Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going to Extremes

Over the past couple of days, I've been thinking a lot about the use of exaggeration and extremes, two tools that I use quite frequently and that people either embrace or reject strongly.

Sing Low
The use of exaggeration is a great a way to illustrate concepts that are not easy to grasp. For example, the other night we were working on a song that was quite low in the singer's range and he was having difficulty projecting loudly and clearly. If you ever listen closely to the sound of speaking voices, you'll notice that some voices sound thin and tinny as though the treble were turned up and the bass turned down. Others will sound thick and muddy as though the bass were turned up and the treble down. And then some sound rich and resonant.

The sound of your voice depends on where focus it. If you focus your voice high so that the primary resonating point is just behind their nose it will sound thin and scratchy. If you focus it low so that the sound resonates deep in your throat or even in your chest, it will sound low, muddy.

When you sing in the lower parts of your range, there's a tendency to drop the focus downward, resulting in a soft, muddy sound. To project low notes, you need only to focus you voice higher. The problem is that knowing this alone doesn't seem to help. It makes sense, but how do you actually do it? The key is exaggeration!

As we talked about singing the song, I suggested that the singer first start speaking through his nose. To illustrate this, I pinched my nose and focused my voice there, speaking in a stereotypical nerd voice. As I talked, I slowly dropped the pitch of my voice while maintaining the nose focus. The singer then joined me in the process (along with other members of the band) and within a minute or two was able to speak in very low tones while maintaining a high focus.

We started the song over and it was a completely different experience. Once he knew how to focus very low notes very high in his face, he was able to play with it a bit and find a focus spot that really worked.

The basic is this. In order to learn something nuancey, you often have to go to the far extreme and then back into the place you want to be. Until you fully understand the extreme, it's difficult to really control the nuances.

Driving on Ice
This is the case in many forms of training. I learned to drive before all the traction control systems were broadly available. Four-wheel- and front-wheel-drive cars were the exception, so preparing for Illinois winters, you had to learn how to handle a car that had lost traction and was starting to go sideways.

The problem is that most people overreact to minor slippage sending their cars into a spin. So to prepare, we'd wait for a good snowfall and then head over to an empty parking lot to practice spinning our cars doing 180's and 360's and even more. Once you got the handle of spinning, the next thing was to learn to slow the spin, e.g., head into 360-degree spin and then see if you could reduce it to a 270-degree spin.

As you practiced these big, exaggerated spins, you would become more comfortable with the car and how to control it. Slowly you got to the point of fine control and great comfort. You got to the point where hitting small patches of ice wouldn't alarm you and were easy to manage. All this was learned by starting with extremes.

I could go on with examples, but probably the most useful notion would be learning gross motor skills before fine motor skills. So many parents struggle helping children to acquire capabilities that require fine motor coordination when the child has not yet got a handle on the corresponding gross motor coordination. It's a recipe for frustration for both parents and children. Start with the big, exaggerated stuff (big blocks and puzzle pieces) and then work your way down to the small, fine stuff (handwriting and model building).

Extreme Jujitsu
Extremes and exaggeration are powerful teaching and learning tools. However, they are also powerful ways to resist teaching and learning. The other day, I wrote about the notion of doing things Every Day and subsequently on the notion of Calibrating Desire. In particular, I talked about loving to do some things (writing, programming and playing music) so much that I could do them 365-days a year and I pondered whether or not frequency is a metric of desire, i.e., if you only want to do something so often do you desire it less than someone who wants to do it more often? Finally, I suggested that desire may be the number one criterion for success in any endeavor.

Since then, Joy and I have been having fun playing with these notions, Joy suggesting that her wanting to do something 350 days a year is no less indicative of strong desire than my wanting to do something 365 days a year, and further may be more productive. I've learned a lot through the interaction. However, in the end, the whole discussion is off point.

Why? Because, in the end there's not going to be much difference between 350 and 365. Further, in my experience, there are few people so passionate about what they do that they do it 200 days a year, let alone 350. The point is this:
if you have a mindset of pursuing something every day (an extreme), you're much more likely to do it most days.
Iris has certainly found this with running. When she takes the question "Shall I run today?" off the table, she runs more frequently than when she leaves it in play.

In Joy's case, I don't know if she's passionately pursuing her interests 350 days per year, or if she's putting the notion forward hypothetically. However, I know lots of people who will buck at extreme examples although there's no chance that they'll ever be in danger of approaching them. If I suggest that it's possible to be happy all the time, there are people who are quick to point out all the extreme circumstances in which you might not be happy. If I suggest that anyone can become a great thinker, or musician, or athlete, there are some quick to point out the exceptions where it wouldn't be possible. You know: "Could a three-foot-tall computer programmer play basketball like Michael Jordan, huh, could he?"

It's the do you see the glass as 1% empty or 99% full phenomenon.

You're Not in Danger
The funny thing is that the greatest resistance often comes from those in no danger of approaching extremes: people who aren't happy even 20% of the time or those who believe only a small subset of people are destined to be great thinkers, or musicians or athletes. Rather than learning from an illustration, they use extreme and exaggeration to disprove it, as if proving or disproving were the point.

Yesterday, as Iris and I were driving home, she wondered aloud about whether to be satisfied with a half marathon or to press on to a full marathon. Her concern was the time required to train. I suggested that there is a point in training where it starts to give time back. You have more energy, you think more clearly, you need less sleep.

I mentioned that, since I began working out every day, I've needed a lot less sleep than before and that the more I train, the less sleep I need. When I'm really consistent, five hours is good.

Iris quickly dismissed this as not an option. I asked her why? How does she know it wouldn't work? What if the training meant that she could go with eight hours instead of nine? Or seven? Perhaps five hours wasn't in the picture, but of all two of us in the car, I was the only who'd experienced working out consistently for more than a hundred days at a stretch. Perhaps there was something to what I was saying.

She laughed.

Don't know where all this ends up, but I do like extremes and exaggeration. They're illustrative. They're provocative. They're a great way to learn new skills and to gain better understanding of nuance.

Was it David Bowie who said, "Too much is never enough!"

Is this all too extreme?

Happy Tuesday!


  1. Tef: this reminded me of Billy Joel's song "Darling, I don't know why I go to extremes", except of course that you usually know why!

  2. It is surely you pushing me to embrace the extremes that is most challenging for me. Afterwards I also realize that those moments are the biggest learning moments. So, just keep going... (only temporarily let go for a moment when steam is coming out of my ears or I seem ready to hit you...)


Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...