Monday, 26 March 2012



I suspect I'm not alone in being frustrated at the limitations of my own technique. I haven't had a violin lesson since I was 12, and until two years ago I had never really used paint. The limitations of what I can do technically are obvious to me every day.

With the painting, I probably don't really understand how lack of technique hampers me, because I don't know what I'm trying to do anyway. With music, lack of technique has screeched at me from the age of 12, when I first heard Sugarcane Harris play the violin on a Frank Zappa album. I knew how I wanted my violin to sound, I knew what kind of things I wanted to do on it. I gave up the violin at around the same time, and when I first tried to come back to it at 18, the prevailing cultural 'truths' told me that it was alread too late to try to get the technique that would let me mess around like that. I took it up again at 23, and now it was really too late. And then when I took it up again at 48, and realised that too late wasn't the whole story.

Kath Burlinson said to me once that technique doesn't matter. I didn't quite get what she meant. But this idea keeps coming back at me from different sources, and I'm beginning to see what it might mean. I think Werner and Alcantara are talking about it. Their books are aimed at people who have been through the whole formal music education system, people who regularly solo like demons in jazz clubs, people who perform in orchestras. And still the message is the same. You can have all the technique in the world, but it doesn't necessarily make you a great musician.

So this means, it seems to me, that right now, with the technique that we already have, we could do something much closer to what we think we might like to do (one day...). We could do something different with what we can already do. The shift is in the mind, the heart, the sensibilities -  new paintings, new solos, could come out, right now, without  'a 1000 hours of practice' or a degree in fine art.

Both Werner and Ancantra (and Barry Green) talk about 'turning off your critical faculties' - and this phrase is also discussed in the New Scientist article on flow that Jim and I were discussing recently.

Defining and characterising the flow state is all very well, but could a novice learn to turn off their critical faculties and focus their attention in this way, at will? If so, would it boost performance?

The article goes on to discuss a study by Gabriel Wulf at the University of Nevada:

At the time, she had no particular interest in the flow state. But Wolf and her colleagues found that they could quickly improve a person's abilities by asking them to focus their attention on an external point away from their body. Aspiring skiers who were asked to do slalom-type movements on a simulator, for example, leaned faster if they focused on a marked spot ahead of them. Golfers who focussed on the swing of the club were about 20 per cent more accurate that those who focussed on their own arms.

...These findings were borne out in alter studies of expert and novice swimmers. Novices who concentrated on an external focus - the water's movement around their limbs - showed the same effortless grace as those with more experience, swimming faster and with a more efficient technique. Conversely, when the expert swimmers focused on their limbs, their performance declined.

Wulf's findings fit will with the idea that flow - and better learning - comes when you turn off conscious thought. 'When you have an external focus, you achieve a more automatic type of control' she says. 'You don't think about what you're doing, you just focus on the outcome'. (New Scientist, 4th February, 2012)

So, for example, on the violin, you don't think about how other people are judging you, or how frustrating it is that you can't play like Claude Williams, or why your fingers won't move faster, or how crap you sound. Instead, you focus on the music itself - the extraordinary quality of a note, or the simplest shape that might fit with what the others are playing, or where you could put in a space. All things that are within your range of 'technique'. Focussing on this kind of thing can, in my experience, actually change how you sound.

With painting, I don't know if I have the technique to do what I want to do or not. I can see more and more clearly, or at least, so it seems today, that what is problematic  here is that I don't know what I want my external focus to be. What is my 'subject matter'? I don't yet know.


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