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How to Think, Part 1
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How to Think, Part 1

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When he applied for a job at the MIT Media Laboratory, Ed Boyden, the winner of the 2013 Brain Prize, had to write a teaching statement. One of his proposals was a class entitled “How to Think.”

According to Boyden, the class “would focus on how to be creative, thoughtful, and powerful in a world where problems are extremely complex..."

Boyden composed ten rules for his class. While the title of Boyden's class is rather presumptuous, his ten "rules" provide practical guidance for navigating a world where "...targets are continuously moving, and our brains often seem like nodes of enormous networks that constantly reconfigure.”

As musicians, we have periods where we have to think and do. As we are learning a tune, we have to think about the expression, correcting mistakes, and executing correctly. Eventually, we need to transition to a stage where we execute a tune automatically. We are not thinking as much as we are doing. Getting to that point though, can be a challenge.

If we are learning the concept ALAP/ASAP, for a dot-cut with four clicks on the metronome to a beat, we might think, "hold, hold, hold...cut." If ALAP/ASAP is a new concept, we may need to focus on thinking about the concept and applying it at the same time. In Boyden's terms, we would be applying his first rule. We need to synthesize new ideas constantly.

“Never read passively,” Boyden states, “annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you’re reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff.” Boyden notes that active reading will help towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative. To that I would add, we need to listen actively. We have a wealth of reference material here at Dojo U, written and video. When you are watching a live Dojo U session, remove all distractions (turn off your phone, TV, and stereo) and actively listen so that you grasp the material "at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative."

To that end, Boyden advises "learn how to learn (rapidly)." Boyden states that we should know how our brains work. “Knowing how my brain operates,” Boyden adds, “enables me to use it well.” Boyden often takes a twenty-minute power nap after loading a lot into his brain. The important point here, in my estimation, is that, as musicians, we should know how our brains operate. Learning how to learn things rapidly is a laudable goal, however, as musicians, and especially as pipers, we need to focus on accuracy and evenness over rapidity. It takes time to develop the motor skills to achieve even embellishments.

However, we should know when our brains can operate at optimal capacity. That is something that you know already. If you think back on those times when you learned something really well, what were the factors that led to the learning experience? What time of day was it? Did you have a good night's sleep the night before? Did you have distractions, either physical (such as the TV) or mental (such as worries)?

To provide an example, I find that I have my best practice sessions early in the morning after a good night's sleep, I find that my mind is not fatigued, my muscles are fresh, the concerns from the previous day have subsided, and the impending worries for the current day have yet to rear their head. Conversely, some of my worst practice sessions occur at the end of the day. I am tired and my mind is distracted by the things that I need to do at work. Sometimes, a quick power nap, as Boyden notes, is just the ticket.

We can certainly apply two of Boyden's "rules" to our situations as pipers. Read and listen actively, remove distractions so that you can do so. An engage in some introspection. Learn how your brain works. Learn when your brain can perform optimally, then strive to practice (or watch Dojo U videos) at those times.

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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