Notes On Shifting Attentions: From Practicing To Performing

“A categorization is a natural way of identifying a kind of object or experience by highlighting certain properties, downplaying others, and hiding still others…To highlight certain properties is necessarily to downplay or hide others, which is what happens whenever we categorize something. Focusing on one set of properties shifts our attention away from others. When we give everyday descriptions, for example, we are using categorizations to focus on certain properties that fit our purposes.”

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (2008), p. 163

I notice a pattern to the way I intend to work, but then fail to do so. Here’s the scene:

I’ve set aside time to explore sounds, create new ones, or figure out some aspect or other of my software. One day it’s reverbs, the next day it’s percussion sounds, and so on. For a few minutes, I focus on the goal of the session. But then there’s an interruption: the moment I hear something interesting, I abort the session goal and start writing music with the sound, around the sound, or next the sound. In short, I move from practicing to performing.

Was the session’s goal really its goal? 

Until recently, I thought this switching from one mode of working to another was a problematic move because I was “losing focus” or “getting off the path” at the slightest hint of something more interesting. I kept “getting in my own way” and preventing myself from “getting something done.”

Notice the quotation marks around all of these cliché ways of thinking about attention. Framing the phrases this way helps us see that, depending on the context, it’s not necessarily counterproductive to lose focus/get off a path/get in one’s own way/prevent oneself from getting something done. Come to think of it, I’m deliberately counterproductive all the time!

In my production/composing work there’s a an optimal, yet never-quite-achieved dynamic balance between knowing my tools and knowing how to do something with these tools. I try to learn more, yet come up short. I intend to take my time, but then accelerate the work to capture a fluttering moment. I work fast, but then try to slow down to refine the moment I captured. The best way to describe this creative dynamic is as a continuous oscillation—like multiple strings ringing in uneven vibrations.  

The first lesson from this is that, while the dynamic balance between knowing and doing with partial knowing is not complicated, it takes experience to recognize when a perceptual shift is happening that’s taking us from practice to performing. One of the things that used to make me uncomfortable was the sense that I was unequipped to act on this shift in perception as it happened. I need time to figure it out. 

Well, actually, no you don’t—just use what you have. 

Depending on the context, I’ve recorded parts using the keypad on my laptop or the tiny keys on a small MIDI controller. Last week, for example, as I was playing a part on this controller I realized that its size limitations were forcing me into quick decisions about melody, because I was literally out of physical space (I had 2 octaves to work with). I couldn’t go where I wanted to go, so I had to slow down and linger on tones longer. It was analogous to the general feeling of this past year’s quarantine.     

A second lesson from shifting from practice to performance is that it can be helpful to have something to resist against. This something can be a plan, the idea of the straight and narrow, the prospect of the boring and diligent, the horizon of the careful and patient, and so on. In real life, I love the narrow/boring/careful, but in music not so much. If music is a kind of virtual modeling of life, then it’s a place where we might try out different ways of being. Instead of practicing more, why not just wing it?

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