Sunday, October 5, 2008

Connecting the Dots: From Notes on Paper to 4D Sensing

   Many people think of dots on staff paper when they think of playing music. The evolution of representing musical ideas visually went hand-in-hand with the evolution of music in Europe, and now that tradition has influenced the entire world. Writing music down has made possible the incredible library of music from the last several hundred years.
   I learned to read music very early, from my mother, who is a piano teacher. There is really not much difference between reading language and reading music: you learn the letters, you start understanding them together in words, then phrases, and eventually you can read a novel, or you can read a symphony. You learn to see patterns of phrasing, to intuit the implied inflection and emotion, and to read "between the lines" when you have background information about the author and the time period. I am dealing with conventional Western (European-originated) notation here. There are people who have created alternative systems, which communicate directions for different concepts and processes. 
   In the Western system, the visual representation of music on a two-dimensional plane gives us certain information. For a given "note" there are usually symbols of pitch, relative time duration, and relative loudness. There are usually markings which indicate the shaping of the piece - how it changes in loudness and timing. Some composers include more detail about the expressive qualities of their music. But all of this is VERY little information about how a piece can be brought to life with imagination, because millions of subtle details go into a performance: changes in timing and timbre which would be extremely cumbersome to notate. And as more details accumulate on paper, the less freedom the performer has to interpret. The page communicates only a shorthand concept for a piece of music. There is a huge difference between seeing a recipe in a book and actually cooking it up and tasting it.
   From the performer's point of view, the notes on paper tell nothing about the physical process of making the sounds. This is why we as performers can get confused, distracted and derailed by reading and playing at the same time. We can become so involved in the act of reading and in the abstract conception of a work that we lose touch with what we are doing physically. We might not even be listening to the sound we are producing on our own instruments. We might get so tunnel-focused on reading that we are unaware of our fellow musicians, with whom we are supposed to be playing. How can we expand our awareness beyond the 2D world of dry dots on paper?
   Let me make it personal: I realize that I've been out of touch with my actual physical feeling while playing the violin. I have played for 35 years - professionally for about 22  of those - but there are certain things I still want to improve. I want to improve the continuity of my awareness in my performances. I want to improve my accuracy when shifting positions. I want to allow freer flow from imagination to actualization. Don't we as musicians all want these things?  The goal is: being more conscious, which means being more continuously WITHIN the action.
   It has to do with employing 3D sensing: feeling your physical shape changing as you play your instrument. And it has to do with staying awake during the unnamed, unrepresented time-spaces between the named locations we call "notes." Again, the instructions are - because we don't usually give attention to these things:
Feel your instrument with your sense of touch, and feel your movements through space in three dimensions.
Remain conscious (feeling, hearing, seeing) during the transitional times between the notes. With this it becomes 4D sensing, since time is the fourth dimension.

   The concept of a "note" has gained too much solidity, too much importance, because notes have a visual presence in front of us on a piece of paper. We validate them as "real" because we can see them. They have a measurable quantity of ink. But the dot represents only a temporary spot in a continuum of change. The dot represents a destination, a resting point, a beginning of a sound change. But the beginning of the note is only a small part of the story. Once the sound starts, it is already changing, going outward, morphing as you either stop suddenly or continue the movement which started it. It is resonating and reflecting against things, or it is going out into space and disappearing. Can we be aware of the continuum, not just the sound "locations" which we call "notes"? We call them "notes" because we have invented a way to describe certain coordinates, name them, and notate them. Can we stay aware of the whole landscape, not just the named landmarks?
   If I am playing the violin, let's say I start playing a note, from the frog (the part of the bow closest to where I hold it.) I have already done most of what is on paper: a certain pitch, a certain loudness of starting the note. Now I am in a process of holding it the notated duration of time, which doesn't take up a visually-proportional space on the page. I've already exhausted the information in the dot, so now I'm in uncharted territory: the unrepresented space-time between the notes. I am drawing my bow arm down, keeping the bow hair in contact with the string, extending my forearm to its full length. The movement of the bow arm is a continuous thing: a flow not described by a dot. My left hand is resting in a position, maybe vibrating back and forth, if that is desired in the musical style. My body as a whole has a certain shape, my hands are in a particular position for producing a particular sound. I reach the next instruction, the next dot. The dot on the page doesn't describe the multi-faceted motion through space that I must do with both hands to play the next pitch in the prescribed manner. The notation also doesn't show the time it takes to execute that motion.
   The feeling of transitional areas of time is known as "rhythm," and we work it with constantly as musicians. Its use in music is based on the concept of a mathematical grid placed over felt time, in which we measure relative "lengths" of time. We practice it as a mental discipline, but it resonates in the body. It is like intuitive mathematics. We feel the in-between times between impulses of sound.
   The transitional motions through space between note-landmarks are felt in the body by the sense of touch. From muscles and joints we receive messages about the shape we are making with our limbs in space. From pressure on our skin we receive messages about the instrument we are holding and playing. To feel the transitions between named points (notes) we have to stay "in touch" - in its most basic meaning. If we've gotten "out of touch" we must re-validate our sense of touch: re-activate the connection of our mental awareness to our sense of our bodies' felt presence. We must stay aware during transitions.

Next essay will continue with this subject, exploring the idea of perceiving and validating the in-between spaces and times...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Playing with Lenses (Ch.3)

Fisheye lens, macro lens, telephoto lens, wide-angle lens, 35mm lens. Different camera lenses help us make different pictures of the world. You can stand in the same spot and take radically different photographs with each of the lenses just mentioned. But even without a camera, we can see in multiple ways just by varying the ways we pay attention with our eyes. How we focus our eyes shapes how we perceive the world - even playing a big role in WHAT we perceive. On a deeper level our physical vision is linked to our way of being and acting in the world. How do you see the world?

Note:  I learned about the basic types of vision written about here from the writings of Tom Brown, Jr.   I am adding to those ideas here with my own thoughts and observations, which were probably influenced also by different sources which I can't remember right now.

Tunnel Vision
The default method of seeing in our culture is "tunnel vision," a narrow, straight line of focus. Tunnel vision helps us get stuff done, be productive, get from A to B. In its symbolic sense, tunnel vision keeps us on the "straight and narrow" path, representing self-limitation for the purpose of staying on a chosen or a socially-sanctioned path. It is a goal-oriented way of seeing: pointing your vision at a target and going straight toward it. You shut out most other things from awareness. Our culture loves tunnel vision. It is the type of vision which goes along with abstract thinking and reasoning. It is the kind of vision we usually use when watching television, looking at a computer, or reading.
The extreme version of tunnel vision is what I call "laser focus." With your laser, you can cut things up and analyze them scientifically. Laser focus is also the focus of obsession. This kind of vision can give you a headache! You get a lot accomplished, like with tunnel vision, but the energy is extremely concentrated. You can hurt people with this kind of vision. It can be cruel in its intensity, single-mindedness, and tendency to dissect.
Tunnel vision and laser focus are not "bad." They have led to many accomplishments and discoveries. However, they seem to be grossly overused by our culture! I know I use these modes a lot, with good and less-good outcomes. What are we missing out on, in the world outside our personal tunnels of habit? What are we doing as a species as we pursue our own agenda while ignoring the consequences to natural systems as a whole?

GAME #1: Notice when you are traveling in a narrow channel of habit and how this tends to lead you from point A to point B without much awareness of what's even nearby your tunnel of focus. Make an effort to notice random things - anything you don't usually look at - outside your usual routine of vision.

GAME #2: Positive use of tunnel vision: choose an object, and observe it for a period of time - say, 15 minutes. As your mind begins to wander, bring it back, an continue seeing more and more detail in the object. Notice color, texture, light reflection, shadow, negative space around it or inside it, geometry of it, substance it's made of, and so on. Do you appreciate it more now?

GAME #3: Notice the usual diameter of your personal tunnel. How wide is it? Now imagine your tunnel dilating, getting wider and fatter. Feel your forehead and your eyeball muscles relax, and it keeps expanding until your tunnel bursts open and you are suddenly using the next method of seeing....

Wide-Angle Vision
This is a way of relaxing your eyes and paying attention to the whole field in front of you and to the sides. You are not looking at anything in particular. You allow things to register in your brain from your peripheral vision. You don't keep your eyes fixed in one place - you let them wander a bit, or turn your head, always keeping the widest field to both sides and up and down.
This a more passive mode, as you wait for things to happen anywhere in the field. You are not projecting any more importance on one part of the field than on any other. It is a zone of awareness which is able to pick up motion, even tiny flutters in the periphery. You sense the layout of things and also the feel of the spaces between them as your brain scans here and there over the field. Hunters, both human and animal, use this to become aware of prey. When prey is sighted, then they zero in with sharp focus.
Wide-angle vision puts you in a state of flow with your environment. It is a state of being which makes you more aware of relationships: between objects, landscape elements, animals, people, flows of energy.
You will be amazed by how many more animals and birds you will notice if you slow down and practice this way of seeing. I have experienced this in the city as well as in the woods or other environment. In the city this kind of vision is important for personal safety: being aware of your surroundings, including the movement of vehicles and possibly people who could have suspicious motives. You can use wide-angle vision to spot friends in a crowd, or to see random people wearing the color red.
You will be a lot more aware about how people are interacting socially. I am trying to practice this when I play in an orchestra so I can feel more connected to the other musicians - to enjoy being in the moment together with them, instead of being so laser-focused on my part that I miss out on feeling part of a greater whole.

GAME #1: Stand up and hold both arms up together, straight in front of you. Now slowly move them apart wider and wider, keeping your attention on both, until they are as far out as you can take them and still keep them in your peripheral vision. Wiggle your fingers and tickle you brain a little. Keeping your head still, continue wiggling your fingers and circle your arms up, around the edges of your vision and to the center at 12:00, as high as you can see without moving your head, then all the way down and around to the ground at 6:00. Hold the whole field in your awareness and flicker your attention around it.

GAME #2: Expanding Fisheye. Imagine you have a fisheye lens on your face. The fisheye takes a picture of a wide angle where the image looks wrapped around you. Focus your fisheye on a sphere three feet (or one meter) out from you, keeping the whole sphere in equal focus/non-focus. Now make the sphere bigger, say 6 feet (2m) out. What is there? Take it to 12 feet, 24 feet. Remember that the sphere expands up and down as well as to the sides.

Play with your eyes and the psychology of vision.
Pretend you have the eyes of a
fly - multiple pictures at once!
airplane - get the overview
eagle - see something in the distance
microscope - look closely at hidden details

Books to check out: field guides by Tom Brown, Jr.
also this page:
To get more in depth about attention and creativity:
Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko
Creativity, by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (This is a great book I dip into once in a while to remind me of important things and to give me new insights. Maybe now's the time to read more of it. It relates to the discussion of vision because creative people, although they become very focused on their projects, also vary their attention and have periods of idle time where they are letting images or information to come in, as in wide-angle vision.)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Why I'm Writing This Blog

These writings were first for me, to meditate on these subjects.  But I also really hope that the observations and lines of thought will be useful to other people.   The general stuff might be of interest to anyone, but there will be specific stuff posted pertaining to violin practice and performance.  Playing the violin is an ongoing exploration I started in 1973 (yikes!) and there is always more to learn... 
I'm learning how to enjoy it more.  
Actually, I'm learning to enjoy everything more.