Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Skill, Nature, Community

Once I was at a jazz show where a performer broke out two woodwinds of some sort and began to play them at once. It was at the end of the show in a packed theater and everyone on the scene, performers and audience, were getting pretty crunk. The flutist guy was taking it to the bridge, so to speak, and the crowd was completely with him so he decided to bring just a bit more funk. He walked up to the edge of the stage and began to rock the house with his fluty jazz stylings. But he pushed his skills too far and he faltered a bit. You could see it in his body, in the concentration on his face. He ran out of breath and a couple notes fell flat. When this happened, people in the crowd stood up and began to encourage him. They screamed at him like, go on! Take it home! You got it, Brotha! And get it he did. He pulled it together and finished out the show like a champ. Applause for days. 

I think the crowd’s reaction to the musician's stumble and recovery reveals something important about the nature of admiration and skill. 

The stumble was an inadvertent disclosure of a biographical fact. The the musician was putting out mad effort to make the instruments sing. He told the audience with a few bad notes that he wasn’t a savant or some kind of prodigy. He was a musician who became good by rehearsing a lot and pushing himself. The crowd knew this and appreciated him all the more for it. His narrative deepened their respect. 

I feel the same way about motorcycle racers. I will always be a big fan of Cal Crutchlow because he regards himself as having much less natural talent than most of his rivals. He feels that he has had to make up for the absence of native endowments with hard work, which is a narrative that I can get behind. 

The split between natural talent and effort, I think, also discloses the blurred distinction between art and science in development of skills.

I think that the substance of natural moto skills is “feel.” Some people can get on the bike and just know more about what’s going on. Maybe they can’t put it into words, but they can use this knowledge to go faster around the racetrack and that is all that really matters. Keith Code once said that most of the fast racers he spoke with could never really explain what it was that they were doing to get such good lap times. I think this is a hallmark of a kind of raw aesthetic skill that I have seen in many artists. I have especially seen it in dancers, which is fitting because the proper riding of a bike is more like a dance than anything else. Mladin and Bayliss, as the mythology goes, are natural dancers.

I don’t mean to speak of art and science or natural talent and work as clear divisions. I seriously doubt a sustained look into the minutia of skill development will support such categorical descriptions. We should think of them not as mutually exclusive foundations, but instead as tendencies or inclinations that can have priority, that can wax and wane over a developmental path along with many other elements that merit consideration. 

So, even though Mladin and Bayliss are naturally talented dancers of the bike,  it is still the case that they put in incredible amounts of work. (Potential doesn’t mean much without the work to actualize it.) And there may be times in their lives where it is more science than art, albeit fewer times than Crutchlow might experience if the legends are true. Definitely fewer times than me. 

My own path in moto land has been mostly science. I mean that my skills have come slowly and only at the end of academic investigation. The snail pace of my skill development is almost legendary. I never had a natural sense of feel. I always began with a formulation, an idea or a piece of advice, and I had to reach out with my understanding to get a grip. So if Keith Code were to ask me what I was doing, I would have an answer for almost everything, though pointed questions would send me right back to the drawing board. Essentially, I have used science or methodical investigation to beat the feel into my body. 

It seems to me that a progression like this can make a rider without a lot of natural talent into a safe rider. Often, riders who are just starting out will make hard maneuvers on the basis of balls alone. Because they come out of it okay, they don’t reflect on their technique or understand the forces at work on the bike. Having conflated audacity with skill, they eventually ask too much of a corner or a traffic situation and down they go. What’s worse is that they won’t fully understand why they fell, so the bike will seem indeterminately threatening and it will be extremely difficult to get their confidence back. This is why it is easy to find perfectly good bikes for sale with stupidly low miles on them. 

There is another element at play in the development or refinement of skill, one that has been implicit in our discussion so far.

The jazz musician performed with other performers for an audience. This was the context whereby his skills came to mean anything at all. His artistry was created and sustained by his relationship to these elements. So it goes with a good rider, naturally talented or not. Stunters learn tricks from stunters. They create new tricks by challenging each other. Out on the road, a fellow rider might point out a bad riding habit. A club that rides together knows the etiquette of group riding. A rider’s community determines and develops the skill sets that he employs. Which is why there is nothing to be learned from riding with fast assholes except perhaps how to unexpectedly get a bone fracture.

I am always yapping with the Orange and Green Ninjas about technique. They approach things differently and use different descriptions, so I benefit from the variation. After all, a community that speaks with one voice is deaf to itself and others. 

Ethicists have spent serious time trying to figure how rewards should be distributed to those who achieve much with their natural talents versus those who achieve the same with greater effort. In the public sphere, we don’t spend too much time on such deliberation; we just wear the jersey of the guy that scores a lot. But perhaps we should reshape our admiration gauge to give credit to those who do the best that they can with what they have. Maybe in that world, we would love Jacob Smrz as much as we do Valentino Rossi, with the award going to Nicky Hayden for his lastest campaign on the Ducati. Seriously.

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