Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, is known for propagating the thesis that the brain substance myelin -- rather than genes or an undefinable innate talent -- is responsible for exceptional human performance. He believes that myelin production -- and consequent excellence, be it in music, sport, writing, or indeed any human endeavor -- can be stimulated by the application of three elements: what he calls "deep practice" (extreme repetition), "ignition" (passionate desire), and "master coaching."
But how to recognize a master coach?
On his blog, Coyle draws our attention to a piece written by classical pianist Jeremy Denk in The New Yorker in which Denk discusses the teachers who molded him into a world-class artist. Coyle notes that "Denk’s teachers turn out to be a beautiful set of case studies for analyzing what qualities master teachers tend to possess," and lists some of those qualities as follows:
- Master teachers love detail. They worship precision. They relish the small, careful, everyday move.
- They devise spectacularly repetitive exercises to help develop that detail — and make those exercises seem not just worthwhile, but magical. As Denk writes, “Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.”
- They spend 90 percent of their time directing students toward what is plainly obvious. They spend the other 10 percent igniting imagination as to what is possible.
- They walk a thin line between challenging and supporting. They destroy complacency without destroying confidence. This is tricky territory, and requires empathy and understanding on both sides — particularly when it comes to understanding the moment when it’s time to move on.
- They do not teach lessons; they teach how to work. As Denk writes, they “ennoble the art of practice.” (Isn’t that a fantastic phrase?)
On reflection, I think I encountered a teacher as exceptional as this once in my life: my high school choir instructor, George Trautwein. Interestingly, together with the above qualities, he was also flamboyant and slightly bananas in a way that would never be tolerated in an American classroom today. (Chairs were occasionally thrown.) His memory is revered to this day, decades on, by all of us who were lucky enough to have been taught by him. And many of us can still remember our parts in pieces he taught us to sing -- via highly precise, highly technical, highly repetitive practice that was, indeed, magical.
Do you agree with Coyle's description of a master teacher? And have you ever been taught by one?
(Also, parenthetically: I find myself wondering if this is at all age-dependent. Could I -- I believe the technical term for my age bracket is "No Spring Chicken" -- take up, say, the banjo from scratch and get anywhere? With equivalent levels of practice, determination, and coaching, would I have a shot at accomplishing the kind of banjo pyrotechnics that an eleven-year-old might achieve? If any of the Ricochetti know the answer to this, please let me know. I figure I've got another forty, fifty years, if things go okay. Banjo's just the beginning.)