Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Part 1, The Locked Door

If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers, I highly recommend Blink, also by Gladwell.  Where Outliers deals with extraordinary people who seem to defy the normal limits of human achievement, Blink attempts to explain how we arrive at split-second decisions.  In an early chapter in Blink titled “The Locked Door,” Gladwell discusses the gap between our experiences and our perception of those experiences.  In other words, we often don’t fully understand the reasons behind many of the decisions we make, even when those decisions turn out to be the right ones. According to Gladwell, this information lies behind the “locked door.”  One section of this chapter really jumped out at me as something that musicians and especially teachers could learn from.  Gladwell relates the story of Vic Braden, a renowned tennis coach, and his research.

Braden has had a similar experience in his work with professional athletes. Over the years, he has made a point of talking to as many of the world’s top tennis players as possible, asking them questions about why and how they play the way they do, and invariably he comes away disappointed. “Out of all the research that we’ve done with top players, we haven’t found a single player who is consistent in knowing and explaining exactly what he does,” Braden says. “They give different answers at different times, or they have answers that simply are not meaningful.” [p. 67]

If this discussion sounds familiar, that’s because it closely parallels one of the central issues in private lesson teaching: how to explain to a student what to do when we ourselves may not be fully aware of what it is we are actually doing.  From embouchure to tongue position and breathing, we often have to rely on general descriptions that have worked for us and other students in the past, rather than trying to communicate specific physical details.  Referencing Braden’s extensive video documentation of some of the world’s best tennis players, Gladwell goes on to explain how misleading perceptions can affect  students.

The [Andre] Agassi tape is a perfect illustration of our inability to describe how we behave in the moment. “Almost every pro in the world says that he uses his wrist to roll the racket over the ball when he hits a forehand,” Braden says…”We can tell with digitized imaging whether a wrist turns an eighth of a degree.  But players almost never move their wrist at all…How can so many people be fooled? People are going to coaches and paying hundreds of dollars to be taught how to roll their wrists over the ball, and all that’s happening is that the number of injuries to the arm is exploding.” [pp. 67-68]

Pretty interesting stuff, right? I realize tennis is not horn playing, but I’m certainly not the first person to notice some of the similarities between our discipline and professional sports.  One of the things we can learn from this information is that what it feels like to play the horn (or another brass instrument) might not always line up with what is really happening.  Does this mean that we should never tell students to “lower the tongue,” or “drop the jaw?”  Not necessarily – those kinds of descriptions can be very helpful to certain students – but what feels like a big jaw drop or a completely lowered tongue to us may in reality only be a change of a few millimeters.  I think one way to deal with this issue of perception is to continue to conduct research on the mechanics of brass playing, similar to the tennis videos Gladwell and Braden describe.  Combined with good aural and mental training, more accurate physical knowledge will continue to improve brass pedagogy.  Speaking of video research on brass playing, here are some links.

In part 2 of this series on Blink, we’ll look at the final chapter, “Listening with Your Eyes: The Lessons of Blink.”

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