year’s worth of material in seven weeks—a 500 percent increase in learning velocity. Alumni includeYo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Pinchas Zuckerman.  Telltale sign of a Meadowmounter: they all have hickeys on their necks from the violin.

Deep Practice by Goofing Around: How Meadowmount Students Hone Skill Circuits

At first glance, this looks like standard-issue music-camp horseplay: two students playing one cello in a dorm room, for the evident amusement of their roommates.

But when we look more closely, we see something else. By introducing this new difficulty (the right hand literally doesn’t know what the left is doing), these two students are forcing themselves to adapt: to discern errors, to make rapid adjustments, to knock themselves out of automatic playing and into the kind of attentive, focused state on which deep practice is built.

The music they produce is pretty bad (which is in some ways the point). But it also contains bursts of fluency – at 14 seconds, 26 seconds, 34 seconds, and 44 seconds.  I also like their expressions: their classmates might be joking around, but the two studetns are deeply engaged – and earning more skill with every passing second. A two-headed deep-practice monster, you might say. 

Lessons

A 500 percent boost in learning velocity doesn’t happen by magic. It’s a “turn inward,” according to Meadowmount teachers, where the students don’t practice harder, but deeper. This means:

  • Practicing more slowly. Then still more slowly. Then even MORE slowly. The rule of thumb: If a passer-by can recognize the song, it’s not being practice properly. Skill circuits don’t “care” how fast you go – what matters is firing it correctly – the same rule followed by tennis players at Spartak (link).
  • Breaking the skill into chunks, then reconstructing it. Meadowmounters scissor their sheet music into strips, learn each strip, then rebuild the entire piece. This reconstructive act (which, btw, is exactly how teenage Ben Franklin taught himself to write essays) works because it exactly mirrors and reinforces the desired skill-circuits – which are, after all, literal connections in our brains.
  • Locating errors. Meadowmounters practice what they call “discernment”: finding the mistake, and using it to navigate toward the right notes – the basics of deep practice.


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6 Responses to “Meadowmount School of Music, Westport, New York”

  1. [...] packages over slippery floors), and it works brilliantly. UPS is doing exactly what the coaches at Meadowmount, The Shyness Clinic, Spartak or any of the other talent hotbeds are doing: using deep practice to [...]

  2. Ruth Howard says:

    I’ m appreciating your site after referral via Steve Hardagon at LearnCentral.org.
    Aha chunk separately practice each reconstruct later!

  3. Ann Williams says:

    Yo-Yo Ma has a violin hickey? How about the cellists in the video? Throws accuracy of article into question, which is a shame. (It rather undermines the concept, which is a sound one.) One should actually take care NOT to get a violin hickey, just as one should try not to get shin splints.

  4. [...] should match the shape of the circuit. And that’s what I observed at the talent hotbeds like Meadowmount (where loops ruled), Brazilian futsal (home of fast, reactive spiderwebs), or the Bronte household [...]

  5. Nicole Federici says:

    Hi Mr. Coyle.
    I loved your book and your blog.
    As a violinist and a violist myself, I can say that many players (professional and student) do not know how to avoid getting a “hickey” from playing the violin or viola- and it is not caused by hours of practice. It is caused by an ill-fitting chinrest and or a sub-optimal violin hold. I know this because I solved this problem for myself (and a few of my students and friends) some years ago, by inventing a chinrest that allows a player to find an optimal hold very quickly. Somehow, this is not widely understood in my field. I suppose this lack of awareness is a bit like the lack of awareness about deep practice for many people…
    an idea (this chinrest was good for Kreisler, so it is good enough for me/everyone thinks musical genius is inborn, so it must be true).
    I recommend your book to all of my students and their parents. Strangely, this idea that high levels of musical skill emerge only from those who are gifted persists anyhow. Another interesting myth is the idea of tone-deafness, an affliction many believe resembles color-blindness- even if this is proven incorrect to some, they believe that one example is a miracle, and an isolated incident. I hope more people come to embrace these practice ideas you aim to popularize, so that more students of any subject can set higher goals and achieve them. Thank you!!!!

  6. I am both a professional musician (opera singer) and voice professor and pedagogue (Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada) and I have just finished reading your book. I know that it will have profound impacts on the way I teach and the way I approach my practice from here on in. I will be recommending it to both students and colleagues–to some degree it affirmed for me what I had begun to understand in the decade since I began teaching, and gives me the science behind my previous conviction. I have also passed it on to my husband–a girls’ amateur soccer coach.
    I have seen time and time again in my students that despite seemingly natural predestination, those with “talent” or “gift” who do not practice effectively do not progress, and those who are focused, determined and practice consistently can grow far beyond those regardless of their initial supposed gifts or lack thereof.

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