Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Music - Part Two of Five sequential posts

In looking at the way we learn music, leadership, and culture I want to begin with how our brains function. In Alan Rusbridger’s Play it Again a very important distinction is made between explicit and procedural memory. Explicit memory is brain capacity that is used when we encounter and attempt to master something new. Depending on the complexity of the topic or skill, the process of establishing explicit memory may take a significant amount of time and effort. Gradually as we begin to incorporate the new understanding into our natural thinking, the brain function moves to procedural memory. Procedural memory is something that can be recalled automatically, seemingly without effort or focus.

Learning a piece of music is one of the easiest illustrations to use regarding explicit and procedural memory. When learning a piece, I work very hard to read the notes, observe the dynamics, and do as much as I can to recreate the composer’s intent. During this phase, the music doesn’t “sing” because it is stiff and mechanical. As all the technical aspects are gradually mastered, playing a piece becomes more natural and musical. It is at this stage that brain functioning is shifting from explicit to procedural memory. A startling moment can occur during this phase as I get caught up in the music, enjoying a truly artistic moment; then all of a sudden, I don’t know what the next notes or phrase should be and the result is a train wreck. The way to avoid the train wreck is to seek to hold some explicit awareness of what I am doing in the moment while letting go of the technical details – freeing the full artistic expression that is possible when I am caught up in the music.

One of my favorite composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff, was recognized as one of the 20th century's greatest composers, conductors, and pianists. Rachmaninoff is known for his great melodies and I enjoy playing his compositions because they have very complicated chords, runs, rhythms, and interplay of both hands. This requires me to pick the piece apart, analyzing different sections of his compositions for patterns that can help me see how the work fits together and how approaches in one section can be adapted to another. As the sameness and variation within and across pieces becomes clear through repetition, the music becomes more familiar, comfortable, and "at home."

It is the "at home" point that the music and I become one in the same - with my reading and playing the music serving only as a conduit for what is written in a manuscript. "Arriving at home" allows for a piece of music to have a unique interpretation that is only mine. I shape the phrases, change the tempo, emphasize a note or chord and the way I do it is likely never to be repeated by anyone else. It is in the "at home" stage that full expression is possible and it is frequently accompanied with a physiological reaction in me; I get chills up my spine and all over my body when I find expression in the music and achieve just the touch that the composer intended as well. So, the piece is played with integrity to the composer yet finds distinctive expression through me.

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