As I stuck my feet into the icy waters of a breathtaking mountain stream this past weekend, I was in a surreal place of mental purity. When I returned from the sojourn, my body was worn and tethered, but my mind was refreshed like a brand new palette.
I took a liking to anthropology in my undergraduate studies because I saw it as a way to understand music from the core of its existence in our lives. One of my professors, Dr. La Lone, would open each class with a ring from a tibetan singing bowl. The perpetual, calming lulls from the bowl captured our conscious awareness, halting our “monkey-mind” as he referred to it. This idea ties nicely to my last blog post concerning our erratic conscious, which flows like a babbling brook. After being engulfed in the natural world, I realized that my monkey mind--or wandering conscious thoughts--returned as I became engaged once again in the obligations and transactions of the modern world.
There was a long time in our history where humans were doing nothing more than gathering, hunting and procreating. Stressors came not from faulty relationships or loss of possessions, but instead from life threatening perils. Although many situations in our lives today may seem life threatening, very few of them actually are. Despite the change in perception we are experiencing through our increased access to knowledge and ease of life due to technology, the wetware of our bodies is essentially the same as it was in the paleolithic era. Take the the appendix for instance. Referred to as vestigial organs, there are a number of devices our bodies still retain which are no longer needed for 21st century endeavors. You and I are not born as modern humans: we are old-fashioned humanoids born into modern surroundings. William Starr points to this in his writing, The Suzuki Violinist:
"Babies, whether born in primitive times or in contemporary times, start at the same point and receive environmental stimulation according to their respective periods, growing up as adults suited to the era in which they live."
The hormones cortisol and adrenaline may have helped us put on pounds and run from predators in our history, but today they merely serve to amplify situations which should not be amplified. This can help us to understand why our hands shake or voice quivers when we perform; these hormones increasingly serve as detriments in our present scenario. Our bodies are equipped to deal with lions and rivers, not bank statements and violin recitals!
Keep this in mind next time you visit the concert hall: imagine yourself as a visitor from the ancient past and you may find your appreciation is enhanced that much more!
Sources and further research:
In order to attain a high level of mastery on the violin, it is crucial to understand the mechanics of our brains, as many great pedagogues have demonstrated. With this in mind, I wasn’t surprised when I uncovered a commonality between Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching and neuroscientist David Eagleman’s latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.
Both texts bring out an explicit fact: the brain is jam-packed with antics and we are completely unaware that we are the subject of its pranks. Why is it that when you hear a recording of your own voice, or the “voice” you’ve developed through the violin, you’re taken aback that the sound is not what you expected...or wanted?
Galamian coins this as subjective listening. You believe you are hearing the sound correctly, but your desires and expectations mask the actual sound being produced. Our brains persistently conceal the reality of our interactions with the world to make everything more rewarding. While this may help combat self-hate, for a violinist it can be incredibly detrimental. The squishy organ in your head will gladly tell you that you’re in tune and in time even when you’re not. Eagleman illustrates this phenomenon in hearing, sight and time perception.
So how can you possibly defeat something so innate? Well the good news is, as Galamian writes, you can train your brain to hear more objectively. This is why violin teachers have always stressed the importance of using a tuner and a metronome in daily practice. Recording yourself regularly and singing are also effective ways to catch mental mishaps. But these devices alone will not save you from the toils of your brain.
There are three key areas Galamian points to, which need to be addressed every time you practice: building time (technicality), interpreting time (musicality) and performance time (complete run through of a work). But this is just the start. How can you use your brain most effectively during these stages of practice?
If your unconscious is allowed to take the reigns during building and interpreting time, then your conscious (the area you converse with regularly) becomes free to wander to beaches and meadows. Typically musicians refer to this as auto-pilot mode. In this instance, your mistakes go unnoticed and your practice becomes futile; the music becomes stored in the unconscious area of your brain, as is.
By this point you must be wondering: do great soloists tune out their conscious mind when they perform? Eagleman makes the point that in athletics, fastball hitters and world cup tennis players don’t have time to consciously think about the moves they make. All of their motions and reactions have been stored in the unconscious during practice time. When it’s game time their conscious awareness is better left on the sidelines. Similarly, the pro golfer is at a disadvantage if he becomes overly analytical: the unconscious area of his brain has stored the information necessary to execute the perfect swing, leaving his conscious clueless as to how he actually does it. What this tells me is that once you decide to run the piece all the way through (performance time) you should relax and allow your unconscious to take control (after all, you trust it to get you home from work everyday!). At this point there is no need for your conscious to be making corrections.
With repeated scrutiny, your conscious awareness will learn to listen objectively and overcome the urge to relay false information to the unconscious storage systems that make up the majority of your brain. By making performance time an integral part of your daily practice routine, you can train yourself to tune out the conscious babble when need be, in order to convey the music with finesse. Remember, the first step to improving your brain (and ultimately, your practice) is acknowledging its shortcomings.
I have spent the past week immersed in the ruminations of Einstein from a collection of writings amassed into a singular text entitled, Ideas and Opinions. If you have not yet experienced the great pleasure of reading these pages, I strongly encourage you to pursue the purchase with haste.
Although many decades have passed since the words were written, somehow it feels as though Einstein wrote them yesterday. His insight is consistent, pure and profound in the simplest manner, as if he is writing chapters for the book of life. In Einstein's eyes, we were each born with a purpose: to contribute in some way to the betterment of society. Think of the warm, illuminated house you are in at this moment, of the computer you sit at, the internet you survey. None of these things sprung into existence of their own accord. Many others before you devoted their lives to make it so that you today have the ability to acquire those things. Now, as Einstein suggests, it is our duty to contribute to humanity in a similar fashion, giving back in gratitude for what we may easily take for granted.
Did our ancestors toil and trial relentlessly just so we could watch YouTube and heat frozen food in minutes? I am inclined to say, no. Those scientists and artists who contributed to humanity throughout time have un mistakenly shaped the world we know in every way. Now the alarm sounds for us. Will we preserve the past with care and nourish the great ideas of our time, or will we relax in our easy chair and cease to care for the preservation of our intriguing species? What can we offer in thanks for what we have been given?
I admit, it did not take much pondering before I realized my role as a musician in this world is significant. As a proponent of an artistically challenging instrument, my lifes work strives to keep culture alive. In Einstein’s own words, “It is just as important to keep culture alive as to solve specific problems.” The violin itself is a relic of the Enlightenment, a proud era in our history when scientific and artistic endeavors were heaving with productive, creative genius, much of which we now look upon with awe. If we were to allow Symphonies to fade from public attention it would be no less destructive than disregarding Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Great music enlivens our entire brain and reveals to us the genuine splendor of cooperation.
When the Voyager Golden Record was launched, works by Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky were among the few on the track. Their stardom will quite literally reach the stars. It is their music which we deem worthy enough to share with the other intelligent beings in the universe.
Alas, a world dank with war, competitive hatred and lack of empathy can not be tolerated if true greatness is to be achieved by mankind. Cooperation, understanding and camaraderie should be at the forefront of our goals if we wish to survive among our sentient neighbors in the abyss of space.Tweet
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