About being several places at the same time

A central schism, which appeared very early in my work with the project, was the difference in the experience of paying attention to my intentions and my movements as opposed to paying attention to how the music sounds.

It is a very basic feature of all bodily actions that they can be divided into the motor performance of the action, which in a sense is “within ourselves” and the outcome of the action, which is “outside in the world”. And a basic experience is that it is more effective to focus on the goal of the action rather than focusing on the means to the goal.

An obvious example is typing on a computer keyboard. Try writing a sentence while being aware of the movement of each and every finger. It is a slow and not very precise method. Instead, if you focus on which letters to write or which words should appear on the screen – then the process is far more effective. If you are skilled, just thinking about the word will automatically make your fingers perform the motor program that writes it. In fact, you are then already very close to the experience of playing piano at a higher level.

But again: If we focus too much on the “intermediate level”, namely our concrete movements, things often become problematic. It’s really hard to do anything motorically complicated if you monitor all of your movements and do not focus on the goal of your actions. So, if you have to teach your children to ride a bike, ask them to focus on where they are heading, not on the movements of the pedals or keeping their balance. I am quite certain, that this phenomenon also plays a strong role in expressing and communicating emotions to other people: It is difficult for most people to smile naturally to a photographer (focus on motor skills), but we can’t help smiling naturally to our children (focus on the goal).

But when we work on difficult musical pieces, we can’t choose not to focus on the motor aspects, because the works are simply too difficult to play. They require a high level of repetition to be embedded fully in us (See About practice), and we have therefore cultivated a very sharp monitoring of when our motor system functions appropriately in terms of the greatest possible control (See About muscular tension and movement). The question is whether the great motoric complexity that difficult piano pieces present makes us too focused on phenomena “within ourselves”?

The phenomena that are perceived to be “within” are the aesthetic idea of the musical elements as well as the motoric experience of our movements and the sensation of the contact of the instrument. At the same time, we experience an “outside”, which is the auditive experience of the sound. Here is also the possibility of an aesthetic evaluation, namely to put ourselves in the role of an experienced listener.

It is a crucial part of a professional musician’s development to be able to experience his performance as “pure” as possible, that is, to perceive what is expressed while playing. It is harder than it sounds and is probably due to a cognitive mechanism that shuts down the sensory consequences of our actions. (See About tickling yourself) Many good amateur musicians have good motor skills and a strong vision of the music, but the lack of continuous monitoring and evaluation of their own playing usually makes the result mediocre.

An interesting consideration about being “inside” or “outside” is that one’s musical competence can be at very different levels when being present in the two different attitudes: experienced listeners can listen to a first-class performance of a musical piece and have correct and qualified opinions as to what to improve – most music students are already able to do this before they begin at the conservatory. But continuous registration – 100% “objectively” – if you yourself are on the right track, is for most people much harder.

I think that a good image is that there are two bodies present when we play: One body that plans and performs the action and one body that evaluates the action aesthetically. The goal is, of course, that the bodies are synchronized and that there is a straight way from our intentions to the sounding result, just like when an experienced computer user just thinks the sentences to make them appear on the screen. That’s also a fundamental aspect about the way our motor system work. (See About action representation and motor cognition)

Our challenge is that, in some ways, we need to start each new working process with a musical piece by “writing on a new kind of computer keyboard” and we need to be very skilled at changing our attention when we correct the purely motor aspects, and when we correct the auditory result. It makes things no less complicated that there are different modalities (sensory systems) that can monitor our motor skills. It can be done with both the eyes (the visual system), the inner feeling of our body (the proprioceptive system) and the sense of touch (the tactile system). Here my experience is that the visual system presents a lot of resistance, and I often look away to focus attention on the other sensual modalities. A greater awareness of these interactions has clearly helped my practice to become more focused.

Of course, if the musical material is still new, it’s obviously not possible just to be in the auditory mode sense – in fact, I see in my videos that I often begin by “reading” the notes, i.e. to monitor (with all sensory systems) that I play the right notes at the right time. But then I’ve been surprised by how fast I can shift my focus to the goal and once in a while skip intermediate processes completely. It was definitely a surprise with this project (See About recording yourself) and from an educational perspective, I think it extremely interesting to gain more knowledge about how we can develop as quickly as possible. (See About reaching for your full potential)

There is probably also a deeper point in that many of my observations of my videos are simultaneously “inside” and “outside”. For example, when I correct an aspect that I describe at the same time as both a changed motor sensation and a changed sound. Obviously, it reflects that the two perspectives are inseparable, yet it has been surprising for me since our language usage often is either / or, i.e. “Lift your fingers more” or “Try with a lighter sound”. Many of my unconscious strategy changes often have this unifying effect.

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