The third chapter of Peak is one of my favorites. Like many chapters, it begins by using a simple anecdote to describe a complex idea, mental representations. In the early twentieth century, a chess grandmaster named Alexander Alekhine broke a world record. He played twenty-six simultaneous games of chess against strong competitors while blind folded. Interestingly, Alekhine never necessarily sought to be the best blind chess player in the world, just the best chess player in the world. Yet, his practice towards becoming a great chess player also helped him in blind chess. Ericsson argues that expert performers, like Alekhine, have detailed, nuanced, and complex mental images of their craft that they can easily recall. These mental representations, as Ericsson calls them, allowed Alekhine to play twenty-six games at a time without even needing to see the board.
I particularly enjoy this chapter because of the interesting philosophical questions it raises concerning music pedagogy. At initial meetings with parents, I’m often asked “Do you teach them to play by ear or to read music?” This question is asked as if this is obviously a binary choice, one way or the other. As an expert musician myself, this question has always seemed strange to me. But, it was not until I read Peak that I understood exactly why.
This chapter made me think about the mental representations that are involved in musical performance at an expert level. As I see it, there are three components that intermingle in complex ways to form our mental representations as musicians. And the question from the previous paragraph exemplifies two of them very well! The first component is aural skills (those skills that allow us to “play by ear”). Expert musicians usually know exactly what they want a piece of music to sound like and they can essentially stream the music in their minds. They also understand the underlying harmonic relations in the music as their mental picture of the sound is so clear. The second component involves note-reading and familiarity with musical notation. Here’s an example: when I perform a piece of music from memory, it is almost as if I can see the score in my mind. I know exactly what line I’m on. I know where the page turns are. I know where I’ve written a certain reminder to myself. The score essentially scrolls through my mind as I play. When describing this component, I’m reminded of an anecdote about Franz Liszt (often considered the greatest pianist in history). He famously sight-read Grieg’s Piano Concerto for the composer but at a level that sounded as if he’d been practicing it for years. In other words, Liszt’s extraordinary skill as a performer was intertwined with his super-human sight-reading ability! The third component of our musical mental representations is similar to the bodily awareness cultivated by expert athletes and dancers. This component could be described as kinesthetic awareness. It’s how we move when we play or technique. These three components mix in complex ways to form our mental representations as musicians.
But what does all of this mean from the perspective of a teacher? Well, I think that it means that teachers should devise ways to develop their student’s mental representations by focusing on these three areas: aural skills, sight-reading, and technique. This three-pronged approach, I think, really exemplifies the strengths (and weakness) of the Suzuki method. Suzuki students often have highly developed aural skills because of their listening regimen. They also have great technique because of the rote demonstrations provided by their teachers. A perceived weakness of the method is that students could be poor readers if not introduced to notation early. Thus, supplementing the Suzuki method with note-reading activities is essential. Likewise, a more traditional note-reading approach could be improved by incorporating the listening activities of the Suzuki method. In other words, there are multiple ways to teach well as long as the focus is on developing all three components: aural skills, note-reading, and technique. Focus on these three areas, in particular, will contribute to the development of the highly complex mental representations required for performance at a high level.