Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maslow's World and How it Applies to Music

Would you believe that I just recently encountered the work of Abraham Maslow? As musicians we apply his "Four Stages of Competence" in everything we do. I know that I go through the path from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence with every piece I write, and if I'm lucky I make it from conscious incompetence to conscious competence with almost every piece I learn. If I'm lucky I make it all the way to unconscious competence. Sometimes I find myself going through the cycle many times with the same piece, if the piece is strong enough to take it. With a lot of music, like solo Bach, going through the cycle again and again is actually part of the fun.
Unconscious Incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Conscious Incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Conscious Competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
If you wade through all the primitive "pseudo-psychedelic" pop-ups on this page, you can read all of Maslow's Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences on line. Or you can just look at the Wikipedia summary. Perhaps what we are doing when we practice has something to do with trying to replicate the idea of a peak experience for ourselves (once we are able to get close to unconscious competence), and perhaps when we are performing our goal is to share that peak experience with others. Perhaps when we are writing music, our goal is to write stuff down that makes it possible for people to have and share peak experiences.


Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

Thank you for introducing us to Abraham Maslow. I can see that I'll be busy reading for a while, as now I've put his books on reserve from the library. It'll be interesting to integrate Maslow's approach into my teaching. Looking forward to the journey.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Very, very helpful post - Thanks. Came across Maslow for the first time since the 60's when reading up on "flow" and saw where he renamed as "peak experience" what had previously been called "transcendence".

Synchronistically, just this morning had a conversation with a musical friend and we agreed that pure "flow" is in part social - you can't get there by yourself - there have to be other players and/or a live audience. But neither of us are pros, so your idea that it can be achieved in solitary practice could well be the case for high level players.

Elaine Fine said...

I tend to think of the relationship I have to a particular piece of music (or even a particular passage) as a kind of social interaction with the composer--or with the composer's muse at the time. By extension, I suppose that playing music written by someone else is never a fully solitary activity!

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...


Great points, which hadn't occurred to me - thanks again. Here's a quote from Hilary Hahn about what I was trying to get at.

>>The problem is that acoustic performers rely on the audience's attention and focus and can tell when the audience isn't mentally present. Your listening is part of our interpretive process. If you're not really listening, we're not getting the feedback of energy from the hall, and then we might as well be practicing for a bunch of people peering in the window. It's just not as interesting when the cycle of interpretation is broken.<<

Anonymous said...

"Flow" is also a concept which has been used to describe peak sports accomplishments.

In all such cases, the real issue seems one of losing sense of "self" and especially that critical sense which stops said "flow."

One might look at the massive portfolios of Picasso, Chagall or Modigliani to see regular "flow." The making of many works implies not so much speed as flow, in which the self is no longer in the foreground. Rather the making is.

liz garnett said...

Interesting! I came across the four stage model of learning some years ago, but had no idea it came from Maslow, whom I have usually associated with the hierarchy of needs concept.

Some of the work neurologists are doing these days shed new light on these processes; I wrote a little about this a while back: