The Myth of the Old Dog.

This is a long post, but I hope you will bear with me, and read through this, because I think this could be useful to the adult student of any intellectual or physical discipline.

Nearly two weeks ago, I attended a three-day, advanced-level flamenco dance workshop.   Much to my surprise, the real learning had nothing to do with choreography, or advanced technique.

The real learning at this workshop... is about how I learn.

The first day went quite well.   The workshop started with about 90 minutes of flamenco dance technique.   Footwork, arm placement, body placement, head snaps, spins, chaine' turns.   Counting and doing palmas (clapping) for a 12-count compas.

Once we finished all of that, we started learning a new choreography, and it went very well for me.   I felt like a rockstar!  I was not the most advanced girl there (that fell to my friend, whom I shall refer to as 'Alicia') - but the instructor kept choosing the two of us demonstrate exercises and the choreo we were learning, for the other attendees.

It has been a very long time since I was the 'advanced kid' in any dance class, and I have to say, it felt good.

That was the first day of the workshop.

The second day was entirely different.   I struggled to grasp the choreography, and felt like I just couldn't get the additional movement concepts.   I muddled through the entire thing, and I went home feeling very frustrated.

So what happened between the first day, and the second?   Well... as it turns out, several things:

1.   The choreography and footwork from the first evening were recorded and put on Dropbox - which I could not access and successfully replay with my iPad, with the shaky internet connection at my condo.   I needed my laptop, and/or better internet, both of which were at JC's.   So I did not review and practice the material prior to walking into the second session.

2.   The second session was all choreography.    The pace was faster, because the instructor saw how fast we were able to pick things up the first day, and she decided we were up for a challenge.

There is a 3. and a 4. and I will get to those in just a moment.   Before I do, I want to explain about how I learn.   The second night I saw a significant slowdown in my ability to pick up new ideas.   And this is why:   I learn things in 'blocks'.   Blocks of music, blocks of lyrics, blocks of dialogue, blocks of knowledge, blocks of choreography.   I have always worked one block at a time, getting a working knowledge of the material in that block, before moving on to the next one.   Some blocks I can assimilate quickly (piano, percussion, script lines).   Some things come slowly to me (singing, dancing).

Once I have worked through all the blocks of something, then I go back and try to work all the way through, and that's where I usually find I have to 're-block' and work transitions.

Let me use a recent-ish example:   I learned several piano pieces from Suite Espanola, by Isaac Albeniz, for a fundraiser show for our theatre in late 2013.   To start, I sat down with the score and a pencil, and followed the score as I listened to a recording of the music.   I marked off the music in 16-64 bar 'blocks', and I noted when a block was repeated.   Then I went through, one block at a time, and assigned fingerings and hand positions to the tricky passages,   Once that was done, I followed my usual habit of setting a timer for 15 minutes.   I do this so that I can work through the entire piece without obsessing over one passage for hours.   This allows me to get a basic learning of the piece.

Once I have done this, I try and play through the piece, slowly, in its entirety - and that is when I work through transitioning from one block to the next.

I use this same technique for learning percussion rhythms, script lines, vocal music, and choreography.

And this takes me to 3....

3.   When I learn dance movement, I do that in blocks, as well... but I struggle harder with transitions from block to block.   With this realization, came another understanding:   It takes me awhile to commit to learning the actual dance choreography - I have a bad habit of performing by rote, or being a monkey-see, monkey-do kinda gal.   I am able to mimic and partially recall a fraction of a second after I see someone else initiate the movement.   So if you ask me to do a new choreo on my own ten minutes after it has been taught... I might have it, or I might not.   Probably not.

Having clarified this for myself, I was able to move to conclusion number 4...

4.   Having to actually learn the material, and not piggyback off of someone else, or my own mentally-checked-out habit... is not comfortable.    In fact, it is very mentally uncomfortable.    This kind of learning - which Cal Newport refers to as "Deep Work" - requires an intense effort of will and concentration on my part - and it makes me squirm, for about 10-15 minutes, until I push past it.    My brain does not like the challenge, and will do everything it can to divert me with little distractions - siren calls, if you will - and if that doesn't work, my mind will shift gears and really try to subvert me from going any further into deep work.

Here are examples of what my brain was telling me, the second and third nights of class:

  • "This is really really hard.   Why don't you sit down and stretch out your feet for a moment?"
  • "It's hard to think.   You should have some food.   Isn't there an apple in your bag?"
  • "You had better check your texts, and see if JC answered the one you sent before the workshop started."
  • "Hey look, that other gal sat down.   She looks upset.  Maybe you should see if she's okay". 

Do you see how sneaky that last example is?   My brain dug deep, and tried to use empathy for others, to wiggle out of doing actual work.   The woman was fine, by the way, she had just had an exhausting work day, and the workshop material was beyond her skill level.

By the end of the second session, I was kind of aware that I was losing focus - but it wasn't until the drive home, (away from any distraction of internet, email, or texting), that I was able to think this through, and arrive at a clear understanding of what had happened. 

I am very glad the second evening went as it did - because now that I have worked my way through the problem, I am already seeing a huge impact on how I study my performing arts materials, and how I spend my writing sessions.

I went to JC's, where I was reunited with my laptop, and able to download and review the video material.   I made sure, going into the final session of the workshop, that I had eaten a sensible meal, that I had plenty of water, and a healthy snack.  

The third evening went very well!   Was I able to do all of the choreography?   No.   But I was able to do most of it, which is exactly what I want out of a workshop - to be challenged beyond my level and ability.   I was able to work through the transitions, and I made the concentrated effort not to watch the other attendees when the instructor stepped out to watch.  I made myself remember the choreos, and not rely on the other dancers.   Also, I was aware of those moments in the session, when I was not 'comfortable' - and I was able to push through my mind's attempts to distract and divert.   I found that, with focus of will, I could push through that 'distraction' phase within a few minutes.   

So here is where I talk about the title of this post.   There is a terrible, cliched saying out there, and I have seen it applied to pretty much every adult human being over the age of 25:   "You Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks".   I think this is possibly the nastiest little idea that ever was, because it permeates every level of every intellectual or physical activity in our society.   It is an utter fallacy.   Anyone, of any age, who is willing to objectively analyze their learning skills,  identify and eliminate distraction, and who is willing to throw themselves at the challenge.. can accomplish anything.   

There is no expiration date on learning a skill or achieving an objective, regardless of age. 

I cannot help being a bit regretful that it took me to this point in my life to understand this - and I am also fiercely overjoyed that I arrived at this understanding as quickly as I have.   To quote a favorite song, from a favorite Sondheim show,

"There's a lot I'll have missed, but I'll not have been dead when I die!"

There are some wonderful books that I highly recommend on the topic of learning.   They deserve their own reviews, which I will eventually write, but I want to mention them here:

Cal Newport has a fantastic blog site, and has written a brilliant book, So Good, They Can't Ignore You.  This book is a life-changer.   The title comes from a quote by Steve Martin, which leads me to my second recommendation.

I have been a huge fan of Steve Martin since I was a child.   His autobiography, Born Standing Up, was immensely enjoyable AND extremely instructive, particularly when you realize how much practice and deep work has gone into his body of work (comedy, writing, acting, performing), over the course of his lifetime.

And finally, I recently read (and re-read parts) of Stephen King's fantastic non-fiction biography/how-to:   On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft.   Again, this book was so instructional, not merely in the technical art of writing, but in the intellectual art of taking your life experiences, and translating them into your art.

Also, the song I quoted is "The Miller's Son", from the Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music.   The music and lyrics of the entire show are absolutely exquisite.  I have taken the quote out of context, but the sentiment is the same.

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