Alan Duncan

Collaborative piano. Coach. Music theory & Audition recording

The shift from conscious to automatic must be purposeful

Posted at — Jan 12, 2023

Acquiring the ability to play a new piece of music is both exciting and daunting. We all pass through certain emotional stages in our attitudes toward a new piece. With young players, I notice distinct phases with the initial excitement giving way to more realism about the nature of the work that lies ahead. Without the right attitude and care, it’s easy to short-circuit the learning process in order to alleviate the dread over the amount of effort required to prepare the piece for performance. But it’s this short-circuiting that can cause the piece to plateau for weeks or months on end. And the final result may never reach the its full potential. Too often, the bypass that the student takes too early is that they embed flawed technique, false notes, and incomplete awareness into the automatic execution.

In every case, a piece moves from completely conscious effort to automatic performance. There is no other way. The notes are completely unfamiliar at the outset. Everything happens through conscious awareness. This is happening in the upper portions of the brain in the motor and sensory cortices. These are the parts of the brain that respond when I say: “I’m going to play a G with the second finger” Familiarity, repetition and time gradually facilitate the neural pathways in such a way that the order and speed of execution improve. It’s at this point that the performance becomes automatic. This is happening because the responsibility for getting these signals to the muscles is being assumed by lower parts of the brain that are outside the realm of conscious awareness. This is why we don’t have to think about walking. We simply walk.

There is a risk. If the player is bored or impatient, then they can be in a hurry to get the piece ready. This has two effects, both negative. The rush to complete a piece can result in too many difficult parts still requiring conscious input from the cortical regions of the brain. It’s as if we had to consciously remind ourselves to move the right foot, then the left in order to walk. The second effect is that mistakes inevitably find their way into the automatic program.

This is why the player must be aware and intentional throughout the learning process and why it must not be rushed. This intentionality can take many forms; but one is always, without exception, slow, deliberate, and focused practice. As one pedagogue puts it, Start and stay at the level of perfection.1 If the player adheres to this one little principle, they will always be confident in their gradus ad parnassum.

  1. Bayla Keyes The Ideal Violinist - this site is highly recommended. ↩︎