Non-Conscious Knowing Or Dancing About Architecture

First, thanks to Lyle Sanford, who blogged about this topic over on his Music Therapy blog and called my attention to an article on Discover Magazine called Your Brain Knows A Lot More Than It Realizes. In this article, neuroscientist David Eagleman notes how much of what we do in life is something that we can perform easily, but are unable to consciously access.  Eagleman writes:

The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously.

Lyle notes in his blog post how much the examples in Eagleman’s article can relate to performing music and music therapy.  This got me thinking about how much of what I teach in a variety of music classes (ranging from private lessons to music theory, history, composition, and survey courses for non-musicians) is similar in this respect.  For example, Eagleman’s article points out how dividing baby chicks into genders and spotting and identifying incoming planes in Word War II era England were feats that required a master/apprentice relationship where the student couldn’t receive instructions, but instead needed to get feedback from their mentors.

During World War II, under constant threat of bombings, the British had a great need to distinguish incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. Which aircraft were British planes coming home and which were German planes coming to bomb? Several airplane enthusiasts had proved to be excellent “spotters,” so the military eagerly employed their services. These spotters were so valuable that the government quickly tried to enlist more spotters—but they turned out to be rare and difficult to find. The government therefore tasked the spotters with training others.

It was a grim attempt. The spotters tried to explain their strategies but failed. No one got it, not even the spotters themselves. Like the chicken sexers, the spotters had little idea how they did what they did—they simply saw the right answer.

With a little ingenuity, the British finally figured out how to successfully train new spotters: by trial-and-error feedback. A novice would hazard a guess and an expert would say yes or no. Eventually the novices became, like their mentors, vessels of the mysterious, ineffable expertise.

How does this relate to music?  One example that leaps to mind is trying to teach non-musicians to be able to identify different instruments and different performers by sound alone.  It’s challenging for a student who hasn’t had a background of playing in a band or orchestra to be able to pick up on the subtle aural clues that distinguish a clarinet from a french horn, let alone an alto saxophone from a tenor saxophone or, even more challenging, Miles Davis from Chet Baker.  One of the reasons why I find this hard to teach is because words fail to convey these nuances.

I think it was Laurie Anderson who said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  If a musician could have said what he or she wanted to say in words, the artist would have done it that way.  I can offer suggestions for things to listen for (pitch range, certain instrument specific sounds, etc.), but it’s simply impossible to describe the timbre of an Elbonian nose kazoo to someone who has never heard this made up instrument before.  The closest thing you can do is relate the sound to something else the student is already familiar with and then offer feedback.

Other topics are comparable.  With ear training you cannot explain what an authentic cadence or minor 7th interval sounds like in such a way that someone will recognize it if they hear it, you have to expose the student to those sounds and then offer them feedback on whether or not they are correct when they try to discern it themselves.  With regards to the complex motor control we develop to play a musical instrument, Eagleman’s article also offers some other examples.

On August 20, 1974, in a game between the California Angels and the Detroit Tigers, The Guinness Book of Records clocked Nolan Ryan’s fastball at 100.9 miles per hour. If you work the numbers, you’ll see that Ryan’s pitch departs the mound and crosses home plate—60 feet, 6 inches away—in four-tenths of a second. This gives just enough time for light signals from the baseball to hit the batter’s eye, work through the circuitry of the retina, activate successions of cells along the loopy superhighways of the visual system at the back of the head, cross vast territories to the motor areas, and modify the contraction of the muscles swinging the bat. Amazingly, this entire sequence is possible in less than four-tenths of a second; otherwise no one would ever hit a fastball. But even more surprising is that conscious awareness takes longer than that: about half a second. So the ball travels too rapidly for batters to be consciously aware of it.

One does not need to be consciously aware to perform sophisticated motor acts. You can notice this when you begin to duck from a snapping tree branch before you are aware that it’s coming toward you, or when you’re already jumping up when you first become aware of a phone’s ring.

If we were to consider all the myriad things we must coordinate to play a single pitch on a brass instrument (setting the embouchure, the position of the tongue to start the note and where it goes while sustaining, taking in air, blowing at just the right pressure and quantity, the proper fingering, correct posture, etc.) there is simply too much to be aware of at once.  Good teachers are able to break down each individual detail when necessary, but also know when to stay out of a student’s way and let the details work themselves out.

All this really underscores the value of concerted and focused listening practice at all levels and for all purposes, whether it’s career-minded students or students taking a one semester survey course. There is simply no way to “dance about architecture” without experiencing music aurally.

Hoyt

Based on what I’ve read, this is the basis for a lot of the teachings of Arnold Jacobs. Focusing on the product (music), rather than analyzing how you are getting the product.

Dave

Partly, but from what I personally saw of Jacobs’ teaching, he was perfectly willing to analyze what was going on, he just preferred to keep it separate from the act of making music. He spoke of wearing different “hats” at different times. From my point of view, Jacobs was too quick to dismiss analysis in the minds of the students and wanted to do all the analyzing for them. This works great – until the student goes on to become a teacher and doesn’t have the background to do the same thing for their student. Or, the student stops taking lessons and runs into problems he or she is unequipped to deal with on his or her own.

I see those things as two sides of the same coin, not either or. Just my two cents.

Lyle Sanford

Dave! – Just delighted that story so caught your interest and that you worked out more of the implications for teaching music. Connecting it to the Laurie Anderson quote is terrific.

To raise an old topic, I think maybe this is a key to understanding why you and I react so differently to Jeff Smiley’s embouchure method. You’ve spent years and thousands of hours working out what embouchure is and those exercises probably seem like 52 card pickup because they don’t really show you anything new. For me, they, in a non-conscious way, got me to better understand what embouchure is all about – how so many more muscles were involved in so many more ways than my conscious mind had even begun to be aware of. I’d love to be able to figure out how to use non-conscious methods in teaching other aspects of music making.

The main thing to say, though, is that it’s very validating for me that you, who have done so much thinking and posting on how it is we teach music making, also felt there are some really important implications for teaching methods in that article.

Dave

Thanks for the blog fodder, Lyle! I frequently check in on your blog and enjoy reading the things you have to say.

To raise an old topic, I think maybe this is a key to understanding why you and I react so differently to Jeff Smiley’s embouchure method. You’ve spent years and thousands of hours working out what embouchure is and those exercises probably seem like 52 card pickup because they don’t really show you anything new. For me, they, in a non-conscious way, got me to better understand what embouchure is all about – how so many more muscles were involved in so many more ways than my conscious mind had even begun to be aware of. I’d love to be able to figure out how to use non-conscious methods in teaching other aspects of music making.

My discouragement of the Balanced Embouchure isn’t because I feel the exercises are “non-conscious” or nothing new to me, but because Smiley actively instructs you to play with mechanics that I feel will eventually lead to more problems then they can help. Bunching the chin and resetting or reforming your embouchure for different ranges accompany problems. If you look at some of the videos of players having embouchure problems I’ve posted (and some of the ones others have posted) you’ll see those are common characteristics. Yes, not everyone who plays in those ways has problems, but serious professionals with demanding playing schedules either correct those inconsistencies in their embouchure form or get by through brute strength until things eventually break down. Hoyt mentioned Arnold Jacobs, who also noted that sometime in a player’s 30s or 40s that technique issues come back to haunt a player if they don’t make the corrections earlier. This is also the same age range where working professionals typically begin to develop chop problems that often get labeled as “embouchure dystonia,” and those players often have the same playing characteristics that Smiley recommends.

If you’re enjoying practicing out of that book and don’t have a demanding playing schedule, then don’t worry about it. Personally, I’d recommend working on keeping your chin flat and using the same embouchure formation for your entire range. You can even do many of the same exercises this way and I would guess your playing would be better off in the medium and long term if you make these changes in how you practice.

Lyle Sanford

Dave –

Thanks for that restatement of your critique of BE – very helpful.

Something else on the consciousness front you might find interesting is the work of Benjamin Libet. It’s controversial, due to its implications concerning free will, but as far as I know hasn’t been disproved. Here’s an extract from Wikipedia:

“. . . In other words, apparently conscious decisions to act were preceded by an unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – this buildup came to be called Bereitschaftspotential or readiness potential. As of 2008, the upcoming outcome of a decision could be found in study of the brain activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 7 seconds before the subject was aware of their decision.[5]. . .”

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