Sunday, February 08, 2015

Mirror-Touch Synesthesia and Music Making

Invisiblia, one of the newer NPR podcasts, has a fascinating episode that you can listen to or read the transcript from about an extreme case of Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. It occurs to me that development of this extra sensory sensitivity is extremely important for musicians, and it explains a lot about how musicians function.

There are people who develop it very early in their lives, and there are people who only develop it when a sensitive teacher shows them how to clue in to the other people who are playing. There are musicians who are highly developed in many ways (perfect pitch, high intellect, excellent memory, multiple degrees) who lack the ability to be physically aware of who they happen to be playing with, and there are absolute beginners who innately understand how to blend and move with the people they are playing with.

I developed my musical mirror-touch sensitivity through necessity. Julius Baker, my flute teacher at Juilliard, never used words to describe the physical technique involved in playing the flute. He only demonstrated. And he also taught mostly in a group setting. In order to learn from him I had to imagine what was physically involved in making the kind of sound he made, and I had to intuit his musical choices from studying his physicality when teaching other students. I say that I studied with Julius Baker, but actually I studied Julius Baker. Through my studies I learned to understand the physicality of people I heard play concerts and I learned to understand the physicality of people I played with. I always thought of it as highly developed intuition.

When I teach I try my best to spell out exactly what I am doing physically with my instrument(s) and intellectually and emotionally with the music, but it seems that the way most students learn best is through emulating the physicality I demonstrate. I do find that my "training" helps me figure out the way a student is thinking and feeling musically. Through studying Julius Baker I taught myself to study students and figure out what they are doing, how they are feeling, how they are thinking (or not thinking) about the passage they are playing.

That's one reason I believe that it is difficult to become a competent musician without having a lot of real contact with other musicians in real space and real time. I have never tried teaching anyone by way of a computer (using Skype or Face Time), but I imagine that the contact might be compromised because of the two-dimensional aspect of the image and the microphone delivery of the sound. Not being in the same room might also compromise the intuitive aspect of the experience. It makes me wonder about computerized instruction altogether. For some things that do not require sensual involvement, computer communication can deliver useful information (I'm thinking about videos that show how to do something or videos that show how something is made), but all of the attempts I have made at learning something by way of a computer have proven unsuccessful.

When I told my son, who teaches 6th grade, about my failure with 6th Grade math through the Khan Academy, he suggested that a good teacher could help me through my difficulties. I believe he's right. If I ever find myself in a position where I absolutely need to use numbers in a functional way, I will seek out a teacher who might be able to use intuition to help me with my deficiencies. I tried to learn Spanish through Duo-lingo (another free resource on the computer), and though I passed through levels and levels with flying colors, I remember nada. I learned to communicate effectively in German in a matter of months when I lived in Austria.

Note: Since I have never taught a lesson via computer, I would be interesting in trying for the sake of the experience. Send me an e-mail message, and we can see what works and what doesn't (we could do violin, viola, recorder, or flute). Maybe I can write about it.


Anonymous said...

This is incredibly interesting: I am studying with a teacher who never uses words, refuses to explain, expects me to know what’s next, etc. And, I have _always_ interpreted what he is doing as terminal arrogance, with a strong dollop of manipulation. If there were any other teachers of my instrument in the area, I would have left him years ago. The frustration has been infuriating. Your essay gives me a way to understand what he thinks he is doing. Thanks!!

Hannah said...

I've never taught a computer based lesson either. I also worry about the physical aspect--I often touch a student in order to adjust something, and not having that ability would be difficult. I'd be curious how it all works!

Anonymous said...

As to your tale of math and schooling, my goddaughter was faced with the exams for college, took a practice run and got skunked by math. Panicking, she asked for help. I was a math and music major, of which there are fewer than one would believe. I took a full year of twice-a-week tutoring, found her negative experiences in math in elementary school courtesy of some anti-teaching teachers, and between study and some amateur psychology brought her up through a successful college entrance exam that yielded financial aid as well. My point is that one doesn't learn from books, generally. One learns from people, and I wager I could take an Elaine Fine and make her proficient in math over time. But why fuss with this in the moment? On the other hand, I again encourage you to read the book about innumeracy, because it is another and more informative kettle of fish. As to teaching I general, I am an old codger who holds with the notion that explanations are everything, and knowing "why" trumps knowing "that." This has made me unpopular with some teaching colleagues, but very successful with students over the years. Persevere.