Preserving Expertise

Like many youth since time began and there were pianos to play, my daughter takes piano lessons. In musical ways, she is much like her mom. Both play piano and sing beautifully. And like her mom, my daughter’s talent is several notches above average, at the level that leaves you wanting to hear more when each piece is over.

I recently attended a recital to listen to my daughter and her fellow students perform their latest practice numbers. As events go, these recitals are rather relaxed affairs. Audience and performers filter in and out as their personal schedules allow. Students perform in roughly beginner-to-advanced order. Musical numbers range from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star-class tunes to much more complicated pieces by the likes of Chopin and Mozart. With many years of lessons to her credit, my daughter is nearer the “more seasoned, so let’s play harder pieces” end of the skill spectrum. From beginning to end, the recital was a nice affair and a great way to spend an early fall evening. As the event drew to a close, however, we were in for an unexpected surprise.

When all students finished playing their prepared pieces, the piano teacher stood to conclude the recital and announce refreshments. Before turning us loose on the pot-luck treat table, however, she requested a few minutes more of our time to share a Chopin number she’s working on. Even though we were already 90 minutes into our evening, no one dissented. She is the teacher, after all, carefully nurturing the musical talents of our children. What followed was the true treat of the evening.

I estimate the teacher is near sixty years old, plus or minus a few years. I say this to suggest but two things: she has played the piano for a very long time, and that despite her well-earned expertise, advancing years have a way of softening even the sharpest of talents. But when she laid fingers to keyboard, she performed as every bit the expert she is. Her fingers, though bent with a bit of early stage arthritis, literally danced up-and-down the keyboard. She showed why she is the teacher, the master, in her studio. She played with so much feeling that even those (like myself) who generally avoid classical music and stare at their watches or smart phones impatiently awaiting the final note, put down their electronic distractions and listened with eyes closed, savoring every note. A real treat indeed. Such performances are rarely preserved in recording, but I’ve since realized that the piano teacher is, quite literally, preserving her skill in each of her students. While all may not reach her skill level, some no doubt will go on to play the same piece, at the same rhythm and speed, inspiring their own listeners to set aside life’s distractions and listen to the simple beauty of music well played.

The piano teacher’s performance reminded me of a recent presentation I attended from one of my colleagues, an engineer as expert in simulation and modeling as the piano teacher is in matters musical. It turns out that many companies are concerned about a sort of ‘technical brain drain’ in their staff — a particularly troubling issue for companies that develop and support big things like automobiles, airplanes, and space stations to name a few. Systems in these categories last for years, often decades, so it’s not unusual for members of original design teams to move on to other projects or companies, or perhaps even retire, leaving behind little more than printed specifications, schematics, and perhaps lab notebooks. During his presentation, my colleague proposed that modeling and simulation is a way to preserve engineering expertise for any system. Along with specifications and schematics, development teams could archive models and simulation results. Future design teams would then have the benefit of a fully functional virtual model to illustrate how a system works. If you think about it, his proposal makes perfect sense. What better way to pass along system knowledge than with a functioning system model and a complete simulation database. It’s the engineering equivalent of piano lessons.

Just as my daughter’s piano teacher passes a bit of her expertise along to each student through piano lessons, design teams can pass along their system expertise through models and simulation. Both are effective methods for knowledge transfer. Whether we have musical aptitude or not, we can all learn a little from a piano teacher’s example.

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Posted October 29th, 2012, by

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