Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Part 2, Listening with your Eyes

In  Part 1 of this series on Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink, we touched on some of the parallels that could be drawn between professional tennis players and brass musicians – namely the concept that even professionals in both fields might not always be aware of what they are doing physically to achieve high-quality results.   When I read this chapter (which is fairly early in the book) I thought, “Cool, here’s something from an unlikely source that can be applied to music.”  Little did I realize that the final chapter of Blink would deal directly with something in the music world – professional orchestral auditions.

For those who might not be familiar with the recent history of the orchestral audition process, Gladwell provides an excellent summary.

The world of classical music – particularly in its European home – was until very recently the preserve of white men…But over the past few decades, the classical music world has undergone a revolution…Many musicians thought that conductors were abusing their power and playing favorites. They wanted the audition process to be formalized…Musicians were identified not by name but by number. Screens were erected between the committee and the auditioner, and if the person auditioning cleared his or her throat or made any kind of identifiable sound…they were ushered out and given a new number. And as these new rules were put in place around the country, an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women. [pp. 249-250]

Gladwell ties this extraordinary story into the overall theme of Blink by explaining that our first impression of how players sound is often “corrupted” by how they look.  In this case, the ability of even highly trained musicians to make split-second evaluations of a player’s skill is compromised.

What the classical music world realized was that what they thought was a pure and powerful first impression – listening to someone play – was in fact hopelessly corrupted. “Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture,”one musician, a veteran of many auditions, says. “Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have that belabored look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you see and hear. The audition begins the first second the person is in view.” [p. 250-251]

The chapter goes on to quote none other than Julie Landsman, recently retired principal horn of the MET Orhestra.

Julie Landsman, principal French horn for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, says that she’s found herself distracted by the position of someone’s mouth. “If they put their mouthpiece up in an unusual position, you might immediately think, Oh my God, it can’t possibly work. There are so many possibilities. Some horn players use a brass instrument, and some use nickel-silver, and the kind of horn the person is playing tells you something about what city they come from, their teacher, and their school, and that pedigree is something that influences your opinion. I’ve been in auditions without screens, and I can assure you that I was prejudiced. I began to listen with my eyes, and there is no way that your eyes don’t affect your judgement. The only true way to listen is with your ears and your heart.” [p. 251]

Gladwell closes this chapter by noting that screens allowed audition committees to form more accurate impressions of players, without being prejudiced by their appearance.  Referring once more to Julie Landsman’s audition for the MET (which I’m told is one of the few orchestras that have screened auditions all the way through the final round), he writes, “Until they listened to her with just their ears, however, they had no idea she was so good. When the screen created a pure Blink moment, a small miracle happened, the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds: they saw her for who she truly was.” (p. 254)

Blink is an impressive book, and worth a read, as are Gladwell’s other books.  One thing that occurred to me though as I was writing this post is that because  people listen with their ears and their eyes, we as performers need to take charge of not only how we sound, but how we appear as well.  If you’re interested in reading a little bit about stage presence, check out this post.

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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