The Sounds of Silence



As a part of her new book project, Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers, author Amy Sutherland spent her days watching exotic animal trainers do the seemingly impossible: 

teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard. 

Day after day the impossible became possible. She would listen in awe as professional trainers explained how they taught dolphins to flip and elephants to paint. Mind you, these were not your average animals, nor were these your average tricks.

As a part of Sutherland's observation, a dolphin trainer at SeaWorld San Diego introduced her to the Least Reinforcing Syndrome (L.R.S.). 

When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn't respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work.

The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away. 

The central lesson: reinforce the behavior you want, ignore the ones you don’t.

If this can work for a two-toed sloth, then it certainly can work for the two legged saxophonist.

Typically speaking, music teachers are among the most loved and yet most negative teachers on campus. Where other disciplines search for ways to turn a negative into a positive, often times & inadvertently, as conductors we do the exact opposite. We harp on those who don’t practice instead of highlighting those who do. We scowl at the tardy students instead of smiling to those who were on time. We stop the group to tell them what they did wrong, instead of telling them what they did right.

Our intent is pure, but research suggests that our methodology might be somewhat flawed.

I’m not suggesting that the L.R.S. is a cure all or will fix every problem. I’m not suggesting that you attempt to fix wrong notes and wrong rhythms by ignoring them. Perhaps they hyenas are not learning from us but teaching us. 

Perhaps, while we were teaching Chimps to shred a halfpipe, they were teaching us something much more valuable. Perhaps they were teaching us that sometimes we learn more from the sounds of silence than anything else.

Just something to think about. 

Have a great week!

p.s. After last week's email about the devastating floods in Houston, many of you asked how you could help. The short answer is: we don’t know yet. Many of the schools hardest hit have yet to return to their buildings, so we don’t have an understanding as to how bad the damage is and what their most immediate needs are. If you want to make a general donation in support of music education in South Texas, you can do so via the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and their Music Rising program. If you are looking to adopt a specific school or address a specific need, just shoot me an email letting me know and as I get more information I will connect you with a program in need of assistance.