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Attention 1

A PhD can be an uncomfortable and disorienting experience. 

One minute I feel on the break of marvellous discoveries, the next minute I'm lost in a fog of research, a labyrinth in which I long ago dropped the helpful string which leads to daylight. Take the case of attention: I knew, as soon as I started reading about research into attention that this was something important to the experience of improvisation. Think about it - 'attention' - what am I attending to? It has such marvellous possibilities... I knew already from experience, that if I attended to certain aspects of my improvising things happened, creativity occured in a very different way than if I attended to other aspects. 

Take rhythm and harmony for example: if I attend principally to harmony and attempt to play correctly in 4 parts, what happens? Disaster.. cognitive overload, the sheer misery of attending to four parts consecutively, working out all the possible directions each voice could go in, overwhelms me with choice and, worse, restructures my harmonic vocabulary to just those elements that would occur if one only thinks of the rules of voice-leading. Alternatively, what happens if I think principally of rhythm? Strange freedoms emerge, complexities of texture which well up like the buckets of water in 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', bidden to serve the powerful commands of the rhythmic cues. 

How can this be explained? Well, first I'd like to insert an important qualifier: that the misery or seeming ineptitude of the harmonic/voice-leading focus describes my feelings when I try to perform with this focus. In performance, a different mindset is needed to that of learning. Whether I feel like it or not, when I improvise in

 public I have to come up with something, and, while we can avoid a discussion (in this particular blog) about the pressure to come up with a finished product or 'masterpiece', I think it's fair to say, at least for the sake of the public who are listening, that I have to come up with a performance that is, something communicative which we can all share. So, fluency, for example could be considered more important than another quality such as accuracy: if I am overly concerned with micro details, such as the movement from chord to chord, or the correct movements of voices within those chords (avoiding parallel Vths and VIIIs) then this will undoubtedly lead to awkward hesitations. By comparison, when learning I am trying to understand connections... how does music link together; I am trying to form 'chunks', groups of notes which have meaning and relation, which I hope will be performed automatically in response to conscious or semi-conscious cues. Aspects of music such as voice-leading, harmonic movement (counterpoint and harmony) undoubtedly play a part in understanding these connections, though such connections are not always obvious. 

However! To return to the question, how is this explained? I believe the effect of focusing my conscious attention on rhythm - by which I mean that the music is motivated and organised according to rhythmic motifs which are consciously manipulated, all else being subservient to this rhythmic drive - is to effectively suppress or 'gate' the self-regulatory processes associated with harmony and voice-leading. While this in itself is not surprising, what is surprising is the vastly different nature of the improvisation, in which for the first time I became aware of my implicit musical knowledge as manifested through improvisation. Looking back on this last sentence, it seems rather pompous or grandiose, which was not my intention.. rather I beg the reader's indulgence of my earnestness in this matter, because, for me this was a rather dramatic transition from a rather pedestrian motion to musical flying! It is this unconscious, implicit knowledge of music (particularly of harmonic relations) which seemed so fascinating at this time, as it was knowledge which I express to myself in shapes and colours - a darker harmony, moving to a lighter shade - which was coming out, and so confidently too! It was a knowledge built through my appreciation of music, mainly, perhaps through listening to music, certainly through experiencing music; yet it seemed as if it was contained in my fingers too, some mechanical piano-playing actions were associated with this knowledge, along with physical gestures associated with harmonic movements and modulations.

Alas! I felt at this time that the door had opened on an effortless future, in which, through a bit of judicious cueing, I could emerge as an expert improviser! Instead, after many more trials using the same change of focus, I realised that what I had stumbled on was more of a 'tool' or technique for achieving a certain style of improvisation. These tools are kind of collectable items which form part of the toolkit of improvisation. However, there's no doubt that a large and significant door had opened - one in which I experienced a feeling of virtuosity or 'flying' for the first time. In this sensation the roles of the head and the hands were reversed, so that, instead of my usual slow hand movements responding to fast, intensive mental calculation, I now experienced fast and automatic hand movements in response to slow-paced and measured mental instruction. Each mental instruction cued, or released a section of improvisation, and my hands, like greyhounds, sped over the keys and executed many intricate sub-commands - these last were related to the initial cues, but required less focus or conscious intention to implement. 

This is the first blog concerning the role of attention in improvisation. It concerns a significant change in my own improvising as a result of consciously changing my focus of attention - in this case from the rules of harmonic progression and voice-leading, to purely rhythmic elements. I'm quite involved in this topic at the moment, so they'll be more!





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