About free will

When my strategy changes often happen faster than I’m aware of, it’s actually a very basic feature of our motor skills. We know that, if we drive a car and have to avoid something at high speed. We react first and only afterwards “discover” what happened. This means that automated movements are far more effective than conscious movements. Yes, in fact, most of the time consciousness ought not to play a decisive role in performing an act simply because it sets in too late.

And even more interesting, it turns out that we, in a certain sense, begin to act before we become aware that we make the decision about doing something. The phenomenon is known as a “readiness potential” in connection with motor actions, which predates the decision to move with 345 milliseconds[1]. This means, that our mind often begins the action before our awareness of the action sets in – and this is precisely what I experience. Here, my investigative method explores some general aspects of our cognition: It turns out that it is not unusual for me to subconsciously change my behavior and that this unconscious management makes a lot of sense. The surprising fact is, that I perceive it as out of the normal!

Therefore, the consequence must be that the optimal mastery of targeted motor skills – which is indeed a necessary prerequisite for being a professional pianist – works best when we “let the action happen”. In the moment that we try to control it consciously, we lose quality. (See About the control paradox) But how can this insight be combined with the targeted and repetitive work needed to master all aspects of a piece?

I actually think that the problem is a little different than it appears initially. As my videos show, many of the choices that occur during a practice process are already unconscious. We usually only have primary awareness of “what” and “how” we practise, while the detailed management of the processes most of the time happens beyond our immediate attention. And that is basically a good thing (See About strategy changes).

For many musicians, the problem is rather that these unconscious systems easily take over. Many people know the feeling that we have our consciousness directed towards other places than directly on our practice process. If hard-pressed, some may even admit that they sometimes simultaneously focus their attention on other things than the actual practice, for example a television screen. This is probably due to the experience that our unconscious systems will “get the job done” if we give them enough time. I’m also experiencing this with many conservatory students: the number of hours in a practice room counts far more than the quality of the practice that actually takes place.

But first of all, a constant reduction of our learning time is an important factor in a professional music life (See About reaching out for your full potential). Secondly, my experience with this project is that we can achieve much more if we have an appropriate “division of labour” between conscious and unconscious processes. My experience is that there is no contradiction between allowing a strategic change to “unfold” unconsciously while being consciously aware of whether the new strategy is appropriate. I have no doubt that a much greater awareness about alternating between “letting things happen” and “doing something active” is central to reaching the highest possible level as a classical musician.

An attention that, at the same time, is both very focused and open for unconscious control, is probably what many associate with a very good performance state. The experience that we “are 100% in the present” but that we “do not interfere with the music” – that we are in “flow”. The challenge is, in fact, to find this condition even in our practice room.

[1] Marc Jeannerod: Motor Cognition: What actions tell the self. Oxford University Press 2006, 60

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