Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The 50,000 hours of Yo-Yo Ma

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On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to see Yo-Yo Ma perform Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B Minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (You can see a much younger Ma play a portion of the concerto here, with a slight assist from Elmo.) As the most famous of all cello concertos, this is probably the one piece you’d want to see this man perform, if you could only choose one, and he’s played it countless times before. As a result, he’s clearly internalized it about as well as a performer can know a piece of music. All the same, there was nothing rote about his performance—his work was attentive, impassioned, and alive, as it has been without fail for the past thirty years. And faced with such bracing work, delivered with such showmanship and skill, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question, as one of our friends did on the way home: “So how much does Yo-Yo Ma practice these days?”

Which is a great question. (It’s so good, in fact, that “How does much does Yo-Yo Ma practice?” comes up as one of the suggested search results on Google.) A quick look online doesn’t reveal a definitive answer, but the evidence seems to suggest that yes, in fact, he still practices a lot. In a recent talk at DePauw University, Ma refers to the work of Malcolm Gladwell, who famously claims in Outliers that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary to attain expertise in any field. Ma estimates that he practices 10,000 hours every five years, which amounts to about 50,000 hours at the cello over the course of his career. This puts him in the select category of supervirtuosos, and comes out to an average of about five or six hours every day, an amount that doesn’t seem to have diminished over time.

This seems intuitively right to me, especially when you consider that Ma’s hours at the cello don’t just consist of rote rehearsal, but of performance, recording, and teaching. It’s also likely that Ma spends a lot of time thinking about the cello, and music in general, that can’t be classified in ordinary ways. In the career of any artistic master, the line between personal and professional life can’t be clearly drawn, and it often disappears entirely. Ma certainly has a lot of other things going on these days, but I don’t doubt that he still thinks about music for most of his waking hours. His constant engagement and curiosity, even more than his technical virtuosity, account for a great deal of his appeal as a performer, but it’s those reserves of practice, of scales, of muscle memory, that open up such possibilities.

And yet the more I think about Ma, the more I feel that his example isn’t about the importance of practice, but rather the importance of love. Ma is the best in the world at what he does, and he has been amply rewarded for it, but not only has he been inspired to use his gift in surprising ways, it’s clear that he still loves his job. Without that love, none of this would be possible. What Gladwell’s 10,000 rule really means is that if you genuinely love what you do, you’ll end up doing it all the time without even trying. While few of us will ever become virtuosos, we’ll get much further through love than if we were simply counting the hours toward mastery. If Ma still practices a lot, it’s because he clearly wouldn’t have it any other way. Because when you love what you do, 10,000 hours is easy.

Written by nevalalee

May 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

Roger Ebert: An Appreciation (Part 1)

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Tomorrow night, my wife and I will be attending the Chicago Symphony’s Tribute to Roger Ebert, where orchestral selections will be played from many of Ebert’s favorite movies, including Casablanca, The Third Man, and 2001. This would be an exceptional evening in any case, but it’s especially meaningful to me, because Ebert, who is scheduled to be there in person, has had more influence on how I think about the movies than any other film critic, and more impact on my life than most writers of any kind. Which isn’t to say that we don’t often strongly disagree—you could start with his one-star review for Blue Velvet and work your way back from there. But a critic who always agrees with you isn’t much of a critic, and Ebert’s opinions, whether I share them or not, have been a central part of my life for as long as I’ve been able to read.

When I was seven years old, I stole Ebert’s Movie Home Companion from my parents’ bookshelf, and haven’t given it back since. Over time, my first copy, which would have been of this edition, grew so tattered that both the front and back covers fell off. (Judging from the discussion on this article on the AV Club, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.) I absorbed Ebert’s thoughts on Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and hundreds of other films years before I had the chance to see them myself, to the point where I’m often able to recognize a movie on television solely because I’ve memorized his review. His discussion of the Sight & Sound poll was my first exposure to the idea of an artistic canon, an idea that has guided much of my life ever since, for better or worse. And I certainly learned a lot from his reviews of such films as Emmanuelle and Caligula, even if I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The result was that—much the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress did for George Bernard Shaw—Ebert’s reviews formed a sort of cultural bedrock in my brain, teaching me how to write and think, as well as how to watch movies. And it was through his work that I began to realize that the life of a critic is nothing less than the best possible excuse for an extended conversation with the world. When you consider the length of Ebert’s career—which runs from Bonnie and Clyde through The Social Network and beyond—it becomes obvious that no other writer of the past five decades has engaged with so many artists and cultural issues for such a large audience. And it’s no wonder that Ebert’s other published work, which ranges from walks in London to the Phantom of the Opera to the joys of the rice cooker, is so beguilingly diverse: after a lifetime spent on the front lines of the culture, he’s emerged as complete a human being as they come.

But his greatest legacy, of course, is what he’s taught us about the movies. Tomorrow, I’ll be looking more closely at Ebert’s reviews, which have profoundly influenced the way I think about all works of art. (In the meantime, here’s a classic article about his wonderful house.)

Psycho, Black Swan, and the problem of surprise

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.

Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):

I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”

Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.

Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.

So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.

Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

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