If you’re not already nodding your head in agreement with the idea of specialist tacit knowledge, then you might be wondering what the big deal is. The big deal is this:
The essential stuff of expertise is held within the culture of experts itself rather than the facts and figures and rules presented in related literature.
For me, this is important because there are lots of consequences resulting from these ideas that can change how you perceive expertise and how to acquire it.
First, let’s think more deeply about what expertise means.
The Practical Nature of Expertise or “If you have to ask…”
First, by gaining expertise, we’re not merely becoming experts in the eyes of others. We’re learning real skills, and these skills often exist only within groups of experts who already practice them.
I believe the idea, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” is relevant here. It’s pessimistic (“never” is too strong), but the saying contains the idea that asking someone to explain a culture to you just won’t be enough. The paraphrased quote comes from Fats Waller, who had been asked to explain jazz. How can jazz be explained when it’s cultural and the aggregation of many unconscious attributes? Beyond specific scales, improvisation and other jazz-sounding buzzwords, there is so much else in the culture of jazz.
And if you actually want to be an expert in jazz, what then? An expert in jazz would be able to play jazz with other experts (contributory) or otherwise be able to function in some other form of expertise related to it (interactional). You’d have to spend time with other jazz experts to get there.
So when we think of many professions, we’re thinking of cultures of experts. Through working with one another, these experts have created a culture of evolving skills that define expertise in that field. Expertise seen in this light is non-static. It keeps evolving with the culture. Some of these cultures, such as classical singing, have expert communities that stretch back for centuries and contain centuries’ worth of unconscious information and evolution embedded therein.
Sure enough, in Collins’ view, these skills exist for practical ends:
As has been intimated, expertise is now seen more and more as something practical—something based in what you can do rather than what you can calculate or learn.1
That’s an important idea. If we ask ourselves “What can I do?” rather than “What do I know?” we can get a stronger sense of our expertise. In fact, if we have an expertise, it might be quite narrow based on this test of practicality. That’s fine. You might be an expert of your own voice but not quite an expert of a particular repertoire.
Additionally, to do a great many things requires being able to work with other people. Can you realistically call yourself an expert in a field if you can’t work with other experts in that field? That ability is made up of the ubiquitous skills of life (manners and native language), but then there are the professional skills (both spoken and tacit) that are required to function in a specialist environment. In the case of classical singing, there are all sorts of traditions and norms we hold on to that are unspoken cultural rules.
If you walk into an opera theater, you’ll see many unconscious cultural norms that exist amongst experts. Some of the skills these experts have are conscious, but many are not. For example, watch the communication between a singer and conductor. Much of that is unconscious. Yes, there are the “rules” and patterns that we all learn in college, but there are also the small gestures that unconsciously communicate some common human idea. There are a range of physical motions that singers tend to associate with vocal qualities. The conductor shares a twitch of an eye or a wrist, and we singers just know what to do. Who explicitly taught us those things? And could a book explain it to someone who’s never lived it?
I can’t speak for other disciplines, but I can imagine that this is true across many disciplines: the move from novice to expert is one that is not only full of skill acquisition, but also values acquisition. The values of classical singing are not ubiquitous. Pop music values are closer to being ubiquitous, which is why it’s pop(ular) music. I’ve met plenty of people who seemed to understand the values of pop music with little to no formal training. Nevertheless, there are still musical values that have to be learned there as well. Try explaining how important a metronome is to many beginning pop or rock musicians, and you’ll see what I mean.
Many classical values must be learned unless you grow up with lots of classical music. What types of values are these? Elegance. Consistency. Beauty. Restraint. Worldliness. Patience. Chiaroscuro. Evenness. Legato. And others.
Yuck. These words are deficient, just like “improvisation” is insufficient to explain jazz. Words alone cannot personify the ideas behind them as well as learning directly from an expert. Oftentimes, describing the values in this way can sound like an insult or a negative. Someone might hear “elegance” and put on a snobby attitude based on their interpretation of the word. But the sight of someone you admire embodying classical singing is what makes language become three-dimensional.
The values of the art become bigger than words can hold. They have to be expressed.
Amazingly, a common thing I’ve heard from voice teachers and students is that asking a true novice student to impersonate an opera singer results in immediate better singing. The teacher tries to explain several rules to the novice, which don’t work, but as soon as the novice has a model to emulate – built around traits they aren’t fully conscious of – they improve. They might feel silly when they do it, but that’s irrelevant.
Thus, we learn these values by seeing people embody them and by working directly with those people. Once the values are learned, then the necessary skills (breathing, registration, etc) make sense as goals. Without the values, it’s unclear why those things are so important. “I can hit those notes, can’t I? Hear how fast I can sing! Hear how loud I am!”
The Choice to Become an Expert
When one wishes, therefore, to become an expert in a field, it is an acknowledgement that expertise exists, that one isn’t already an expert and that one is ready to try to become part of the community of experts. It is not an acknowledgement that experts are always right, you know, but since expertise is non-static, you can try to join that rolling community of shared knowledge.
It requires turning to other people to learn the ropes, so to speak.
In piano lessons, students learn how experts have learned to move their fingers. They learn how to use their bodies and think about the music. They learn tricks of the trade and practical information that simply isn’t contained in literature, and, even if it were, it would be mostly useless because a book can’t give feedback. And they learn about being an expert pianist in unconscious ways by being around expert pianists.
Students learning a foreign language have to speak with people who already know the language. They can read grammar books and dictionaries all day, but it still won’t work because the community of language speakers do their own thing. You can’t know it until you’re a part of it. Scary.
If we don’t want to get too involved, then we might read about it, hoping to be such brilliant autodidacts that we can skip interacting with other humans and looking stupid while we learn. According to what I’m citing in this series, however, that just isn’t enough. It sets up a situation where someone can believe they are an expert and then be shot down once they are actually exposed to experts. Think about it: would you be a jazz expert if you just read about it? What if you only listened to recordings and never watched expert musicians play? What if you watched but never spoke to or played alongside those players? How much are you missing by not directly interacting with experts? Probably a lot.
Of course, none of this eliminates independent study as an activity. Nor does it eliminate the usefulness of reading, solo practice or conscious learning as important endeavors. We do need alone time to process what we’ve learned and try to incorporate it or to learn new ideas that we can test out later. But learning alone and practicing alone aren’t enough on their own if expertise is the goal. We have to dive in with people who are better than us.
With all this in mind, next time I’ll list the types of singing experts as I see them. Thanks for sticking with me this far.
Collins, Harry (2007-10-01). Rethinking Expertise (p. 23). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. ↩