Monday, 17 March 2014

Brilliant Books (Part 1)

As a singer and a writer, I do a lot of reading.  And I'm not just talking about Shopaholic here.

Although, I do love those books.

I mean books which inform my singing and my approach to my career.  There are some fantastic authors out there whose books can completely change your outlook on singing and life.  Whether it's performance psychology, biography, or spirituality, these authors' writings have been powerful sources of inspiration and insight for me.  Here are a few books which I've read recently, and would like to recommend:

Bounce – Matthew Syed

Matthew Syed has a remarkable talent: coming from an average middle-class family in Reading, he rose to stardom as a table tennis player, winning several world championships.  Surely he was blessed with talent, born to play table tennis.

Hold on though – that’s not the whole story.  Syed may have been born in an average middle class family, but he was also brought up in some fortunate circumstances for a budding table tennis champion.  First of all, when he was very little his parents bought a tennis table and set it up in their garage.  Secondly, he happened to have an older brother who was eager to play table tennis with him all the time.  And he happened to go to a school where a top table tennis coach was teaching.  As Syed got older and racked up hours playing in his garage, he became quite a good player and his teacher noticed him.  Soon he was receiving world-class coaching from his teacher and getting 24-hour access to the local table tennis club, where he could practise to his heart's content.  All of these advantages allowed him to spend years of focused practice building his talent.

In Bounce, Matthew Syed aims to de-bunk the myth that talent is something you're born with.  From Tiger Woods to Venus and Serena Williams, he explains how every world-class performer and athlete is the product of years of hard work – and not simply the lucky recipient of some God-given gift.  What we call "talent" is actually a combination of opportunity, motivation, great teaching, and mindful practice.  Even Mozart, the classic child prodigy, was not born a great musician.  Rather, he began music at an unusually early age under the guidance of his father – a renowned music pedagogue.  It was not until approximately ten years into his training that he began creating his great works.  Yes, these works were composed at an unusually young age, but that's only because he began earlier than most and had an excellent teacher to help him on the way.

Looking at talent from this angle, we reach an amazing revelation.  Talent is not just a gift bestowed upon the chosen few.  It's something that anyone can earn with enough work.  In other words, if you invest in the right teacher, the right coach, the right practice facilities, if you spend enough time practising deliberately (i.e. not just mindless repetition) – you will eventually get where you want to be.  Bounce is an inspiring book for anyone aspiring to build their chosen skill to a world-class level.  I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Talent Code – Daniel Coyle

Do you know what myelin is?  Neither did I, before I started this book.  Myelin is what you build when you practise.  Every time you fire a certain sequence of nerves to do a specific action – whether it's swinging a tennis racket or singing a top A – myelin wraps around these nerves to insulate them and make them perform more efficiently.  After practising the same action several times, these nerves will be wrapped thickly in myelin, causing them to work at expert speed and precision.  Myelin is the scientific explanation for why practice makes perfect, and it's captivating neuroscientists everywhere.  In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle explores the science of practice and how great talent is really created.

Cross-section of a nerve wrapped in myelin.

Of course, not just any kind of practice will make you great.  In order to build up myelin and develop a skill, you have to do "Deep Practice".  This type of practice is focused, precise, and often slow, and works to constantly stretch you beyond the edge of your abilities.  Beyond practising, Coyle also discusses two other essential elements to building great talent: "Ignition" – powerful sources of inspiration which light a fire under you to get practising – and Master Coaches – expert teachers who know just how to guide your progress.
I found this book to be a fascinating and inspiring read.  Coyle described numerous case studies of "talent hotbeds" – places where great talent is developed, from football players to chess masters to concert violinists.  Like Matthew Syed, he takes the angle that talent is grown, not born.  And that's an idea in which we can all find hope.  His writing is colourful and personable – he really takes the time to paint a picture of each situation so that you feel that you yourself are in conversation with the same expert baseball coach, or world-class pianist.  This book was truly a pleasure to read.

A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle

Ok, I know what you're thinking.  When I see something "new-agey" like this, my bullshit alarms start ringing.  But hear me out here.  This book has a lot to offer.

My teacher recommended this book to me several months ago, and it was a long and arduous process getting through the whole thing.  Tolle's writing is intense – he packs a lot of into each page.  And they're big ideas, the kind that take a long time to wrap your head around.  But I promise you that if you take the time to read this book in full, you will reach some huge life-changing realisations about yourself and the world around you.  And in turn, this will have an enormous influence on your approach to your craft and your career.

Tolle is a world-renowned spiritual writer and speaker.  He is probably known best for his book, The Power of Now.  However, if you are completely new to Tolle's ideas, then A New Earth is an easier and more accessible read.  In it, Tolle talks about the dangerous tricks and illusions which our ego plays with us.  He discusses how to escape the traps of negativity and overthinking, and how to find peace and live in the present moment.  It's all pretty esoteric stuff.  But I think this kind of spiritual understanding is vital for anyone, especially those working in the arts.  As artists, it's very easy for us to get caught up in negative thinking patterns and become extremely unhappy.  We work in a difficult career that's full of ego and competition.  Reading books like this can help us to transform our approach to life, making us happier and more well-balanced people.

If I'm being perfectly honest, there were some bits in the book which had me rolling my eyes.  You know what I mean – the airy-fairy pseudoscience claims which have no basis in reality whatsoever.  But once you sift these bits away, there is a lot of valuable spiritual insight in the book.  I often found myself chuckling and shaking my head as I read, recognising my own bad habits and emotional foibles in the pages.  There is a lot of truth in this book, and I think it’s a very important read.

Check out next week's post for some more great reads!

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