Recent book reviews — April 2013

Title: Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire — The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56
Author: Rafe Esquith
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

This a fantastic book by dedicated Los Angeles teacher, Rafe Esquith, outlining his general teaching philosophy as well as specific ideas for lessons that make an impact. Although it seems to me that the intensely personal nature of teaching complicates direct imitation of Esquith’s methods, for inspiration alone, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire is well worth reading. I read the book while preparing for the Los Angeles Taiko Institute (opening this summer!) and was able to use the thought-provoking concepts to imagine our teaching strategy and lesson ideas. I wonder what a “taiko practice problem solving” step-by-step method might look like!

I love to weave other subjects into our mental math game. There are so many numbers we want our kids to know.

Rafe: Start with the number of states in the United States of America (50).
Add a dozen.
(Now they are thinking 62.)
Subtract the number of Supreme Court justices. (The kids subtract 9 to get 53.)
Add the number of weeks in a fortnight. (There are 2–now the kids have 55.)
Divide by 11 and show me your answer.

All the students will hold up a 5. It is amazing how well the kids retain an astonishing amount of information.

When Gretzky was a child and would ask permission to go outside and skate, his father’s “yes” was conditional. Gretzky was not allowed to simply go and skate around. He had to go to the pond and work on a specific move or shot. He learned at an early age to practice effectively and not waste time.

… showing a film is not an excuse to take a break. Days before the film will be shown, I begin building excitement by listing its title on a “Coming Attractions” board in our class. I prepare the kids by talking about sections of the film that may be difficult for them to understand.

The orchestra was led by one of the finest instructors I have ever come to know, a woman named June Cheleden. She was able to manage more than a hundred students who had no previous musical training, and she had them playing difficult pieces within a year.

Always give students guidance, but remember that it’s important for them to learn to practice for themselves and not for their teacher.


    Step I. Understand the Problem
    (Put your pencil down)

  • Collect Relevant data
    Step II. Choose an Appropriate Strategy

  • Act It Out
  • Choose an Operation
  • Draw a Picture
  • Guess and Check
  • Look for a Pattern
  • Make a Chart or Table
  • Make an Organized List
  • Use Logical Reasoning
  • Work Backwards
    Step III. Solve the Problem
    (Pick your pencil up)
    Step IV. Analyze
    Does My Answer Make Sense?

My coworker Andrew Hahn, one of the great art teachers in the nation…

I often see school groups crossing the street in a line with one adult at the front and one at the back. Several articles in my [traffic accidents] file tell tell tragic stories that resulted from this street-crossing procedure. In most cases, students in the middle of the line are struck by a car. When Room 56 crosses a street, we follow two procedures. First, no child may ever step off a curb before I give him the green light. Second, I go out into the street and stop traffic completely.

Title: Kanjincho — A Japanese Kabuki Play
Author: A. C. Scott
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

This is a very serviceable summary and translation of Kanjincho, one of the great Kabuki plays. I read this in preparation for my participation in the play next month, along with watching the library’s VHS copy of the BBC recording of Kanjincho. Although neither has quite the passion with which my teacher tells the story, this book helped to fill in a number of gaps left by my limited Japanese.

Title: The Inner Game of Tennis
Author: W. Timothy Gallwey
Source: LAPL
Interest: 4 stars

I am so glad a friend turned me on to this book! Apparently a classic in sports pedagogy, The Inner Game of Tennis describes the mind/body division that complicates adult skill-building. The judgemental mind interferes with the natural abilities of the unconscious body and impedes a sensation-based understanding of motion. Although the topic is tennis, the concepts are immediately applicable to any physical challenge and I found myself revising much of my taiko teaching philosophy. I’m excited to try and better utilize my students’ image-based learning facilities! Wow, thank you for this recommendation, Eien!

“That’s good, but you’re rolling your racket face over a little on your follow-through,” … Before long, Mr. Weil’s mind is churning with six thoughts about what he should be doing and sixteen thoughts about what he shouldn’t be doing. Improvement seems dubious and very complex, but both he and the pro are impressed by the careful analysis of each stroke and the fee is gladly paid upon receipt of the advice to “practice all this, and eventually you’ll see a big improvement.”

Hadn’t he said that five pros had told him his racket was too high? … Despite all those lessons, he had never directly experienced his racket going back high. His mind had been so absorbed in the process of judgment and trying to change this “bad” stroke that he had never perceived the stroke itself.

Knowing where [your racket] should be isn’t feeling where it is. Knowing what your racket didn’t do isn’t feeling where it is. Feeling where it is is knowing where it is.

The first inner skill to be developed in the Inner Game is that of nonjudgmental awareness.

“How can I just ‘let a forehand happen’ if I’ve never learned how to hit one in the first place? … The answer is: if your body knows how to hit a forehand, then just let it happen; if it doesn’t, then let it learn.

… the native tongue of [the non-conscious self,] Self 2 is imagery: sensory images. Movements are learned through visual and feeling images.

Asking for Results … Asking for Form … Asking for Qualities

[Asking for Form] Suppose, for example, that you are consistently rolling your racket over on the follow-through, and the habit continues despite all efforts to change it. First you must give Self 2 a very clear image of what you are asking it to do. This can best be done by holding your racket in front of you in a proper follow-through position and looking at it with undivided attention for several seconds. You may feel foolish, thinking that you already know the proper follow-through, but it is vital to give Self 2 an image to imitate. Having done this, it might also be useful to shut your eyes and imagine as clearly as possible your entire forehand with the racket staying flat throughout the swing. Then, before hitting any balls, swing your racket several times, letting the racket stay flat and allowing yourself to experience how it feels to swing in this new way. Once you start to hit balls, it is important not to try and keep your racket flat. You have asked Self 2 to keep it flat, so let it happen! Self 1’s only role is to be still and observe the results in a detached manner.

Letting go of judgments, the art of creating images and “letting it happen” are three of the basic skills involved in the Inner Game.

The more awareness one can bring to bear on any action, the more feedback one gets from experience, and the more naturally one learns the technique that feels best and works best for any given player at any given state of development.

What I like about this approach is that I do not have the feeling that I am fitting myself or the students into an external model that may be in fashion for the moment, but that I am using any external model to further help me take a step in the natural evolution toward my very best strokes.

It is much more difficult to break a habit when there is no adequate replacement for it.

The Usual Way of Learning
Step 1 – Criticize or Judge Past Behavior …
Step 2 – Tell Yourself to Change, Instructing with Word Commands Repeatedly …
Step 3 – Try Hard; Make Yourself Do It Right …
Step 4 – Critical Judgment About Results …

The Inner Game Way of Learning
Step 1 – Observe Existing Behavior Nonjudgmentally …
Step 2 – Picture Desired Outcome …
Step 3 – Let It Happen! Trust Self 2 …
Step 4 – Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation and Learning …

Title: The Creative Director — Alternative Rehearsal Techniques
Author: Edward S Lisk
Source: gift (thanks Hiro), avail to lend
Interest: 4 stars

The study of learning behavior and the psychology of memory points out that memory for the beginning and end of a rehearsal is almost perfect. The first ten minutes of each rehearsal is the most critical regarding the proportion of material retained.

Director Awareness Scale…
Level 1 – Key signature, Note values, Rhythm, Articulation, Dynamics, Range
Level 2 – Isolate specifics, Repeat thru logical sequential analysis
Level 3 – Form, Transitions, Design
Level 4 – Perception, Conceptual Images, Expressive qualities
Level 5 – Removed from reality, unaware of surroundings and time. “Free” of analytical detail and difficulty. Allowing the images of beauty, emotions, and expressive qualities to exist.

If a guest conductor works with your organization, he should not have to address the first three levels if the students have been properly prepared. A guest conductor should only address his inner perception of the composer’s intent (levels 4 and 5), and allow the students to enter his world of expression and emotional interpretation.

When we first initiate this system of musical learning, we must remove all forms of written notation which trigger a physical or mechanical reaction tofingerings, note duration, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, etc. … This allows the student to develop auditory skills by re-directing attention primarily to pitch and its characteristics of quality, intonation, balance and blend, instead of the written notation.

By having students close their eyes and perform the many exercises in this text, we remove all distractions of the room, people, and things.

Vertical Sound Structure … removes independent interpretation of sound while directing it to the total ensemble sound. … Vertical Sound Structure creates an aural response tothe “total” or “whole” ensemble sound from bottom to top (tuba to piccolo) relative to entrance, release, and rhythmic subdivision. All ingredients of sound; tone quality, balance, blend, intonation, volume and dynamics, are maintained relative to the quality and texture of sound from bottom to top.

While playing through major chord qualities around the Circle of 4ths, have students in groups 1, 3 and 4 play at a “PP” level while group 2 plays at a “FF” level. The results will dramatically show how proper balance is achieved. …

Correct the above by having only groups 1, 3 and 4 play and then bring in group 2 with a hand signal and increase or decrease the volume of sound until it is balanced to your liking. …

The term “Chord Color” has more significance to students than other terms to identify quality of total ensemble sound.

Inform the students that it is extremely important that total silence be maintained when the entire ensemble is “sensing” and mentally counting “SILENCE”. Any type of noise will distract the students intensity of concentration. If such a condition arises (movement, chair squeaking, class bells ringing), stop and wait until total silence is restored and then proceed… with a different odd number combination! The different combinations are what controls “thinking”.

… establish a pulse (counting or tapping aloud) for the students to sense. Start the ensemble and count aloud during the first 2 or 3 pitches they are sustaining and for the SILENCE part “REST 2,3,4,5,etc.” This is important in unifying the mental pulse.

At this point, stop counting and step away from the podium. Allow the students to continue through the Circle of 4ths on their own. When you detect a poor entrance or release, stop the organization and START OVER WITH A NEW COMBINATION OF NUMBERS.

… “step away” from the score more often during a rehearsal. The occasional “listener” role triggers a totally different auditory response and reaction!

When we are constantly working with formula structure (eliminating errors), a tendency to stifle the students musical potential is possible. Formula is based upon “pattern” and individuals must fit into this “pattern” instead of shaping the individuals talent without the restrictions or confinements of a formula. …

If rehearsals are structured toward the correction of errors … it more often than not ends as being a contrived expression. … The students are being derived [of music’s] non-verbal language of expression.

… 8% of a message is communicated through Words, 37% is through the tone, nuance and vocal inflections of these Words, and 55% of this message is communicated through non-verbal body language. … it is important we give greater consideration to the body language we use when conducting our organizations…

An important state of awareness arises approximately one or two weeks before a major performance. During this 1-2 week period of time, our listening becomes far more critical and demanding… It is a “state” in which our goals for superior performance conflict with the results of our rehearsal techniques…

The most phenomenal abilities… are demonstrated by the conductor. The conductor has the ability to discern between indistinguishable error and preciseness with all musical demands of quality, balance, blend, intonation, phrasing, rhythms, technique and dynamics coupled with the individual and section relative to the total ensemble.

“Play a beautiful lullaby or ballad; start on ANY note, don’t be concerned with any specific key, note values or rhythms, and focus your attention on the beauty of the notes you are playing. Don’t be concerned with the direction or number of the notes, only your feeling of beauty. Your sense of beauty will lead the notes in a natural direction.” …

This free form of playing should be a part of daily practice for a few minutes each day. It is the only approach which allows the student tofree themselves of the mathematical, mechanical restrictions of early instruction. This musical experience simply starts with “nonsense” and gradually evolves into “sense”.

1. Direct the student to look at a phrase and silently sing the phrase to themselves. Encourage them to project the “feeling” of expression when they were playing [“free form”].

2. Do not have the student sing aloud. They become preoccupied with pitch, vocal quality, and intervals. Singing a musical phrase is extremely important but should not be attempted at this stage… we are removing restrictions and building confidence!

3. Allow the student time to internalize the subtleties of nuance and inflections. When the student feels comfortable with what they are silently singing (and holding the feelings of nuance, inflections, and shadings in their “minds eye”), proceed to the actual performance of the written musical phrase.

4. Several interpretations should be performed. Have the student choose an interpretation and repeat the phrase which they believed to be most expressive (it is important that this be the student’s choice and not the director’s choice).

When we use our imagination, it is error free.

First, attention is directed to sustaining one note while focusing in on air column (speed, physical feel). Second, attention is directed to mentally moving fingers while sustaining this note.

Having students trained in responding to sub-divisions… allows greater access to many more musical needs. … if a composition is written 4/4, then perform it in 8/8; or 2/4 would become 4/8; 6/8 would be 12/16… The important aspect is to create the motion and energy of double time under the basic 2/4, 4/4, 6/8 etc. time signature. This does not mean that the conductor will conduct a sub-divided pattern! …

3. While the snare drum is playing the constant eighth note pattern (not the written snare drum part) bring the band in and play through the introduction and first strain. …

4. … Pause and direct the students to silently imagine the sound of the snare drum and eighth notes. Give them a few seconds to imagine the sound and feel the motion of the eighth notes.

5. Start the march again, without any snare drum or other percussion Direct the students to hear and feel the sound and motion of the snare drum…


Title: Effortless Mastery
Author: Kenny Werner
Source: gift (thanks Hiro), avail to lend
Interest: 4 stars

This is a fantastic book on musical practice and artistry! Although Werner’s way of describing his philosophy sometimes seems very different than mine (almost “spiritual”), I found so much in this book that resonated with me I could easily see past the semantic differences. Reading it changed my practice and teaching immediately for the better. I realized, for example, the primacy of engendering a love of the instrument’s tone.

Think back to the time you first touched an instrument. Remember the wondrous sound that came out? … Anything you played sounded incredible. There was so much magic in the sound! You couldn’t wait to do it again. You probably didn’t think there was anything to learn. You were content to hear the sound come back to you. This was the unfolding of a natural process.
Stimulated by the sound, your curiosity about music could have grown from there. If you were left alone, you might have developed various relationships to the different sounds on that instrument. The different octaves, combinations of notes… loud and soft, and so on, would have expressed something personal for you, something that “just wanted to come through.” … Usually, somebody comes along (a teacher or a parent) at an early stage and breaks the groove.

In your delusion, you think that you must know eighty-five styles of music. But the fact is that I’ve never heard any player of note who plays in any style but his own. Have you? It may not be an original style, but it is the style he has embraced. You may think that you can never repeat yourself, but jazz is not total improvisation. If you listen to any great improviser, from Art Tatum to Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, you’ll notice that they always repeat themselves. … As they are not afraid of doing this, it comes out as “their voice” rather than sounding repetitive.

But by practicing small amounts, chewing fully and digesting everything from the lesson, extracting from it all the vitamins possible, one becomes mighty!

Mastery is comprised of two things:
1) Staying out of the way and letting the music play itself.
I accept whatever wants to come out. I accept it with love. I accept the good and the bad with equal love. Without the drama of needing to sound good, I play from an effortless space. This takes deprogramming and reprogramming.
2) Being able to play the material perfectly every time without thought.
I practice thoroughly and patiently until the material plays itself. The ego no longer terrorizes me. When the material is properly digested, it comes out in an organic way and manifests as my voice.

Imagine yourself on the stage of Carnegie Hall. A blinding spotlight is on you. There are a hundred-thousand people in the audience. They’re all looking at you, and you’re not doing anything but breathing! You’re sitting there and your hands, or lips, or whatever you use to make music, are working by themselves. You’re sitting there just breathing, and your body is playing the instrument without your participation. You’re not involved.
… instead of feeling pressure, you’re sitting in your chair or standing and just breathing. And your hands, feet, or lips are making the music for you. Something has taken you over … and music is being played through you … while you rest! … Imagine that …

A study was done in which the finger speed of a well-trained concert pianist was measured against taht of a non-pianist. He found that there wasn’t much difference between the two. What slows the fingers down is being unsure of where to drop them.

…a quote by Samuel Smiles…
Sow an act, reap a habit,
Sow a habit, reap a character,
Sow a character, reap a destiny.


Title: Antifragile
Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Source: borrowed (thanks Jason!)
Interest: 3.5 stars

Antifragile looks at a variety of topics including health, economics, and politics, through the lens of “anti-fragility”. Defined as the true opposite of “fragile”, “anti-fragile” is anything that is improved through stress, the way the human body is strengthened by a jog, for example.

Taleb’s writing is deeply thought-provoking, and complicated enough to resist simple categorization. That having been said, as I read the book, moments of surprising simpatico were interspersed with whiffs of skepticism. Taleb’s trust in competition and markets and his quick dismissal of others as “fragilistas” kept me on my wits as I read. Does he really distrust the value of sunblock? Interestingly, all this made the book pleasurably uncertain and I’m glad for its recommendation.

The mechanism of overcompensation hides in the most unlikely places. If tired after an intercontinental flight, go to the gym for some exertion instead of resting. … if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time…

A cluster of municipalities with charming provincial enmities, their own internal fights, and people out to get one another aggregates to a quite benign and stable state.

… Assume further that for what you are observing, at a yearly frequency, the ratio of signal to noise is about one to one (half noise, half signal) — this means that about half the changes are real improvements or degredations, the other half come from randomness. This ratio is what you get from yearly observations. But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95 percent noise, 5 percent signal. And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news and market price variations do, the split becomes 99.5 percent noise to 0.5 percent signal.

I find it preferable (and less painful) to work intensely for very short hours, then do nothing for the rest of the time… George Simenon, one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, only wrote sixty days a year, with three hundred days spent “doing nothing.” He published more than two hundred novels.

“If the student is smart, the teacher takes the credit.”

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved on to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.

Textbook “knowledge” misses a dimension, the hidden asymmetry of benefits — just like the notion of average. The need to focus on the payoff from your actions instead of studying the structure of the world … has been largely missed in intellectual history. Horribly missed. The payoff, what happens to you (the benefits or harm from it), is always the important thing, not the event itself.

Acts of omission, not doing something, are not considered acts and do not appear to be part of one’s mission.

… we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right … negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowlege (what is right, what works). So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition…

In political systems, a good mechanism is one what helps remove the bad guy… For the bad guy can cause more harm than the collective actions of good ones.

So there are many hidden jewels in via negativa applied to medicine. For instance, telling people not to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last sixty years. Druin Burch, in Taking the Medicine, writes: “The harmful effects of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of every medical intervention developed since the war… Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer.”

We accept that people who boast are boastful and turn people off. How about companies? Why aren’t we turned off by companies that advertise how great they are?


Title: Steal Like An Artist
Author: Austin Kleon
Source: gift (thanks Karen!), available to lend
Interest: 1.5 stars

This is a tiny, coffee table book on creativity, light in hand and light in content, by a young author who speaks in quotes and typesets half-pages with hand-written font, “START COPYING”. While I am in full agreement with most of the advice, I’d look to more accomplished creators for advice on creativity, and more accomplished philosophers for thoughts on the ethics of sharing and copying.


Title: A Universe From Nothing
Author: Lawrence M. Krauss
Source: gift (thanks Dad!), available to lend
Interest: 3.5 stars

I was about 12 when I read “A Brief History of Time”. I fell in love with cosmology, wanted to be a physicist, and dreamed of going to Stanford, home of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Somewhere in between, an even more exciting career path presented itself. While I have no regrets, I am a continuing arm-chair cosmologist, and A Universe From Nothing is right up my alley. Krauss explains the current theories for the start of the universe and reveals the amazingly beautiful connections between particle physics and cosmology. He also reveals the weaknesses in religious explanations of the ultimate beginning.

Ultimately, many thoughtful people are driven to the apparent need for First Cause, … and thereby to suppose some divine being: a creator of all that there is, and all that there ever will be, someone or something eternal and everywhere. … (but) what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?


Title: The Green Collar Economy
Author: Van Jones
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2.5 stars

Van Jones’ work was recommended to me by a green advocate I met on tour recently. She suggested I’d love his combination of social justice and environmental activism. She was right. Jones sheds light on one of environmentalism’s greatest failings; an elitism that neglects poor people. He proposes various approaches to solving climate change that focus on job creation and empowerment for the weakest in our society; the poor, the incarcerated. Inspired by these grand ideas, however, I found myself somewhat disappointed by the practical suggestions in The Green Collar Economy. Van Jones’ list of success stories led me continually to ask questions like, “with a ‘hybrids for hoopties’ program, when does the increased fuel efficiency of a new car outweigh the lost embodied energy of the old one?” These questions are extremely complicated and outside the scope of the book, but all the same I found myself wanting a more trustworthy and forthright narrator. These points aside, it is well worth the read.

From that perspective, Indian-killing Teddy Roosevelt may have set the enduring pattern for the racial politics of the conservation movement. Viewed in the harshest possible light, perhaps his goals could be summed up simply as: “Let’s preserve the land we stole, but get rid of the peoples from whom we stole it.” Sadly, many of his own words and actions indicate that he had this kind of attitude. Such are the limitations and blind spots of even the greatest of human heroes.

And yet it must be said in closing, were it not for the heroic efforts of the preservationists and conservationists, much of the remaining natural wonder of North America would already be paved over. …

But history also shows that, for all of these invaluable contributions, environmentalism’s early record is marred by a failure to honor the full humanity and contributions of this continent’s original stewards.

The citizens of that once proud city [New Orleans] had been left to the mercies of what could only be called a “free market” evacuation plan. Everyone who owned a functioning car (and who had a working credit card) was perfectly able to flee.

Organizations working for change usually place themselves into one of two categories: single-issue groups (e.g., fighting against homelessness) or multi-issue groups (e.g., fighting against police abuse, prison expansion, and youth violence). I propose a different distinction: issue-based groups and solution-oriented groups.

The poorest fifth of Americans spend 42 percent of their annual household budget on the purchase, operation, and maintenance of their cars.

One Response to “Recent book reviews — April 2013”

  1. Love your book posts KB, as always!
    Glad you included both Inner Game of Tennis and Effortless Mastery… I still have trouble getting all the way through Werner’s book, but I agree: so many of his suggestions are life-changing. I have to find a better way of incorporating them.
    Seems to me that there must be a deep similarity between the two author’s philosophies.
    Must read Inner Game…

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