Against the Odds: Alicia de Larrocha and Mercedes Sosa

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As sport explores and develops its understanding of performance, there are wonderful opportunities to enrich this understanding from a performing arts’ perspective.

In the last two weeks, two remarkable musicians have died. Their stories have significant resonance with those interested in the emergence of talented individuals and their long-term development pathway. They have a great deal to say about virtuosity and resilience against the odds too.

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Alicia de Larrocha died on 25 September 2009. The New York Times published an obituary here. This is her wikipedia entry. This an interview with the New York Times in 1995. Two items attracted my attention from these two New York Times’ pieces:

Ms. de Larrocha began to demand piano lessons when she was 3, after visiting her aunt as she taught students. At the keyboard on her own, Ms. de Larrocha imitated what she had seen her aunt’s students do, and impressed her aunt sufficiently that she took Ms. de Larrocha to Marshall. He was less encouraging. He said it was too early to start lessons, and suggested that Ms. de Larrocha be kept away from the piano. Ms. de Larrocha said that once her aunt locked the instrument, she banged her head on the floor until Marshall relented and began to teach her. (2009)

To generate auditorium-filling sound, she used to set the piano bench as high as it would go, the opposite of low-benchers like Glenn Gould. “I used to play with all my strength from my shoulders and my back,” she said, “so I had to be higher.” But her arms are so short that when the music called for her to go from one end of the keyboard to the other, she had to twist sharply; she ended up almost facing the audience. In recent years she has taught herself to sit closer to the keyboard, minimizing the extremes of movement. (1995)

This is Part 1 of a YouTube video of Alicia de Larrocha and Michael Tilson Thomas discussing Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 and this is Part 2.

Mercedes Sosa died less than two weeks later on 4 October 2009. This is her wikipedia entry. She was recognised as a leader of the La Nueva Canción movement. This is some brief background information and this is her website. This is a YouTube video of her rendition of Gracias a La Vida.

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In 2001 Mercedes Sosa observed that “I’ve got my voice and the soul that comes out in my voice.”  Throughout her career she was viewed as the voice of the silent majority.

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Screen grabs of Alicia de Larrocha and Mercedes Sosa.

Three Papers, Day Two at IACSS09

I chaired a final paper session on Day Two at IACSS09. The three presenters were Alexis Lebedew, Gerard Sierksma and Natalie Ruiz.

Alexis presentation was A Reconceptualisation of Traditional Volleyball Statistics To Provide a Coaching Tool for Setting.

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Gerard presented on Talent Development, Performance Potential and Computer Support in Sports.

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Natalie’s presentation was entitled Multimodal Cognitive Load Assessment for Athletes.

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There was a packed gathering to hear the three speakers and I thought their ideas and discussion was a great end to Day 2 of the conference. For me it meant a sleepless night pondering complexity and simplicity and how we might develop our understanding of performance in sport.

The other bookend to the day was Martin Lames‘s keynote. He started the fireworks of thoughts!

Minds on the Margins

The blog posts I am writing at present are being informed by the opportunities I have for listening to ABC Radio and for reflection on daily car journeys to Canberra. Last Saturday was a fireworks in the head kind of day for me.

As I was leaving Braidwood I tuned into Radio National’s All in the Mind program hosted by Natasha Mitchell. I had finished writing about personal learning a few hours earlier but was still thinking about biography and opportunity.

The program was trailed in this way:

A life on the streets or behind bars isn’t what we hope for our children. What leads them there? Mental illness? Family breakdown? Economic hardship? Two groundbreaking studies are fundamentally challenging the assumptions we make about our most marginalised, and the state of their mind.

The more I listened to the program the more I thought it helped me clarify my thinking about talented athletes. It reminded me too of the aphorism that falling is like flying … only the other way round.

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One of the contributors to the program, Eileen Baldry described her life-course work in detail. She observed that:

  • People with Mental Health Disorders and Cognitive Disabilities are over-represented in the Criminal Justice System
  • Post-release these people have high rates of homelessness, unemployment, low levels of family support and therefore more likely to return to prison quickly.
  • Interventions are hampered by lack of overall and longitudinal system impacts.

Her study was designed to integrate criminal justice and human services trajectories to explore these life-course experiences. Bill Martin (2007) has noted that “changes in how people combine education with life-course transitions will influence when and how people make their skills available to the labour market throughout their lives”.

Guy Johnson (2008) and his colleagues have explored a ‘pathways’ approach to describe the progress through homelessness. A review of Guy’s work notes that:

the pathways idea has gained increasing research interest as a way to capture the dynamic and differentiated nature of homelessness and other social phenomenon… the pathway approach distinguishes between the paths different groups of people travel into homelessness and examines what bearing different pathways into homelessness have on people’s experiences of homelessness and their routes out of homelessness.

Guy’s research identified five typical pathways into homelessness: domestic violence; housing crisis; mental health; substance use; and people who have their first experience of homelessness before turning 18 years old. (See here for more information about Guy’s work on pathways and biographies.)

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These life-courses and pathways are illustrated in a number of research reports. Jake Najman and his colleagues, for example, have conducted a range of longitudinal studies in adolescent behaviour that report birth cohort data. Some of the issues addressed include predictors of drug use, obesity, development delay and socio-economic disadvantage, early pubertal maturation and behavioural change, pre-natal exposure to alcohol and smoking, and body mass index predictors. Chris Chamberlain‘s work explores youth homelessness.

Guy Johnson and Chris Chamberlain (2009) have discussed perceptions of the homeless and mental illness. They observe that:

In Australia, it is widely believed that most homeless people have mental health issues, and that mental illness is a primary cause of homelessness. This paper uses information from a study of 4,291 homeless people in Melbourne to investigate these propositions. The research found that neither proposition was plausible. Fifteen per cent of the sample had mental health issues prior to becoming homeless, and 16 per cent developed mental health issues after becoming homeless. For those that had mental health issues prior to becoming homeless, it was the break down of family support that usually precipitated homelessness. For those who developed mental health issues after becoming homeless, it was often their experiences in the homeless population that precipitated mental illness. Regardless of whether mental illness preceded or followed homelessness, most people with mental health issues experienced long-term homelessness.

The All in the Mind podcast explores these issues in conversation with Eileen, Guy and Chris. Each of them has a clear sense of the policy initiatives and investment required to address these issues.

Just like falling is flying I think losing is like winning … only the other way round. In a society that has profound issues around homelessness and disadvantage another sector identifies and develops those with a perceived and valued different set of attributes. There are, for example, talented athlete pathways and talented pupil schemes in the United Kingdom. In Australia there is an on-line (eTID) program to “find out today if you, or someone you know, could be Australia’s next sporting champion by taking an online test”.

Reflecting on the issues addressed in the All in the Mind program and my own involvement in elite sport, I am struck by the fine line that separates and links Minds on the Margins. One of the aims of this post is to bring together two groups of ideas that are not often linked but that have enormous synergies. I realise too that I have an opportunity to bring these two groups together physically around the practicalities of social inclusion.

I believe sport is a life-changing experience that can be used to engage with different life-courses and pathways. These life-courses are connected in a caring society. Flying, falling … winning, losing reaffirm that no one is an island.

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