Last spring my daughter was slated to perform her very first ballet Variation in the spring show (a variation is a classical ballet solo). She is a very hard worker and this was a big milestone in her dance career. Sewing the dance costume fell to yours truly, so I set myself to piecing together the fabric, hand stitching the skirt onto the tutu, as well as attaching the sequined decorations by hand onto the leotard. It was a labor of love that took many hours–still a small thing compared to the work Evelyn put into the dance itself, but I was proud of my work, and more importantly, Evelyn loved it.
Then the day of the show arrived… and it was POURING RAIN! How were we going to get the costume up to the performance venue without it getting drenched? Not only did Evelyn need the costume to be dry for the performance, but the rain would ruin the fabric. I managed to–gently–wrangle the tutu into a giant garbage bag–no small feat. Then I had a new worry. Now we had a trash bag sitting around the house looking like, well, a trash bag! Except that this trash bag had a veritable treasure in it. I did what any reasonable person would do: I took a giant red marker and wrote all over the side of the bag: EVELYN’S DANCE COSTUME. DO NOT THROW AWAY!!!!
This morning I had a revelation while listening to Benedict Carey’s book How We Learn, specifically the chapter entitled You snooze, you win! Benedict Carey was describing sleep science discoveries about how the brain processes the information it has taken in during the last waking period. The brain discards an enormous number of neural connections every time we sleep, but how does the brain know which neural connections to discard and which ones to keep? How does it separate the signal from the noise?
Our brain recognizes and processes an astonishing amount of information every day. I live on a busy street and as I write this, I can hear traffic going by in front of our house. My brain recognizes the sound of passing cars and files it somewhere in my head: hopefully the recycle bin. But is that sound always unimportant? If I were down at the street trying to cross to the other side, those same sounds would become necessary tools for my brain’s task. And if I were stranded in the desert, waiting to hear the sound of a nearby vehicle might be a matter of life and death.
But the cool thing is that when we are doing everyday tasks that don’t affect our immediate survival, we have agency to decide for ourselves what is important, and what is not. By concentrating on something, spending time letting our brains “wallow” in it, so to speak–by literally caring about it as we do it–we create a virtual earmark on a particular action. To use a musical example of playing middle C on the piano, it’s not just saying, “I care about playing middle C”, but it’s caring about the name of the note, caring about the way it looks on the piano, caring about the way it sounds, caring about how far my hand traveled to get there, caring about which finger I used, caring about the speed and weight in my hand as I depress the key. All that caring lets our brain know that this is not something to toss in the dumpster. It’s our red marker on the trash bag: DO NOT THROW AWAY!
Whether you’re practicing a Beethoven sonata, exploring a new technique for a heart procedure, honing a tennis serve, learning dance choreography, finding a more ergonomic way to swing a heavy trash can up into the back of a trash truck, or–like me at the moment: trying to learn how to sit properly and comfortably at a computer desk–you create neural connections when you do physical actions intentionally. And the best part of all: when you sleep afterwards, your brain gets rid of all the clutter, but keeps the neural connections that you decided were important–the ones that you took ownership of. The ones you cared about. Mind blown.
My “tutu trash bag” story would doubtless be a lot more exciting if someone had accidentally tossed the bag in the dumpster, but I’m happy to say everything came off without a hitch and Evelyn danced beautifully. Nearly a year later, the costume is still housed (safely) in a trash bag with very clear red lettering on the outside. And I believe Evelyn still remembers the choreography of that dance as well–it was marked in her brain as: IMPORTANT: DO NOT THROW AWAY!
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
How We Learn by Benedict Carey
Inspired in part by “Pierre” by Maurice Sendak (poem)
I'm doing a thing. WE'RE doing a thing--I'm not doing the thing alone! The thing started as a little idea, but has turned into something of an obsession (anyone who knows me is not at all surprised by this!) Largely in response to a computer programming course I took during 2020, and as a way to motivate my students with their theory homework, I got the inspiration to create a digital learning platform for music theory and note reading. I've spent the last 10 months brainstorming, doing market research, interviewing, designing, reiterating, and mostly learning, learning, learning. At long last, things are starting to turn from phantom ideas into what will soon become a real app. I have an absolutely fantastic team helping me--I've been working with Jamie Quishenberry on the programming side since March or April. I'm so happy that my brother, Paul Billock, is building our database because he absolutely rocks. And the newest development that I'm over the moon about is that CMU has offered the one and only Jonathan Aldrich a one-semester supported leave so that he can work full time on the project! And we are currently working on adding another co-founder who will manage the marketing side of things. I feel like the luckiest person alive to have this rock-star team of experts helping me with this idea. I've been sharing the prototype with musicians, teachers, parents, and students, and have been getting overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses.
It has been, and continues to be, a total whirlwind. If you had told me a few years ago that very soon I would be leading a tech startup I probably would have fallen over laughing at the idea. I still mostly can't believe it. Some days I'm riding high and other days it feels like an absolute slog. Most days are a mix of utter excitement and complete exhaustion.
Which brings us to the mountaintop photo that I included in this post. I keep this picture on my desk at all times. It's a 2002 picture of me at the top of Mt. Adams (elev. 12,280). Mt. Adams is not a technical mountain--you don't need ropes or fancy gear (besides an ice axe) to climb it. It's mostly just a REALLY long and VERY steep hike in which you simply have to keep your head down and put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, for what seems like an endless eternity. You can't see the top of the mountain for most of the traverse--or more accurately, you often *think* you can see the top of the mountain, but when you reach that spot, it's not the top. So you can't really think about the top of the mountain. You just have to think about that one next step. Can I take one more step? Yep, I can do that! Can I take one more step? I think so. And on and on. And if you keep taking that one next step, then eventually--well, eventually this picture was taken from the top of the mountain! My Mt. Adams photo is a constant reminder to keep taking the next step, even if I can't see the top. I was realizing this past week that when I did this climb I was with both Paul and Jonathan, who are now an integral part of the team on this new entrepreneurial endeavor. I couldn't ask for better companions--people who also know the value of just taking the next step. I'm grateful for this every day.
If you are at all curious about the Noteful project, please reach out! There are lots of ways to get involved if you're interested, the most basic being to follow the Noteful pages on social media. You can also explore here on our website and meet Ed (our trusty Noteful mascot), get a demo of the prototype (send us an email), sign up to be an early beta tester, and tell your friends. We may even be looking for angel investors sooner rather than later. Either way, see ya up on the mountain somewhere. The top is not visible from here, but I have a feeling the view is going to be pretty incredible up there!