What we can learn from playing the guitar?


In my youth I learned classical guitar. I gave up during student times and did not touch the instrument for forty years. In late 2017, I decided that this cannot be! I took up practising again, with astounding success, as measured against my own expectations. Obviously, what I had Iearnt many years ago was somehow stored in my brain and body and could be revived just within a year of daily practice, even surpassing the level of my youth (which is, for those of you who know classical guitar, standard pieces such as Tarrega’s ‘Capricho Arabe’ or Villa-Lobos’ ‘Preludes’).

A couple of days ago, I met a Japanese friend who wanted to listen to some pieces. He invited a young master student of classical guitar from Japan to join. Of course, my first lesson was that there is still a long way to go! But there was a very interesting conversation which shows that introspection can be a very stimulating method for reflecting about matters of brain, mind and action.

My friend asked the student, “What do you think while playing?” The student answered, after pondering a while, “I think what I will play next.” I agreed immediately: If you memorize a piece and can play it well, which means, almost no mistake, during each moment of playing you do two things simultaneously: You move your hands, and you imagine what comes next. Consider this: Often you read in texts about two systems that mastering a complicated piece of music means to play it ‘automatically’, i.e. without thinking. That is true and false.

On the one hand, it is true that you play the guitar without any conscious control what you are doing with your hands at that moment (emphasis!). Indeed, as is well known from Kleist’s famous story about the puppet player, if you happen to think about what you are doing right now, is a sure recipe for failure. This is true across all kinds of complex movements, such as dancing. But as we saw from the young guitarist’s response, this does not mean that you do not think: There is even a paradox, because what you think imagines a movement that is different from what you are realizing at the same moment. Of course, it is important to recognize that we talk about very fast movements that require a considerable degree of dexterity. That means, between the actual movement and the anticipated movement is surely less than a second.

But does that mean that we plan ahead and then implement the action? I think, no, because that would imply that we also control the step of realization, what we do not do, it’s a flow that just happens (‘automatically’). What is going on probably is that the thinking creates a sort of attractor for a flow of movements that is somehow memorized in distributed neuronal systems, and which can be easily get out of order. In other words, I do not think that the movement is realized ‘automatically’ in the sense of really being exactly the same in every realization. In music, this is evident from the fact that you can play a certain piece in varying moods, speed, and emphasis, in spite of sticking to the same sequence of movements. That means, there is a range of possible realizations from which your ‘thinking in advance’ selects some, yet without conscious control. At a closer look, there is certainly a hierarchical structure: You may decide to play a piece just slower, and that suffices to slow down at every point of time, without thinking again.

I think that this example gives us much insight about the alternative to the established ‘two systems’ approach. In mastering a musical instrument, the various levels or aspects of brain activity are deeply enmeshed in complex actions that follow each other at very high speed. One cannot assign the action to one aspect or ‘system’ alone. As has been shown in the neuroscience literature on attention, what our thinking often does is to focus our attention, and then there is a range of conditioned intuitive or automatic actions. Thus, playing the guitar is a flow of states of attention created by thinking that pull the spontaneous actions ahead that are stored in our memory.

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