Flow (Accessing Super-Creativity): Making Connections

Neurons

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow was enthusiastically taken up by musicians, sportsmen, businesswomen, creative types, indeed by anyone interested in learning, training and high-level performance. It’s that wonderful feeling when one is ‘in the zone’, simultaneously relaxed and concentrated, where one’s actions proceed effortlessly from a deep understanding of the situation. Whatever your particular application (arts, sports, business, creativity) Flow is the optimal state for efficient learning, effective training, and maximising one’s performance.

As part of my research (read more here) for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE, read more here), I’m investigating Flow in the context of various related disciplines. My approach is phenomenological, experiential, based on my personal experience and on observations reported to me by colleagues, teachers and students from their own individual experiences. My aim is to reach a deeper understanding of how Flow works on a pragmatic level, so that I can offer practical hints to anyone who wants to access Flow in their own activities.

In this Introduction, I will summarise the classic description of Flow according to Csikszentmihalyi, and set out various connections which I’ll explore one-by-one and in greater depth in later posts: Griffin’s Dream Theory, Ericksonian Hypnosis, Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice, Neuroplasticity & Myelination, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Feldenkrais Method, Positive Psychology, Historically Informed Performance.

Also in this post, I’ll identify one crucial element of Flow which has not so far received the attention it deserves. I’ll connect this to the background theory, and suggest why this might be the missing link between Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, and the high-level, elite performance skills that so many coaches and performers are searching for.   

Chain Missing Link Question

 

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI’S FLOW

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Steps towards enhancing the quality of life (New York 1990, on Google Books here), Csikszentmihalyi identifies various elements that characterise Flow. If you experience several of these (not necessarily all of them), you are probably experiencing Flow. These elements can be present in any activity – sport, music, creative writing, business negotiations, public speaking etc.

  • Challenge

The activity is challenging, but not impossible. You are pushing the limit of your skills, but you are nevertheless confident in your abilities.

Csikszentmihalyi developed and gradually refined a diagram relating challenge and skill, with the flow-zone in the area of high-challenge, high-skill.

Flow diagram transit of Venus

 

  • Merging of Awareness & Action

Your intense awareness of crucial aspects of the activity leads immediately and effortlessly  to your actions, perhaps without any intervening conscious decision-process. You notice the situation, and your actions flow from that awareness.

  • Absorbtion

Your awareness is so intense that you are fully absorbed in the activity. Incoming information entirely fills the “bandwidth” of your attention.

  • Goals / feedback

The activity has clear goals, and you receive clear feedback on your progress towards those goals.

  • Concentration

You are fully concentrated so that nothing distracts you from the activity. Your focus does not shift here and there. Your concentration does not flicker off and on again. Potential distractions (e.g. background noises) do not disturb your focus and concentration.

This maintaining of a narrow focus is subtly different from the intensity of concentration described above as Absorbtion.

  • Control

You have a sufficient sense of control. As with Challenge, the optimal level of control presumably balances the thrill of unpredictability against the stability of control.

  • Lack of self-consciousness

Whilst the activity is in process, you are not aware of yourself, you are not concerned with how others see you, you are fully immersed in the activity itself. Typically, there is a strong feeling of pleasure after the activity is completed.

Csikszentmihalyi gives the example of a mountain climber, for whom the activity itself is physically demanding and requires total concentration. When the climber reaches the summit, only then do the feelings of elation kick in.

  • Time Distortion

You may not be aware of the passage of time, whilst you continue the activity in Flow. Only afterwards do you notice how late it is, that you might be hungry, thirsty, or need sleep.

As the saying goes, time flies when you are having fun! I’ll return to this question of Time Distortion, which I consider to be highly significant.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

 

The Autotelic Personality

Csikszentmihalyi considers that having an Autotelic Personality makes it easier for one to enter Flow. Autotelic people (from the Greek words for Self and Purpose) are self-motivated, they can find a sense of purpose in doing an activity for it’s own sake. Here are Csikszentmihalyi’s characteristics of Autotelics, which he derives from the corresponding elements of Flow:

  • Taking charge of your own destiny

You believe that what you are doing makes a difference.

  • Outward focus

You are focussed on your activities, on the outside world, not introspecting about your own situation

  • Goal setting

You set goals and monitor your progress towards them.

  • Absorbed

You get absorbed by the activities you undertake

  • Ability to concentrate

You can maintain a sharp focus over time, without being distracted

  • Enjoyment

You enjoy the immediate experience of the activity at hand.

I would add these two further characteristics, corresponding to Challenge and Merging of Awareness & Action

  • Have a go!

You enjoy taking on (new) challenges

  • Go for it!

You don’t procrastinate.

 

Flow notes

JOE GRIFFIN’S THEORY OF DREAMS

My investigation into Learning, Training and Performance rests on the theoretical foundation of Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams and the REM state. In his later writings, together with Ivan Tyrrell, Griffin explores wide and deep implications of his theory, particularly in relation to mental health and creativity. (More here.)

The Expectation-Fulfilment Theory of Dreams offers a psychological, biological and evolutionary explanation that is consistent with neuroscientific data and has already led to measurable clinical success. It amounts to a new Organising Idea, a simple fundamental concept that underpins many observed complexities. In essence, Griffin claims that:
  •  Dreams are associated with the Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) state during sleep

 

  • The biological function of Dreams is to resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative), generated whilst awake

 

  • Dreams re-present unfulfilled expectations in Metaphors, so that they can be resolved by pattern-matching to recalled memories.

 

  • Some 40,000 years ago, humans evolved the ability to access the REM-state whilst awake: this facilitated learning, language, tool-making and higher culture.

Griffin’s metaphor for the REM-state is the Theatre of Dreams.

Waking access to the REM-state allows us to day-dream, to relive the past, to envision the future, to watch a play in the Theatre of Dreams.

In hypnosis, the hypnotist “hijacks” the theatre machinery, changing the scenery, producing special effects, sending on various characters, directing a play for you to watch (even to act in) within the Theatre of Dreams.

The Origin of Dreams

ERICKSONIAN HYPNOSIS

Milton H. Erickson is widely recognised as the founder of modern hypnotherapy. In contrast to the myth that hypnotism is ‘magic’; in contrast to the traditional view of the hypnotist as an authority figure who imposes his will on his client; in contrast to the cliche of watching as the hypnotist swings a pocket-watch and counts down from 10 to 1 whilst instructing you to sleep; in contrast to the Freudian concept of the unconscious as a dark cavern of negativity; in contrast to the caricature of the all-knowing therapist and the helpless client, the Milton method assumes:

  • Trance is a natural state that we all experience several times each day

 

  •  The hypnotist creates conditions in which the client can feel permitted and able to enter trance.

 

  • Different people enter trance in different ways and have different experiences within trance.

 

  • The unconscious mind can be a powerful and positive resource.

 

  • The client can be helped to access solutions from within their own unconscious resources.

 

One aspect of Ericksonian Hypnosis is that therapists don’t feel the need to rush through their Pre-Talk and Induction, in order to get the client into trance and ‘start doing something useful’. Rather, the Pre-Talk is seen as an essential and highly significant part of the therapeutic intervention, and there may be no formal Induction as such.

In the Ericksonian view, hypnosis is at work in many everyday situations, including conventional (supposedly non-hypnotic) talking therapies, and teaching/learning. I would also add the performer/audience interaction to this list.

Erickson made a particular study of Time Distortion effects in Hypnosis, where the client’s subjective experience of time, under trance, was either much slower, or much faster, than real time. I will return to this subject, which I consider highly significant for Flow.

 

Erickson

Erickson at work. Notice the characteristic SOLER posture: S = Sit down with your client; O = Open, friendly posture; L = Lean forwards, be attentive; E = make Eye contact; R = Relax.

 

Accept & Utilise

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Erickson’s approach was his response to Client Resistance. Rather than struggling to overcome resistance or to ‘correct’ the client’s behaviour, his solution was to accept whatever the client presented, and utilise even the most difficult behaviour as part of the therapy. For example, when treating a delusional client who believed that he was Jesus Christ, Erickson’s approach was not to attack the delusion, but to accept it. “I understand that you have a background in carpentry, would you like to build some bookshelves for me?”. The occupational therapy of woodworking became a crucial component of a successful treatment.

There are many stories from Erickson’s cases, which have inspired succeeding generations of hypnotherapists. My favourite is one particularly difficult case, where Erickson himself was unable to find a successful angle from which to direct his therapeutic intervention. Finally, he put the client into trance, and progressed him into the future, to a time when his problem had been successfully treated. “How was it done?” Erickson asked. Having obtained the answer (under hypnosis, direct from the client’s unconscious), Erickson gave the instruction (by hypnotic suggestion of amnesia) for the client to forget about this exchange, and brought the client back to the present, and out of trance. He then began a successful line of treatment, from the angle that the client himself had described in trance.

For an easy-to-read practical introduction to Ericksonian Hypnosis, I recommend Bill O’Hanlon Guide to Tranceland (2009). Richard Nongard Speak Ericksonian (2014) draws on his rich experience as a stage and speed hypnotist, clinical therapist and religious minister, and introduces techniques of NLP (see below). Michael Yapko Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis (2012) is a thorough guide to essential theory and current practice, an excellently compiled textbook for serious students. Nash & Barnier (editors) The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis is for researchers.  

 

CPD

 

As part of my investigations, I have been studying the theory and training in the practice of Hypnosis. I am not qualified as a Hypnotherapist, but I am competent to use Hypnosis as part of my work on Flow, in consensual and informed interactions. This training also gives me a better understanding of how hypnosis is at work in many everyday (supposedly non-hypnotic) situations.

 

ALK TRA

ERICSSON’S DELIBERATE PRACTICE

Psychologist Anders Ericsson researches the cognitive structures that underpin high-level training and expert performance. His work shows the importance of sustained, intensely concentrated practice that challenges one’s current skill-levels, deliberately and precisely pushing the envelope, always just outside the comfort zone. As the title of one of his editions – Towards a General Theory of Expertise (Cambridge University Press, 1991) – suggests, although expert skills are specific to a particular domain, the processes underlying the acquisition of those skills are common across a wide range of applications: music, sports, chess, business negotiations etc.

Ericsson’s work has led to a reassessment of the nature of Talent. The modern consensus places much less emphasis on ‘natural giftedness’, even on helpful genetic traits (runners born with long limbs), recognising the importance of environmental factors (in particular, access to training opportunities) and the decisive factor of many, many hours of Deliberate Practice.

These ideas have been popularised and extended in a number of books linking elite performance in sports to effective training regimes on the Ericsson model: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (2008) presents the 10,000 rule (i.e. the need for about 10 years dedicated training to reach elite levels of performance); Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (2008) looks at the acquisition of high-level skills in two apparently unrelated areas, chess and martial arts; Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (2009) examines a biological mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of skills training; Matthew Syad’s Bounce (2011) discounts genetic factors, even useful physical attributes, in favour of Deliberate Practice.

Johan Harmenberg’s Epee 2.0 (2007) follows a similar line to Waitzkin in advocating a narrow focus during training – what Waitzkin calls ‘making smaller circles’. Harmenberg considers performance under intense stress, the ‘Olympic hit’: in such circumstances, even highly trained performers are sometimes unable to access their elite skills. Waitzkin also considers high-stress performance, and draws attention to Time Distortion – ‘slowing down time’ within a particular state of consciousness that he calls ‘the soft zone’.  I’ll return to these ideas below and in later posts.

NEUROPLASTICITY

My focus is phenomenological and practical – what is the experience of Flow, and how can we access it? Nevertheless, it’s inspiring and illuminating to examine the findings of Neuroscientists, as they try to understand the biological processes that support the expert skills we wish to learn, train and perform. The metaphor of treating your brain as you would a muscle – use it well, train it deliberately, and it will strengthen and grow – is apt.

Deliberate Practice (targeting precise skill elements, pushing the envelope) carried out in a state of Flow (optimal transfer of information between conscious and unconscious mind) builds new pathways, activates neural networks inside the brain. Think of this as installing new software into your computer.

After a couple of days of Deliberate Practice, your brain starts to grow, physically. You are growing new hardware, bolted-on so as to increase your capacity for the specific skills you are training. The results will show in two to three weeks.

On a similar time-scale (2 or 3 days for activation, 2 or 3 weeks for measurable results), training switches on or off certain genes, optimising your inherited DNA according to the demands your training makes. (This is one reason why identical twins, who share the same DNA, show differences in genetic activity: genes are switched on or off according to the experiences you have.)

Neurons

MYELINATION

If neurons are like wires, transmitting and processing signals through the brain, you can connect them up better, and even add new circuits, with Deliberate Practice. Practising a particular skill under challenging conditions (pushing the envelope) also wraps layers of Myelin around the particular neurons that are working hardest. Myelin is like the insulation around a wire, it stops the charge leaking out and makes transmission more efficient. The more Deliberate Practice you do, the more Myelin you can wrap. You get better, sharper, faster.

And of course, to stay in Flow, as you continue to train, you must continually raise the bar, up the Challenge. As you continue to push the envelope, you assemble more neurons, connect up more neuro-circuits, and wrap them all in Myelin. The skill becomes effortless, awareness and action merge, and you might well start to have some serious fun!

 

Myelin

 

POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

Csikszentmihlayi’s concept Flow is part of a general trend to move away from researching only pathological conditions, mental illness, psychological trauma, and investigate well-being, happiness, positive psychology. Performance Studies can also benefit from a positive approach, with Solution Oriented interventions, learning to acquire confidence and access Flow,  rather than wallowing in the pathology of Performance Anxiety.

Nevertheless, musicians and sportsmen know all too well the phenomenon of ‘choking’. Just when it matters the most, the stress of the moment is too much, and one loses access to all those hard-won elite skills. In bad cases, one loses even basic competence, and reverts to crude bungling. This is what happened to the Brazil football team in the last World Cup: after they had Flowed through all the heats, in the semi-final they failed to Flow, and were not so much beaten as annihilated by Germany, 7-1. Brazil choked.

 

Brazil world cup defeat

 

How can we learn to use the stress of a highly significant moment as a spur towards our finest, most Flowing performance, rather than being knocked out of Flow into hopeless incompetence? I’ll explore some ideas in future posts.

NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING

NLP takes many ideas from Ericksonian Hypnosis, especially the subtle use of language to influence modes of thought, and distills them into their most concentrated form. Although NLP has become associated with covert hypnotism and unfair manipulation, its powerful techniques can be used beneficially, for teaching and even for self-improvement.

 

As well as subtleties of language, NLP examines directions of gaze and other outward indications of inner processes. I am interested to explore how this link might be reversed, to use deliberately directed gaze to re-order modes of thought and unconscious processes. Some work has already been done in this area by Feldenkrais practitioners and researchers into Performance Anxiety.

 

FELDENKRAIS METHOD

Moshe Feldenkrais was a martial arts expert and engineer who developed a method for learning and teaching efficient, effortless use of the body. Although its aim is similar to that of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method teaches by different means. An ‘Awareness Through Movement’ class invites participants to notice subtle feedback from the body, as they carry out simple, undemanding movements in a relaxed environment. The use of non-habitual positions (e.g. crossing your legs with the other leg on top), or the introduction of a twist into a movement (direct your eyes to the right, turn your head to the left) produces a kind of alienation effect, sharpening one’s proprioception.

Classes include frequent moments of rest, not because the exercises are physically demanding (on the contrary, teachers repeatedly warn not to use too much effort), but in order to let the unconscious and conscious mind exchange and assimilate information. Many elements of Feldenkrais teaching look very familiar to the Ericksonian Hypnotist.

The results of Feldenkrais teaching can be amazing. The Method manages to link up conscious/unconscious learning, mind and body. A good session engages the participants in Flow, and the body Flows beautifully afterwards.

Feldenkrais Method

AREAS OF EXPERTISE

Csikszentmihalyi, Milton Erickson and Anders Ericsson all considered that their findings were valid across a wide-range of cases – music, arts, sports, business, any creative and challenging activity.

My experiential approach inevitably draws on my personal experience as an elite musician and teacher (part of my work as a Historical Informed Performer has included acquiring and teaching the related, but distinct techniques for different types of historical harp, Italian, Irish, Spanish, French etc, and the study of such related skills as directing, continuo, and baroque gesture); as a professionally qualified sailor (sailing is  favourite example of Csikszentmihalyi’s); as a novice fencer (modern epée and historical rapier) and as a keen student of the Feldenkrais Method.

I’m also consulting colleagues, teachers and students in each of these disciplines.

I hypothesise that certain aspects of Historically Informed Performance of music may be particularly suited for facilitating access into Flow.

QUESTIONS OF TIME 

Csikszentmihalyi considers Flow on the time-scale of an entire life-time’s search for happiness. But the Flow many of us are looking for is a transitory state, a temporary heightened consciousness that allows us to perform at our very best, just when it matters most.

Csikszentmihalyi characterises the Time Distortion of Flow as the perception that one has worked only for a short period, whilst in the real world, a long time has passed. This is a useful Time Distortion for training.

But in performance, we are looking for the other type of Time Distortion. The tennis ball comes flying over the net, but for the skilled player time seems to slow down: there is plenty of time to assess the incoming ball, position one’s body and the tennis racquet, and execute a perfect return that will severely challenge one’s opponent. In the Time Distortion of Performance, subjective time seems to slow down so that Awareness and Action can merge, effortlessly.

Erickson wrote about various Time Distortion effects under hypnosis, and about how this relates to the phenomenon of people responding to emergencies with cool, effective action: such people report a Time Distortion of Performance in which subjective time seems to slow down. Waitzkin links ‘slowing down time’ to the extreme stress of what Harmenberg calls ‘Olympic hits’, the most crucial, decisive moments.

swinging watch

 

TWO KINDS OF FLOW

 

Having proposed many connections, I’d like to conclude this introduction by suggesting a separation. I consider that there are actually two kinds of Flow, crucially distinguished by two types of Time Distortion. In Flow-T (ideal for training), the subjective impression is that a short time passed, whereas in the real world many hours went by. In Flow-P (ideal for performance), the subjective impression is that time slows down, so that one can effortlessly observe the situation and merge that awareness into action at elite skill-levels.

The two types are distinct but related. I hypothesise that long-term use of Flow-T can prepare the way for short-term access to Flow-P.

 

In the fluid mechanical phenomenon known as a Hydraulic Jump, a narrow zone of intense Flow contrasts with an extended region with different Flow characteristics.

In the fluid-mechanical phenomenon known as a Hydraulic Jump, a narrow zone of intense Flow contrasts with an extended region with slower Flow characteristics.

 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Flow connections

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Flow 2014 – The Cambridge Talks

Cambridge bridge of sighs

Csikszentmihalyi defined Flow, being ‘in the zone’, that ‘Zen feeling’, you’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated, quietly confident, feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge in front of you. [Read ALK’s introduction to Flow, Accessing Super-Creativity: May the Flow be with you!  here.]

This posting summarises and comments on papers and discussions related to Flow at the recent CMPCP conference at Cambridge University. [More about the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice here.]

SELF-REGULATED PRACTICE PROCEDURES AND FLOW STATES

Marcus Araújó, who investigates Performance Studies and Psychology of Music & Education at the Department of Communication and Art at the University of Aveiro, is interested in Flow, the cognitive processes underlying performance and practice of music, musical expertise, and expert musicians’ preparation for performance.

Abstract

The aim of his study is to explore self-regulatory practice behaviours and Flow in highly-skilled musicians. A sample of 212 musicians answered a developed questionnaire about practice behaviours and Flow state. Results show that the skilled musicians were highly self-regulated. Most of the Flow characteristics were experienced whilst practising, but ‘action-awareness merging’ and ‘sense of control’ were less reported. Self-regulated behaviours, ‘metacognitive awareness’ and ‘self-efficacy’ were correlated with Flow dimensions, suggesting that these may contribute to the Flow experience whilst practising. ‘Goal setting’ negatively correlated with the ‘action-awareness merging’ dimension of Flow. No positive associations were found between the ‘action-awareness merging’ dimension and any or the self-regulated behaviours.

ALK summary 

Marcus is looking at the relationship between Flow and efficient practising. In particular, he has devised a questionnaire to measure various aspects of musicians’ experience. He has taken well-agreed indicators of Flow (from Csikszentmihalyi  and others):

  • a good balance between challenge/skills
  • clear goals
  • clear feedback
  • intense concentration
  • loss of self-consciousness
  • merging of action and awareness
  • sense of control and agency
  • losing track of the passing of time
  • a sense of deep satisfaction

Flow improves creativity and combats performance anxiety. But there is a lack of research on positive experiences whilst practising. This is why Marcus is looking at positive experiences, and at experiences during practising (as opposed to performance).

The experience of the ‘Merging of action and awareness’ is the Flow-indicator that is most beneficial for musicians.

Self-regulation and the optimal use of one’s own personal resources is the key to finding Flow and practising efficiently.

Marcus’ results show a negative correlation between Practice Organisation and Merging. Practice Organisation may inhibit Flow.

ALK comments

Marcus’ advance title was more ambitious “Entering into Flow-state through self-regulated behaviour: an explanatory study”. This is of course what we are all looking for, reliable ways to enter Flow  that we can use for ourselves, that don’t require the presence of a teacher. I can understand that with his revised title, Marcus wanted to avoid claiming more than he could deliver, but his study is already on a good path towards identifying possible gateways into Flow. And he has also noticed along the way some potential blocks to be avoided.  

The particular importance of Marcus’ work is that he is measuring experience. It is very useful to have data on, as well as descriptions of, Flow. Of course, there are limitations inherent in his methodology. Participants are reporting their own experiences, after the practice-session is over. There might perhaps be a tendency for self-reporting to be over-optimistic, but the strength of Marcus’ questionnaire is that it asks about many different aspects of experience. We don’t have to make any judgement about how successful or not these musicians were at entering Flow, rather (as Marcus has done) we can examine correlations between those different elements.

There might well be differences between how a practice-session feels whilst it is going on, and how one feels about it just afterwards – obviously, questionnaires cannot give real-time data on the on-going experience. Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi has already shown that the satisfaction associated with Flow is not felt during the process (which may require hard work,    Csikszentmihalyi  gives the example of rock-climbers making a difficult ascent), but afterwards, when one looks back on the completed task. And it seems to me that, since Flow is associated with an absence of self-consciousness, real-time testing carries a strong risk of Observer Effect (the process of measuring will change the activity that is being measured), even of disrupting Flow entirely. It is very difficult to devise real-time testing that would be ‘invisible’ to the participant.

Marcus is measuring subjective experience. This positions him somewhere in-between those of us who are investigating experience qualitatively (i.e. phenomenology) , and the ‘hard science’ approach of measuring objective variables. Such an in-between position might be particularly advantageous for establishing connections between subjective experience and more objective measurements from neuroscience and other disciplines.

Questionnaires are low-tech, low-budget and easy to administer. Collating the data is also straightforward. These are all significant advantages.

For all these reasons, I think Marcus’ approach has much to commend it. Other studies are producing descriptive material, but lack measured data. It would be very useful if other researchers could take up Marcus’ questionnaire and apply it to their own studies, so that large data-sets could be built up for comparative studies and meta-analysis.

From his data, Marcus pulls out some interesting ideas. I agree that the Merging of Action and Awareness is a key benefit of being in Flow, not only for musicians but also for sportsmen. It’s not the only such benefit, and in a future posting I will argue that it is not the most important one for elite performance. However, Marcus is looking at practising, and my next post will present my hypothesis that performance-Flow and practice-Flow are significantly different.

Marcus observed that goal-setting and practice organisation correlated negatively with Flow.  Can this be explained as conscious, Left-Brain processes interfering with subconscious Right-Brain Flow?  Or does referring back (during the practice session) to goals and practice-plans (established before the session started) disrupt the focus on the present moment, the Mindfulness that is needed for Flow? These are important questions, because Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice suggests that conscious organisation of practice-sessions is highly beneficial. How can we organise practice efficiently without disrupting Flow?

My own investigation examines Flow within the Griffin model of the REM-state, and in connection with Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice and Ericksonian Hypnosis. [Read more here] Learning (in lessons or in self-regulated practising) is regarded as a Post-Hypnotic process, guided by Suggestions which can come from the teacher or from one’s own self-regulation. In a future posting, I’ll discuss how established knowledge from Hypnosis might contribute to our understanding of gateways into Flow and of how to manage blocks that prevent or disrupt Flow. Marcus observes that Self-Regulation is a key factor: I will propose that Self-Hypnosis could be a highly effective gateway into Flow.

 

Cambridge river flowing

 THE ABILITY OF REAL-TIME NAVIGATION IN THE MUSICAL FLOW: THEORY AND PEDAGOGY

László Stachó is a musicologist, psychologist and musician working as senior lecturer at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest ad at the University of Szeged. He is a CMPCP Visiting Fellow. His research focuses on Bartok analysis, 20th-century performance practice, emotional communication in musical performance and enhancement of attention skills involved in music performance.

Abstract

Laszlo argues that a true sign of musical giftedness is the ability to uncover meanings from musical materials – grounded in feelings – and to position into them in the act of performing with full concentration. Full concentration is fostered through the ability to navigate cognitively in the musical Flow, i.e. the ability to ‘be’ in  (i.e. to position into) the future, in the past and in the present – phenomenologically very often at the same moment.

In a forthcoming book, he presents the outline of a new, detailed pedagogical methodology for enhancing in musicians (regardless of their instrument and including singers) the ability of real-time navigating in the musical Flow, including the sub-abilities to imagine the upcoming structural units (i.e. to estimate by feeling their durations through forming a mental image of them), to form a clear mental image of the past musical units to which the upcoming ones are to be measured, and to feel deeply the present moment.

ALK summary 

Laszlo contrasted two viewpoints: technical, logical, looking for the end-result and content-centred, emotional,  focussed on the on-going process. In Music, these viewpoints can be contrasted as  Mathesis (i.e. science/learning/mathematics) versus Emotions. Today’s conservatoire methodologies are strongly rooted in 19th-century attitudes to technique. However, Emotion and Mathesis need not be mutually exclusive.

What is missing in theories of musical ability is the consideration of Affekt, and Time. What is missing in pedagogy is teaching how or what to feel, teaching how music happens in real time (as opposed to detached analysis).

Laszlo showed videos of master-classes with elite performer-teachers. Teaching how to play Chopin in 1961, Alfred Cortot said that the performers interpretation “should be transposed to the plan of a kind of intimate reverie”. “You need to dream the piece, not play”. Flow is compared to dreaming.  In another master-class, Maria Peres said “We have to believe that miracles can happen, and then they happen more and more often”.

Lazlo argues that imagery is strongly connected to feeling. Mindfulness is also important: Laszlo sees it as a short-term phenomenon, linked to particularly significant musical moments.

Laszlo drew attention to the performer-teacher’s Gaze. A certain characteristic direction and focus of the eyes reveals the cognitive process of reflection.

Another video showed high-tech analysis of Gaze, contrasting two footballers, an elite international (Ronaldo, popularly dubbed “the phenomenon”, and considered by experts and fans to be one of the greatest football players of all time) and a competent amateur. Analysis showed Ronaldo’s very precise direction of his eyes, switching very rapidly and precisely from the ball to opponent’s feet, hips (for predicting the opponent’s next movement), looking for empty space to move into.

For musicians, Laszlo recommends that the mental image should appear in your mind just before you play. This ability is a core ability, appearing in sports as well.

Three skills must be operated simultaneously:

  • Goal setting – being in the future
  • Mindfulness – being in the present
  • Reflection – being in the past

The quality of performance depends on thoughts and feelings in your mind during performance.

Real-time navigation of musical flow requires learning “how to let go”. We learn this by visualisation exercises involving imagined movement (e.g. the trajectory of a thrown ball).

ALK comments

This was a fascinating paper, even if Laszlo’s detailed methodology for entering into Flow was not presented here. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming book (in Hungarian!).

It could be very productive for Laszlo and Marcus to collaborate, since Laszlo has methods for helping musicians enter Flow, and Marcus can measure the experience they have as a result.

Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice argues against the idea of inherited talent. I would re-phrase Laszlo’s opening claim to avoid the notion of “giftedness” and re-prioritise for the audience rather than for the performer: a true sign of musical success is the ability to reveal meanings to the audience. The performer must extract those meanings from musical materials – grounded in feelings – concentrate on them fully during the act of performing.

Laszlo is grappling with a difficult but vital concept as he tries to help performers ‘be in’ the Past, Present and Future, all at once. Perhaps this happens in different ways on different time-scales. As we speak (whether formally or in casual conversation) we are able to link the words we just said, the word we are pronouncing now, and the words that will follow immediately afterwards, in order to create a sentence. Whilst we remain more-or-less aware of our previous sentences, and of the sentence we are saying now, we might or might not have a conscious intention concerning the next sentence. Only an experienced speaker can maintain a coherent structure for an entire speech or lecture, navigating sentence by sentence through the current paragraph, whilst keeping in mind what was said in previous paragraphs and what must be said in subsequent paragraphs. Most people would memorise or write down some kind of plan (an outline, or an entire script) for such a speech. All of these examples are shorter-term than and different from Laszlo’s triad of Goal Setting, Mindfulness, and Reflection.

In Early Music, we can side-step these complications by equating Music with Rhetorical Speech. Past-Present-Future relationships in Music can then be linked to similar progressions through Time in prose or poetry (as I just did, above). I’m strongly convinced that such a Metaphorical understanding of the Past-Present-Future relationships is more useful in the practical situation than abstract theorising. Other Metaphors are also valid (walking, dancing, visual imagery) and indeed Laszlo recommends visual imaging as a practical way to manage Past-Present-Future awareness.

In Early Music, we can think about Passions (affetti) that change across measured Time. Time is measured with a slower beat (Tactus, read more here), affetti change more frequently, than in later music.  This results in a different experience of passions/time, that may be more effective in facilitating Flow. My own research into Enargeia links changing affetti to the emotional power of detailed visual imagery. (More about Enargeia: Visions in Performance here).  Positive imaging is frequently used in sports training and in Hypnotherapy.

Early Musicians are very aware of the bias of Conservatoires towards 19th-century models of performance and pedagogy. One aspect of this bias is the conventional divide between Technique and Interpretation. Historically Informed Performance (HIP) does not accept this binary, but follows earlier models in which technical means are more closely interconnected with musical ends (e.g. keyboard fingering and phrasing). Nevertheless, the most recent research relates HIP to Emotions Studies, so that performance, passion and the audience’s perception are also all interconnected. [Read more about How did it feel? here.]

I suggest that Laszlo is seeing from his pedagogical and Flow-oriented viewpoint similar limitations of the standard Conservatoire approach that we see also from the HIP viewpoint. Certainly most Conservatoires are uncertain how to teach Emotions in music, whether in standard repertoire or in HIP. There are programs that address the problem of performance anxiety, but (as Marcus observed in the context of practising) there is less teaching of precisely how to work positively with emotions.

Laszlo’s plea for a holistic approach that unifies interpretation, technique, and emotions should be heeded. This is the same triad that we see in the historical concept of Music as Musica Mondana (the Music of the Spheres, that Otherworld of magic, myth and mystery that makes a musical interpretation deeply meaningful, somehow spiritual), Musica Humana (the harmonious nature of humanity, unifying body, mind, spirit and emotions) and Musica Instrumentalis (actual music, i.e. techique, whether instrumental or vocal).

My first reaction to the videos of master-classes was to remind myself that a master-class is a very asymmetric situation, in which everything favours the teacher. The student is not only processing new information & new instructions, and changing their whole performance, but they are doing all this in full view of the audience. It is highly likely that the student will not be in Flow. At worst, a master-class can become a vehicle for the teacher to demonstrate their own superiority, their own Flow, at the expense of the student. But these problems for the student in a master-class are advantages for the researcher studying Flow, since we can expect to observe crucial differences between the master in Flow and the student not in Flow.

Cortot’s idea of a performance with Flow as similar to dreaming relates to the theoretical underpinning of my own research into Flow within Joe Griffin’s theory of Dreams. (more about Griffin’s theory, such stuff as Dreams are made on: Representing Emotions in Metaphor here).

As soon as I saw Cortot’s face, with the characteristic Gaze to which Laszlo drew attention, I recognised a look that can be found in many historical paintings of musicians. The eyes are directed forwards, upwards and into the remote distance.

Zampieri eyes

This Gaze is associated in Neuro-Linguistic Programming with inner focus (accessing visual memory or invented imagery). In Hypnosis this eye movement is part of a standard test, and is considered to be a reliable sole indicator of a hypnotic trance. In Historical Action, it is associated with the hand gestures for Awe or Wonder: the complete set of Awe/Wonder indicators are seen in many religious paintings (saints receiving visions, calling forth or witnessing a miracle).

 

 

Admiror

In 2013, I made a case-study of John Bulwer’s 17th-century gesture of awe-struck worship for performances of the earliest surviving Spanish Oratorio, which tells the Christmas story of the Shepherds witnessing the appearance of the Angel and worshipping the Christ-child in the Bethlehem stable. Another, highly detailed case-study of medieval Awe by Javier Diaz-Vera of the University of Castille La Mancha was reported at the recent CHE conference on “Languages of Emotion”. I observed a startling strong connection between this Gaze and Flow in a class at Scoil na gCláirseach, the summer school of the Historical Harp Society of Ireland, in August 2014.

The Feldenkrais Method advises re-setting ones habitual Gaze by placing the head lower, and lifting the eyes. This releases neck vertebrae, with beneficial effects for wellbeing, confidence and voice-production. Similar adjustments are recommended in Alexander Technique.  I am experimenting with Gaze and Self-Hypnosis in my own investigations of Flow.

Gaze and historical performance are related in the study of Enargeia and baroque gesture – you point at what you see, which can be far off in the distance, within your imagined vision of the words you are singing. 17th-century texts frequently evoke distant mountains or the heavens.

Laszlo identifies Gaze as an indicator of Flow. I hypothesise that control of Gaze can facilitate access into Flow. In discussions at Cambridge, some delegates were concerned that such a Gaze might just be created deliberately: I don’t think this is a problem. “Fake it till you make it” applies – imitating the outward appearance of the Flow-Gaze can be expected to produce the genuine Flow-state within.

Peres’ comment “We have to believe that miracles can happen, and then they happen more and more often” can be appreciated in the context of Hypnotic Suggestion for confidence, suggesting that the ‘miracle’ of Flow happens more frequently as one gains confidence in it. The comment also makes sense in the context of Deliberate Practice: the harder you practice, the luckier you get. Flow can lift you to the very peak of your ability, but it cannot create abilities you do not have.

The Gaze analysis of footballers supports a finding in Matthew Syed’s Bounce [here] that elite sports performance is not necessarily associated with fast physical reactions, but rather with very fast subconscious processing of information coming in from visual observation. That visual observation is facilitated by rapid, accurate, but subconsciously directed eye movements. All this fits perfectly within the Griffin model of dreaming and the REM-state (Rapid Eye Movement). Eye Movement is another route into hypnotic trance (see Richard Nongard’s “butterfly” rapid induction here). I hypothesise that REM is not only an indicator of Flow in elite performance, but could be a gateway into such Flow 

Laszlo talks about “letting go” in order to enter the Flow-state for performance. I think this is a crucial building block for a better understanding of how Flow differs between training/practice and performance. At Scoil 2014 I deliberately asked students to ‘change gear’, to ‘let go’ as they transitioned from establishing technical skills with detailed slow practice into full-speed trials of the new skill. I combined this with deliberate re-direction of Gaze, in order to enter a particular Flow-state for the full-speed trial. I used the imagery of a young bird learning to fly: flap the wings slowly, learn how they work; then jump off and fly. In this context, Yoda’s advice also holds good:

Yoda do or do not

Conscious doubt of whether or not one can succeed is a strong inhibitor of the subconscious Flow needed for that success.

I like Laszlo’s formulation that “The quality of performance depends on thoughts and feelings in your mind during performance.” When I was a student at the London Early Music Centre, tenor Edgar Fleet taught me that “Early Music is transparent. The audience can see through to what you are thinking about. If you are thinking about fish-and-chips, that’s what they’ll get. If you are thinking of something more meaningful, they’ll get that instead”. If we think about technique, audiences may appreciate our skill, but their passions will not be moved.

As Laszlo said in his opening remarks, we need to focus on Content and Meaning. I would add that such focus does not ‘distract us from our technique’, rather it helps us ‘let go’, and enter Flow. Let your subconscious handle technique, give your conscious mind something more interesting to think about, communicate better with your audience and also enter Flow. Win-win-win-win!

In private conversations, conference delegates reported to me that Laszlo’s coaching musicians to enter Flow has wonderful effects. I’m sure this is true, and I’m looking forward to reading his book (yep, it’s time to study Hungarian!) And what is the significance of Hungary’s position as a world-leader in pedagogy for Music (Kodaly method) and Fencing?

Other conversations dwelt on Laszlo’s personal conviction that discussion of Flow should include the language of magic. This was resisted by scientifically-minded delegates at the Cambridge conference, and it might not play well for Laszlo in academia generally. But here are my reasons for supporting Laszlo’s position. Flow is not a modern phenomenon, even though it has been named only recently. Our ancestors, right back to the first cave-painters experienced Flow, even if they did not name or analyse what they were experiencing. [More on the REM-state and evolution here] Flow and Hypnotism are clearly related to ancient traditions of folk-magic and shamanism.

Meanwhile, modern practitioners of Hypnosis recognise that different clients require different types of language. The word ‘sleep’ is used less today in Clinical Hypnosis, though it is still highly effective in Rapid Inductions. ‘Hypnosis’ or ‘Trance’ can be used with clients who are confident and comfortable with the idea of being hypnotised. For other clients, it’s better to invite them to a ‘resource state’ or ‘your own special state’. When I work with students on Flow, I take my cue from Ericksonian Hypnosis and adapt my vocabulary to match the student’s preferred language.  For an Early Music fan, I’ll talk about musica mondana and musica humana; for a new-age enthusiast, I’ll rephrase this in terms of Cosmic Harmony. For the nerd (yes, there are some Early Music nerds!), the Star Wars ‘Force’ may be the best metaphor. The Celtic Otherworld or Shamanism could be very powerful metaphors for someone who responds to such imagery. For someone with a science background, the metaphor of a computer, with its memory banks, operating system, keyboard inputs and background functions can be helpful.

From an Ericksonian perspective, it is the client/student, not the therapist/teacher, who chooses the vocabulary. From a historical perspective, ancient beliefs in music and magic are indeed related to the modern experience of music and Flow.  From my own, practical point of view, I’d recommend widening the vocabulary as much as possible, so as to offer Flow to students from all kinds of backgrounds. “Accept and utilise” is the Ericksonian mantra.

Thinking of the Historical priority that privileges the audience over the performer (in contrast to the 19th-century glorification of the ‘artistic genius’ and ‘expressive performer’), I raised the question at the Cambridge conference: is there any correlation between the Performer being in Flow, and audience members having a Strong Experience (shivers down your spine, the tingle factor, those powerfully emotional reactions to music)? The research project I’ve now begun on The Theatre of Dreams: Operatic Performance as an Early-Modern REM-state Activator assumes that around the year 1600 there was such a correlation, and draws on Ericksonian Hypnotism as an explanation. [More here]

 

Cambridge Mathematicians Bridge

WHAT COULD BE UNIVERSAL ABOUT MUSICAL IMPROVISATION? SITUATING THE COGNITIVE APPROACH

Andrew Goldman is a PhD student at the Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge. In addition to his scholarly research, he is a pianist and composer. Recently, his musical entitled Science! The Musical was premiered in Cambridge.

Abstract

Andrew Goldman reviewed trends in ethnomusicological and critical research on improvisation, showing how they challenge cognitive-scientific approaches and also how they share certain motivations (such as exploring performers’ creative processes). With specific reference to his own experimental research paradigms working with jazz musicians, he shows how such sensitivity can be an important check on the universalising tendency of scientific theorising, but also a way to demonstrate the broader validity of such scientific theories. This is accomplished through exploring modes of performance in terms of cognitive-scientific theoretical frameworks – such as motor theories of perception – in order to expand the explanatory scope of scientific conclusions beyond a particular musical tradition.

ALK summary

Andrew Goldman showed how daunting a task the serious, cognitive-scientific researcher faces, in attempting to establish solid,  reliable data for such richly complex activities as music-making and improvisation. His carefully designed and executed experiment established that time-delayed Feedback disrupted the performance of jazz pianists significantly more when they were improvising. From this, we can deduce that improvising (whatever that means: for this experiment the pianists were just instructed to improvise, and the results were accepted) is indeed different, and that the difference is somehow related to Feedback and to Time.

ALK comments

I admired this paper precisely because Andrew G’s conclusion was so carefully limited, precise in what it did not attempt to claim. Painstaking and sustained effort was needed to reach even this modest conclusion. This encourages great respect for those who are investigating complex phenomenon within the ‘hard’ scientific disciplines. We do need this check and balance on the tendency to universalise individual experience to general theory. Even if we can discover more, more quickly, through an experiential, phenomenological approach, we must constantly test the assumption that such experiences have any more general significance. A rounded view of complex phenomenon is likely to come about from a multi-disciplinary combination of various approaches, both “hard” and “soft”. [Andrew G tells me that he doesn’t like these labels, but I use them as a convenient shorthand, and with proper respect for both sides].

This paper was not about Flow. But I was interested in the topic of Improvisation anyway. I improvise a lot (in HIP styles) in performance; I direct The Harp Consort, an ensemble renowned for its HIP-improvisation; I’m a teacher of HIP-improvisation and I’m personally convinced that Improvisation is a valuable skill for any musician. Andrew Goldman gives us solid evidence that “improvising” [whatever that means] is “different”.

I suspect that scientific investigation of precisely how Improvisation is “different” will run into similar difficulties as scientific investigation of  Hypnosis, which has a much longer history. Neuroscientific observations of Hypnosis identify the characteristics of the activity happening (hallucinated or suggested under Hypnosis, or actually happening in a normal conscious state) rather than particular characteristics of Hypnosis itself. I suspect we will find the same is true for Flow. But in the face of this serious difficulty, Andrew G has established one clear difference, relating Improvisation [whatever that means] to Feedback. And we know from Csikszentmihalyi that Feedback is related to Flow. I have hypothesised that Improvisation may be related to Flow, and that Improvisation may be a gateway into Flow.

One possible explanation could be that Improvisation requires an Altered State of Consciousness, an inner focus that facilitates the calling up of material either from the memory, or from the imagination, or from the imaginative re-combination of memorised and imagined fragments. In ensemble improvisation, this inner focus must be combined with the processing of external information, the material improvised by other musicians. In any improvisation, this inner focus must be combined with the processing of the sound of the music one is creating, i.e. with Feedback. Improvising may self-induce a trance. In trance states, Suggestions can have particularly powerful effect. When improvising, it is the sound of this note that Suggests what note might follow. If that Feedback/Suggestion process is disrupted, the effect would be stronger in trance than in normal consciousness.

In one way, that explanation of mine is useless. It replaces one word we can’t define, Improvisation, with another word we can’t define, Hypnosis. In spite of all the years of investigation, there is still no accepted definition of Hypnosis, and no accepted scientific indicator of trance. Just as with Flow, there is a list of typical indicators: if someone experiences enough of these indicators, they are probably in that state. But the benefit of linking Improvisation, Flow and Hypnosis (no doubt there are distinctions to be made, alongside those links) would be that we could take the knowledge of Hypnosis acquired through many decades of practical investigation and scientific study, and quickly apply that knowledge (mutatis  mutandis) to Flow and/or Improvisation.  

Certainly, we should not be ashamed that we don’t really know what Improvisation or Flow is, in the strict scientific sense. In that sense, we don’t yet know what Hypnosis is, but we do know that it works, and that in certain circumstances, it can work magic, wreak miracles. An phenomenological approach might open up ways to extend good experiences of Hypnosis, Improvisation and Flow to the benefit of more people, more often. A ‘hard’ scientific approach can provide necessary balance by searching out chinks in the links, establishing how these related phenomena differ from each other. Ericksonian Hypnosis emphasises how one person’s experience can differ from another’s, and searches for ways to accept and utilise those differences. Can hard science establish what is universal, beyond such individual differences?

water drops

In the meantime, my own experiential investigations into the phenomenology of Flow and the Theatre of Dreams continue. More posts on these subjects soon. In particular, I will propose that Time Distortion effects (much studied in Hypnosis) are crucial to the understanding of two different kinds of Flow, in practice and in performance.

May the FLOW be with you

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Accessing Super-Creativity: May the FLOW be with you!

 

May the FLOW be with you

Many musicians, sportsmen and women, creative writers and composers know the special state of consciousness described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as Flow. It’s being ‘in the zone’, that ‘Zen feeling’. It’s related to Mindfulness. You’re relaxed, but wonderfully concentrated on the task at hand; you feel quietly confident that you can manage it, you feel calmly exhilarated at the challenge it presents to you; you don’t feel self-conscious, you are just ‘there’, in the moment, in the groove; somehow, Time seems to slow down, so that you can effortlessly take in all the incoming information, calmly make an elegant decision, and execute your response perfectly; your artistic intentions and your physical actions unite perfectly; you are working at high efficiency, but you could continue for hours without getting tired; you feel happy, even elated, yet somehow also calm.

Flow notes

It’s a great feeling, and it is the ability to find Flow just when it matters most that makes the crucial difference between an elite performer, musician, martial arts practitioner or sportsman, and one who is merely average. But when Flow is blocked by performance anxiety, ‘stage-fright’ for actors or musicians, ‘choking’ for sportsmen, the effect can be devastating. Under the blocking conditions of high pressure and no Flow, elite performers find themselves unable to carry out basic techniques, experienced airline pilots make elementary, disastrous errors; international sportsmen’s competence plunges to rock-bottom. Just think of the Brazil football team in the World Cup semifinal: something happened to disrupt the Flow of their previous performances, and they crashed into incompetence and embarrassing defeat.

Brazil world cup defeat

But Flow is not only for elite perfomers. Accessing Flow can lift any of us beyond the limits of our normal abilities, so that we perform at our very best, ‘better than we know’. Flow is the ideal state not only for high performance, but also for the most effective learning. Flow seems to access something beyond the ‘here and now’, and may also be communicable between members of a team, between performers and audience. Perhaps the Star Wars metaphor of a mysterious Force uniting us all is not so far-fetched.

Access Flow you can

I suggest that in many disciplines we could teach Flow from the very first lessons, allowing students to make faster, deeper and more satisfying progress. Not just (for classical musicians) Technique and Interpretation or (for sportsmen) techniques and tactics, but (for anyone) how to get into Flow at whatever level of technical competence and interpretative insight.

Cellist

There is exciting work already in progress about teaching Flow to musicians, some of which was discussed in a flurry of papers at the recent CMPCP conference at Cambridge Univeristy. Lazlo Stacho (Liszt Academy, Budapest) is developing exercises to help classical musicians enter Flow. Marcus Araujo (University of Aveiro) is measuring whether or not musicians are indeed experiencing Flow, according to criteria based on Csikszentmihalyi’s work. In a properly cautious initial study, Andrew Goldman (Centre for Music & Science, Cambridge) has established measurable differences in cognitive processes when musicians are instructed to ‘improvise’.  Henrice Vonk is looking at Flow and Mindfulness.  I’ll summarise and comment on these CMPCP papers in a future post.

Zampieri eyes

 Elsewhere, Frank Heckman is working with Flow with both elite sportsmen and music students in the Netherlands. In Bremen, violinist and psychotherapist Andreas Burzik works on Flow for orchestral musicians, drawing parallels for businessmen. I’ll comment on Burzik’s approach in another future post.

Accessing Super-Creativity

My own research for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions investigates Flow as an Altered State of Consciousness, within Joe Griffin’s model of the REM-state. Read more about Griffin’s Dream Theory here.

 

My aim is to build on existing work, and on my own personal experience of Flow as an elite performer (music), competent practitioner (sailing, a favourite example of Czikszentmihalyi’s) and elementary student (fencing), in order to develop exercises, teaching techniques, training conditions and rehearsal methodologies that facilitate entry into Flow.

My approach is therefore experiential, phenomenological and practical. Ethical considerations dictate that my first experiments are personal: observing, tweaking and testing my own experiences of Flow. When I’m teaching Flow to students, concern for their progress must outweigh the demands of pure research. My practical purpose is to help them access Flow. I can observe and monitor their work, and/or ask them to self-report on their personal experience, only in so far as this does not negatively impact their learning.

How far might that be? Lack of (negative) self-consciousness is one of the characteristics of the Flow state. This should serve to warn us that awareness of being observed will tend to work against Flow. We should expect to find the Observer Effect (familiar from quantum physics) at work: attempts to observe and measure sensitive processes will certainly effect the process itself, and that effect will probably be negative. In the worst case, trying to observe Flow (perhaps with an elementary student), might disrupt the Flow state we are trying to access and observe.

Schrodingers Cat

Neuroscience offers some fascinating data, and some understandings that can be applied to this search for Flow. But in the search for descriptions, explanations and recommendations that can be meaningful for students, metaphors and physical processes are likely to be more useful than neuroscience. It is more effective to ask a student to “focus inward” (a metaphor) or to “notice whether you have more weight on the right foot, or on the left” (directing attention to a physical process), than to “de-activate the anterior cingulate”, even if all three instructions are in some way equivalent, associated with switching conscious awareness away from externals.

cingulate

Another difficulty with a ‘hard science’ approach is that playing music, let alone finding Flow whilst playing music, is a complex activity full of rich detail. Reducing the experience to one variable may not be possible, or may be so distorting that any observations are invalid. It must be assumed that the music, one’s emotions and Flow itself will be affected by the intrusion of measuring equipment and the implied presence of an Observer.

Observer Effect

Looking for pathways into Flow, we first need to explore the territory, see the forest not the trees. Putting individual leaves under the microscope can come later, when we have learnt by experience and practice how to navigate the zone confidently.

A good parallel might be the scientific investigation of Hypnosis in the last half-century, where the phenomenological approach has led the way. Clinicians have discovered what works – experientially and practically – for them and for their clients, blazing a trail along which empirical verification and neuroscientific measurement can follow. Indeed the experience of Flow seems to have much in common with (self) hypnosis, and this will be one of the main lines of my enquiry.

Accessing Super-Creativity

My idea is to unite Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow with Ericksonian Hypnosis and Ericsson’s concept of Deliberate Practice (the importance of many hours of effective practice, rather than innate talent, in creating elite performance), all within the framework of Griffin’s work on the REM-state. I am confident that this will offer a better understanding of the experience of Flow, improved success in accessing Flow, and greater efficacy in practice and performance. Watch out for more posts on Flow, soon.

Locking Attention

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

“such stuff as Dreams are made on”: Representing Emotions in Metaphors

Griffin Harp

A groundbreaking new theory that puts dreaming at the heart of our emotional well-being…

 

Why do we dream? What do dreams mean? Why is the content of our dreams so very often bizarre? Why do our dreams seem so intense and significant when we experience them, and yet are usually forgotten afterwards?

How do dreams connect with emotions? What is the link between learning and dreaming? Why does everyone love a good story?

In what has been described as

One of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the last hundred years

Dr Farouk Okhai (consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at the Milton Keynes Primary Care NHS Trust)

Joe Griffin discovered how and why dreaming evolved in mammals and helped unravel what dreams actually mean. Thanks to Griffin’s work, we now know what dreams are doing for us: they keep us sane, or, in certain circumstances, can drive us mad. The explanation turns out to be strikingly simple and satisfying. And this knowledge opens up wonderful new possibilities for humanity: greater creativity, improved mental health and deeper understanding of who we are.

Griffin and Tyrrell convincingly show that dreaming is vital for mental health and that the brain state we associate with dreaming (the REM state) also has crucial importance for when we are awake. This understanding of the REM state explains not only how our brains construct a model of reality, but also explains hypnosis, how creative behaviour works, and why we develop mental illnesses such as depression and psychosis.

The conclusions arrived at in Dreaming Reality are breathtaking, and considering the freedom the reader has to apply them to his or herself, they prove to be astonishing. This book gives such rational explanations that the culminative effect is like turning a light on in a room of shadows.

Mental Health Practice (the UK’s leading practice-based journal and e-resource for professionals)

Dreaming Reality

Those introductory paragraphs come from the publishers’ blurb to  Griffin and Tyrell’s 2004 book Dreaming Reality.

In my own words, I’ll now attempt to summarise Griffin’s model and show why it is so significant for music, drama and History of Emotions studies in general, as well as for the Australian Research Council’s Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE, to which I am attached) in particular. More about CHE here. 

Joe Griffin is a research and clinical psychologist based in Ireland. His work was initially published in The Therapist magazine from 1993, and brought together as a monograph The Origin of Dreams (1997).

The Origin of Dreams

This was updated and revised in non-technical language with co-author Ivan Tyrell (psychotherapist and Principal of MindFields College, which trains over 12,000 NHS and social welfare staff each year) as Dreaming Reality (2004). A further update has just been published, Why we Dream: the definitive answer (2014).

Why we dream

Griffin’s theory of Dreams suggests a new Organising Idea with wide applications across many fields, and has led to the founding of a new school of Psychotherapy, based on the  Human Givens (Griffin & Tyrell 2003). More about the Human Givens College here.

Human Givens

The Expectation-Fulfiment Theory of Dreams

Joe Griffin’s Expectation-Fulfilment Theory of Dreams offers a psychological, biological and evolutionary explanation that is consistent with neuroscientific data and has already led to measurable clinical success. It amounts to a new Organising Idea, a simple fundamental concept that underpins many observed complexities. In essence, Griffin claims that:
  • Dreams are associated with the Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) state during sleep
  • The biological function of Dreams is to resolve unfulfilled expectations (positive or negative), generated whilst awake
  • Dreams re-present unfulfilled expectations in Metaphors, so that they can be resolved by pattern-matching to recalled memories.
  • Some 40,000 years ago, humans evolved the ability to access the REM-state whilst awake: this facilitated learning, language, tool-making and higher culture.

Griffin’s metaphor for the REM-state is the Theatre of Dreams.

Griffin suggests that the evolutionary moment when human beings achieved waking access to the REM-state was associated with the development of language, and with conscious awareness of past, present and future. This idea, connecting dreams with creativity, emotional expression and high culture, is explored in more detail in Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang (Griffin & Tyrell, 2011).  

Godhead

Application to mental health

 

Griffin’s theory offers an explanation of the observed links between creativity and mental illness. It also offers a new model for the treatment of Depression, one that has proved highly effective in clinical work.

The model predicts that anti-depressant drugs will be largely ineffective (except in so far as they reduce the amount of REM-sleep in sufferers), that Freudian therapy involving deep introspection about negative events in the past will have a negative effect, and that the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and other talking therapies will be more effective if re-aligned in accordance with the Griffin model. These predictions seem to be borne out in practice.

The practical application of the model and clinical results are reported in Griffin & Tyrell How to lift depression – fast (2005) This book is written in non-technical language, and is intended to help sufferers and their families.

How to lift depression ... Fast

Applications to History of Emotions studies

 

Emotions drive our lives – in Tyrell’s words, “Emotions motivate behaviour change, so that emotional needs can be met” (private communication). The Human Givens concept compares the psychological resources evolution has given us to the basic human needs. Those needs, Tyrell points out, are hierarchical: food & shelter are fundamental to basic survival; security, control, status, privacy and attention are necessary for mental well-being. Once these lower needs are met, higher needs emerge: intimacy, achievement, a sense of meaning, learning, exploring. These higher requirements satisfy the needs of the spirit.

Thus Human Givens presents “a clear framework of what all human beings need to live mentally healthy and fulfilling lives – based on a solid understanding of the essentials needs and resources we are all born with, whatever our circumstances or cultural background… Because this knowledge about human psychology, emotional health and behaviour is so fundamental to every human interaction and endeavour, the skills and knowledge encompassed in this approach are widely applicable to a wealth of other fields.” Tyrell seeks to provide “a shared language – a lingua franca – that also allows clear and jargon-free communication between practitioners of different disciplines”.  [Human Givens College]

It would seem that the Griffin & Tyrell’s Human Givens approach might have much to offer Emotions studies of historical Change, as well as for improving understandings of mental and spiritual well-being within many different cultures and social groups, both historical and modern.

Dream Theory & the creative arts

 

But let’s now look at that area of History of Emotions studies that is concerned with the creative arts, whether literary, visual or aural, crafted or performed. Griffin’s theory of Dreams and the REM-state explains how the mind’s capacity to pattern-match, to resolve emotionally charged expectations by means of Metaphors, is the fundamental human resource that enables the power of music, drama and art-works of all kinds. Griffin’s model places Metaphor and Story-telling at the centre of human processing of intense emotions. It therefore offers an evolutionary, biological and psychological underpinning to the creative arts, as well as to emotional engagement with daily life, social interactions and major events throughout history.

Waking access to the REM-state offers a scientific model for religious visions, artistic creativity, historical events that appear to evidence mass-emotions etc. Specific historical phenomena featuring in CHE’s investigations (histories of religion, witchcraft, historical attitudes towards soul/mind/body, emotional connections that shape the modern) would appear to be case studies for which Griffin’s model may offer a theoretical framework.

With its explanation of the fundamental significance of Dreams and Metaphors, Griffin’s work offers a theoretical underpinning for literature, music, fine art and indeed almost any human cultural expression, as well as for experiences of religious visions or demonic voices. It links metaphors and emotions to mental well-being. It also explains the observed susceptibility of highly creative individuals to mental illness. I suggest that it is highly relevant, indeed that it could become a keystone for History of Emotions studies.

Dream Theory & the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions

For CHE in particular, there are two additional features of the theory that are highly attractive. The theory offers a profound and subtly different understanding of mental illness, in particular Depression, in which sleep disturbance (typically, greatly increased amounts of REM sleep) is not merely a symptom, but rather is the major cause of loss of energy, drive and enthusiasm whilst awake. It explains why Depression is increasingly prevalent in modern societies. It explains why treatment with anti-depressant drugs is only slightly more effective than placebos, and shows how to re-focus talking therapies most effectively.
 Dreamtime Ku-ring-gai_Chase_-_petroglyph
And of course, Dream-Time is where history, religion, arts, performance and social well-being meet in Australian native culture.
I believe that Griffin’s work might provide a framework that could allow CHE to tell a compelling story, a story that could be relevant to Australians from all walks of life, and appreciated even by politicians and fund-holders.
A new, profound yet elegantly simple scientific theory supports all kinds of varied, detailed historical research across many humanities disciplines. New insights relate Early Modern History to modern life, offering simple and inexpensive ways to improve the mental well-being and quality of life of the entire population. There is a special connection to Australia and to native Australians, whose culture preserves a beautiful metaphor of the modern theory in their ancestral Dreaming.
I think CHE could be proud to tell such a story.
Dreamtime

New Investigations with Dream Theory

Meanwhile, in practical terms, I’m confident that Griffin’s work can provide illuminating insights for many investigators. It certainly has for me. Dream Theory has meshed perfectly with my current CHE investigation into Enargeia (the emotional power of detailed visual descriptions, linked to so-called ‘word-painting’ in early operas, and to Shakespeare’s spoken evocations of imagined scenes, performed on the bare stage of the Globe Theatre).
Enargeia
And Griffin’s ideas about the REM-state have sparked off two new projects:

Accessing Super-Creativity: May the Flow be with you!

 

I hypothesise that Flow, as described by Csikzentmihalyi, is an Altered State of Consciousness, which can be understood within the Griffin model of the REM-state. I link Flow also to Eriksonian hypnosis and Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice.

My aim is to build on existing work, and draw on my differing personal experiences of Flow as an elite performer (music), professionally competent sailor, and elementary student (fencing), in order to develop exercises, teaching techniques, training conditions and rehearsal methodologies that facilitate entry into Flow.

Accessing Super-Creativity

The Theatre of Dreams: 

Operatic Performance as an Early-modern REM-state Activator

 

Period performance practices around the year 1600 show a strikingly close correlation to known gateways into trance (e.g. Ericksonian hypnosis).

Working from Griffin’s model of the REM-state as the “theatre of dreams”, I hypothesise that singers in the first operas were inducing their audiences into an Altered State of Consciousness by means of regular rhythm, particular patterns of speech, persuasive suggestion and authoritative commands, in which deep relaxation in slow rhythm was mixed with sharp calls for attention.

In the REM-state, audience members would be highly susceptible to the metaphors and story-telling of 17th-century drama, which might well then succeed in ‘moving the passions’.

The Theatre of Dreams

You can read more about all these research strands within my investigations for CHE here. 

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

Where are YOU? Martial arts, self-awareness and Historically Informed Performance

Descartes

In a second-hand bookshop, I found a copy of Moshe Feldenkrais’ Higher Judo: Groundwork (1952) as a gift for a friend. But (of course) I couldn’t resist having a quick look inside for myself, before giving it away! [You can read the whole book for yourself here]

Nowadays this author is best known as the founder of the Feldenkrais Method, which teaches healthy use of the body not through prescriptive instructions or strenuous exercise, but by developing your own sub-conscious self-awareness as well as your active proprioception. A typical “Awareness through Movement” session has you repeat simple, slow movements without undue effort, but with mindful attention. There is plenty of time between movements, not so much to rest, as to give your somatic nervous system time to ‘learn’ new connections. There is careful attention to breathing. Most participants find the sessions relaxing and undemanding (except of their attention), and are amazed at the positive effects they observe at the end. Typically, ease of movement, range of movement, balance and flow are greatly increased, with a strong accompanying sense of mental and spiritual well-being. I strongly recommend it. [Read more about the Feldenkrais Method here]

But Feldenkrais was also one of the first Western practioners of Judo, and he was held in high regard by Japanese masters of the Art. Gunji Koizumi, who brought Judo to the UK, wrote the preface to Feldenkrais’ book:

Dr M Feldenkrais has made a serious study of the subject, himself attaining Black Belt efficiency. He has studied and analysed Judo as a scientist in the light of the laws of physics, physiology and psychology, and he reports the results in this book which is enlightening and satisfying to the scientific mind of our age. Such a study has been long awaited and is a very valuable contribution to the fuller understanding and appreciation of the merits of Judo…

Dr Feldenkrais, with his learned mind, keen observation and masterly command of words, clarifies the interrelation and the intermingled working of gravitation, body, bones, muscles, nerves, consciousness, subconscious and un-consciousness and opens the way for better understanding.

As we might expect from a thinker who invented his own Method of Awareness through Movement, Feldenkrais’ idea of Groundwork goes far beyond the technicalities of holds, locks and other moves for fighting on the ground. His concept of Higher Judo applies a holistic approach with benefits for mind and spirit, as well as for the body.

Judo is the art of using all parts of the body to promote general well-being, and might be considered as a basic culture of the body. It creates a sense of rhythm of movement and co-ordination of mind and body. Soon after commencing practice, the novice often becomes aware of an improvement in his own occupation or sport, due to a sharpening of his senses.

As part of this sharpening of the senses, Feldenkrais considers a question that equally concerns actors, opera-singers and indeed any performer: how do you perceive your own location in space, where are YOU? According to E. Claparède Notes sur la localisation du Moi (Archives de la Psychologie XIX 1924 p172)

We generally localise the ego at the base of the forehead, between the eyes.

 

I stumbled on this question as a teenager, and my own observations then confirmed Claparède’s findings. And before reading on, you might like to consider, perhaps even experiment with your own sense of where YOU are. If you lift your hand above your head, it is definitely above YOU, your feet are probably below YOU. Can you close in those limits to home-in on your personal sense of where YOU are located?

Shiva ascetic

As Feldenkrais writes, “the localisation of the ego is not an anatomical fact, but is based on subjective accounts, and is, therefore, one of those things which has little significance unless other phenomena or facts can be aligned with it. It is certainly true that most people feel the ego, i.e. the point which feels more like “I”, at the base of the forehead between the eyes. But it is not exclusively so. With the advancement towards fuller maturity of the spatial and gravitational functions, the subjective feeling is that the ego gradually descends to be finally located somewhat below the navel.”

With fuller maturity, as acheived by Judo training, and by some people by their own means, subjects have no hesitation in finding the localisation in the lower abdomen.

When I mentioned this to a couple of experts in European Historical Swordsmanship, they too had no hesitation in agreeing with Feldenkrais’ location of the self. Stage performers similarly seek a sense of being “centred” or “grounded”.

For many years, I have practiced and taught a technique of ‘grounding’ for historical harp, counter-balancing the tendency for the action to be all ‘at the end of your fingertips’ and connecting-in the whole body, with a sense of centre and a pathway to the ground. And I rediscovered the importance of such ‘groundwork’ when I began research and practical investigation into baroque gesture.

But we know all too well the opposite feeling: instead of a calm centre, there are ‘butterflies in the stomach’, your ‘heart is in your mouth’, ‘the rug is taken out from under your feet’. The opposite of being centred and grounded is to be nervous and off-balance.

Feldenkrais again: “It may be interesting to note that nervous people are very undecided as to where they feel their “I” to be. Sometimes they declare it to be placed in accordance with Clarapède and sometimes they just cannot tell. In acute states of emotional disorder the sensation is that ego shifts between the two extreme localisations mentioned. When we are in good form, the lower localisation is more frequent, and is exclusively so with the higher exponents of Judo. The reader is warned that these observations must be considered critically, though we can demonstrate that we are better co-ordinated when we have no hesitation, and feel distinctly that our ego is located in the lower abdomen.”

Western Historical Martial Arts expert and author of several books on Historical Swordsmanship, Guy Windsor (principal of the School of European Swordsmanship in Helsinki) added the observation that, after a day spent researching and writing, he is aware of the sensation of being  ‘too much in his head’, and welcomes the change of his own sense of location-of-self when he turns to training practice.

So we artists, whether performing or martial, are better co-ordinated, confident and in good form when we can ‘ground’ or ‘centre’ ourselves around the centre of gravity of the body. Depression, nervousness and other disturbances to our spiritual and mental balance, even too much intellectualising, all these can destabilise that centred feeling, but it can be re-established through training and practice.

Nevertheless, a question remains for those of us working in Historically Informed Performance. Whilst we expect an Oriental martial artist to be meditating on his breathing, mindful of the balance of his spirit, and contemplating a sense of self in his own navel (my gentle teasing is accompanied by the serious respect that this person probably knows 100 ways to kill me with minimal effort on his part); whilst we see that such holistic techniques can be very effective in modern theatre, in alternative medicine, in elite sport or in promoting mental health; whilst we may well see undeniable practical benefits in our own disciplines, is there any academic justification for introducing such ‘mumbo-jumbo’ into Historically Informed Performance? Where is the Western renaissance evidence to support concepts that we tend to associate with the Orient and with the 1960s?

According to period medical science, varying mental or spiritual states are reflected in the body as changes in the balance of the Four Humours, body liquids that produce visible signs and physical sensations of emotion. Excess of any Humour is unhealthy, but when we are in good form, we are inclined somewhat to the Sanguine Humour. Red blood warmed by the heart floods through the body to give us a healthy glow, a feeling of confidence and warm generosity, an appreciation of the pleasures of the belly (good food and red wine) as well as of the delights of music and dancing. Blood flows to the extremities so that we have good proprioception and muscles are warm, ready for action. In contrast, excess of the Melancholic Humour brings all the negative factors described above, and more: too much intellectualising, nervousness, depression, cold muscles, lack of sensitivity in the nerve-endings. The Melancholy person is ‘in their head’, the Sanguine person is ‘in their body’.

Modern experts in Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method, sports coaches and dancers, anyone with advanced understanding of physical movement can spot the ‘centred’ pose of a practitioner who is ‘relaxed and ready’, ‘grounded’ yet free to move. They can also spot the ability of a trained performer to structure their posture and movement so as to direct maximum efficacy into the desired result, with minimum effort. Renaissance paintings of dancers, swordsmen, even of passionate speakers or angel musicians show the same use of the body, the same relaxed movement and effortless strength that produce grazia of action and sprezzatura in performance, the very qualities so prized in a renaissance courtier. (See Il Libro del Cortegiano, The Book of the Courtier, here).   

It is reasonable to assume that in a culture where people rode horses rather than driving cars, and danced or practised swordsmanship rather than playing computer games, Renaissance Man was not only fitter, but also more ‘centred’ than his modern counterpoint. Horse-riding, walking and running, dancing and swordfighting all promote proprioception, sense of balance and control of movement. Indeed, we might even assume that ‘centredness’ was the default state for a healthy person in that period – this would explain why period sources discuss the phenomenon mostly when it is pathologically absent.

Around the year 160q0, Italian sources frequently use the word  vita (life) to mean also ‘the part of the body around the centre of gravity’. Dance-teacher Cesare Negri refers in Le Gratie d’Amore (1602) to walking well ‘sopra la vita‘  an effortlessly relaxed walk, with the body elegantly balanced over the centre of gravity. He also gives hilarious examples of how not to do it. “There are many different ways to walk, as we see every day on the street: some have the feet wide apart, and when they put a foot forwards, they fall from their centre of gravity onto this foot; others have the legs spread and the feet pointing outwards; others, when they put their feet forwards, wobble their belly backwards and forwards; others take lots of tiny fast steps with the points of toes outwards, as if they are on important business; others walk with their feet apart and their knees knocking together. All this offends the eyes of the onlookers. But to walk well, balanced on your core, with the best grace and ability, so that you give honour to others, is to walk well…

Colleagues of mine who are experts in Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique similarly recognise how mis-use of the body is reflected in the peculiarities of people’s gait.

One of the most dramatic moves in circa-1600 rapier fighting is the ‘scanso della vita‘, in which a fast, well-balanced turn removes the entire body from where your opponent was just about to stab you. This ‘voiding of the body-centre’ is accompanied by a counter-attack with the sword-hand in quarta.

inquartata

This use of the word vita assures us that the seicento sense of a ‘body-centre’ was strong. But in that pre-Cartesian culture, there was no simple duality of mind and body. We might rather think of the Mind as centred Claparède-style between the eyes; the Spirits of Passion (higher emotions) centred at the heart; ‘gut-feelings’, posture and movement at the centre of gravity. All of these centres are linked by the ‘mystic breath’ of pneuma, the European renaissance’s analogue to oriental chi. 

In this period, Music had a threefold identity: the divinely ordered movement of the stars and planets, musica mondana, the harmonious nature of the human body, musica humana, and actual music as performed on earth, musica instrumentalis (whether played or sung). Similarly, pneuma, the mystical Spirit of Passion, has a parallel three-fold nature as the divine breath of creation, the flow of breath/energy within the human body, and the communicative exchange between performer and audience. For a Historically Informed Performer, being ‘centred’ not only optimises your own physical co-ordination in performance and combats nervousness, but also empowers emotional communication to your audience, and puts both performer and audience in touch with the ineffable, mystical spark of artistic inspiration.

As Feldenkrais’ book title reminds us, in so many disciplines and in so many ways, Groundwork and the Higher Art are inextricably linked.

006 3 kinds of Pneuma and of Music

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com .

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

What is Music?

A Master of Arms, as the opening words of a discussion on early music, might seem inappropriate…

Agazzari dedication

What is Music? Is it an Art, a Science, a Practice, or just something that comes naturally? How would musicians have thought about this question in earlier periods? And how have the meanings of all these words changed over the years?

Nowadays, we admire a performance that strikes us as ‘natural’, and we shun ‘artificiality’. It’s assumed that a great Artist should not be subject to petty rules. And that the subtleties of Art transcend the limits of Science. In academic circles, Musicology (in German, Musikwissenschaft, music-science) outranks Performance Studies. And those who might wish to call themselves Artists are often looked down upon as mere Practitioners. So how did all this play out around the year 1600?

Agazzari’s treatise Del sonare sopra’l basso is one of the most-studied sources for early seicento performance practice. Many of us got to know it through Gloria Rose’s pioneering 1965 article, Agazarri and the Improvising Orchestra, but now both the original (Siena, 1607) and Bernhard Lang’s most helpful 2003 transcription (with parallel translations into English and German) are now available free online.

Original

Lang’s transcriptions

Rose’s commentary (fee or subscription to access)

Del sonare sopra’l basso is a key text that I shall certainly return to in future postings on the practical details of ensemble direction and continuo-playing. But first let’s look more closely at the preliminary dedication. It’s all too tempting to skip over this, in the rush to get to Agazzari’s main text, but it hints at answers to my question: What is Music? – answers that are significantly different from those most musicians would give today.

Agazzari’s treatise is dedicated to Cosimo Berlingucci, and the printer, Domenico Falcini, begins with the words A Professor d’armi

“A Master of Arms, as the dedicatee for teachings on liberal sciences, might well appear inappropriate – if it were true, that Sciences and Arms do not belong together.”

The myriad connections between early music and historical swordsmanship are a fascinating topic in themselves, but Falcini’s words strike to the heart of my question. He takes it for granted that music is one of the ‘liberal sciences’. His more subtle point is that Arms are also Science. Music and Arms are both scienze liberali, worthy to be studied by every free citizen.

Just a few years later, in the same city of Siena, Ridolfo Capo Ferro published his Gran Simulacro dell’ Arte e dell Uso della Scherma (1610), one of the most famous  texts on period swordsmanship. Tom Leoni’s excellent 2011 English translation and commentary is currently out of print, but the original and Swanger & Wilson’s 1999 English translation are free to download:

Original

English

This ‘Great Representation… of Swordfighting’ refers to ‘the Art and Practice’, and although Capo Ferro does refer to the discipline as a Science, he formally defines it as “Art, and not Science”.  “The term Science, in its strict definition”, he explains, “treats of eternal and divine things that surpass human judgement.” Capo Ferro’s main purpose is to teach the Art and the Practice, not the Philosophy, of swordsmanship.

In modern terms, renaissance ‘Science’ includes Philosophy, Astro-Physics, Mathematics and Theology: Astrology and Alchemy also are not excluded. Returning to 17th-century ways of thinking, the Science of Geometry studies Number and Space. The higher Science of Astronomy unites the studies of Number, Space and Movement. Swordsmanship  and historical Dance are thus related to Astronomy, the study of the perfect movement of the heavenly spheres. As a Science, Music is only a little lower, combining the two disciplines of Number (pitch ratios and rhythmic subdivisions) and Movement (ie, Time).

capoferro title page

Capo Ferro also neatly summarises the period view of Nature, Art and Practice. “Art regulates Nature, and with the more secure guidance directs us by the infallible truth and by the organisation of its precepts to the true Science of our [discipline].” This places Nature, Art and Science in a hierarchy: Art is a means of organising Nature according to rational precepts, in order to approach the ‘eternal and divine’.

Capo Ferro is very clear about the relation between Art and Nature. Nature’s material receives the “ultimate form and perfection of Art”. “Art… in the guise of Architect, takes it [Nature] and makes some beautiful construction, and thus refines and sculpts… bringing it little by little to the summit of perfection.”

And what then is Art? “Art… is a system of perpetually true and well-organised precepts”. A renaissance ‘Art’ is thus a set of rules that bring disorderly nature towards heavenly perfection. But are such rule-sets really ‘perpetually true’?

I suggest that we can accept that they are perpetual, if we understand them not as abstract rules (you must always do this), but as precepts that guide Nature and your Practice towards the high perfection of a desired result. Different Arts will desire different results, and have different rules. Thus Capo Ferro’s set of rules still work very well indeed, providing that your intention is to defend yourself in a duel to the death with long, sharp rapiers. If you are trying to score points in a modern fencing competition using lightweight foils, without needing to kill your opponent, you need another set of rules.

Similarly, we can trust Agazzari’s rules if we are playing seicento music on early instruments, with the period intention of ‘moving the passions’ of our audience. But if we are playing say Romantic repertoire, with the 19th-century intention of expressing the performer’s genius and sublime depth of feeling, we probably need another set of rules.

Historical treatises on Swordsmanship also deal with down and dirty questions of uso, Practice, as opposed to Art. However well you understand the precepts of the Art as an intellectual construct, you still need to practice assiduously to acquire physical skills. Musicians can certainly relate to that.

And some of what one does in Practice falls a little short of the divine perfection that Art would have us aspire to. A swordsman might stab you with his dagger, rather than with his sword, the Queen of Weapons, if it would save his life. Continuo-players might accept less-than-perfect contrapuntal move, if it preserved their concentration on the vital priorities of text and rhythm. Many historical treatises leave space for practical subtleties which cannot be written down, within the limitations (and rules) of period notation.

Now we can understand how the word ‘artificial’, in its 17th-century sense of ‘full of Art’, is one of the highest compliments awarded to fine music, both in composition and performance. In the original sense, ‘artificial’ music takes something Natural, subjects it to the Precepts of that particular Art (since of course, Monteverdi’s Art is not quite the same as Purcell’s), in order to bring it as close as possible to the summit of heavenly perfection.

In this period view, Nature, Art, Practice and Science all have their place. But those philosophical terms, and their respective places in a hierarchical value-system, differ from our modern understanding. Is this just a quirky detail of historical philosophy, or might it change how we approach the Practice of playing old music today?

capo ferro lunge detail

Study the Art of Historical Swordsmanship here

Please join me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/andrew.lawrenceking.9 and visit our website www.TheHarpConsort.com . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.

www.historyofemotions.org.au