Yesterday evening violinist William Fitzpatrick visited the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to give a Master Class for four student violin soloists. He had a keen diagnostic ear with which he could quickly home in on the key points of development for each student. He also had some delightful anecdotes to put everyone at ease, such as citing his own teacher, Dorothy DeLay saying, “No one plays on pitch. They just adjust faster than most people can hear.” (I wish we could say the same about some of the opera singers I have encountered.)
What particularly interested me was one student who seemed to have trouble synchronizing his fingering work with his bowing arm. Fitzpatrick recommended some slow-motion exercises, making a passing reference to muscle memory. His casual approach to the concept seemed to suggest that it did not really think that existed, a position that he then reinforced later by pointed at his head and saying, “Remember, it all happens up here!”
I humbly beg to differ.
While there may be some disagreement over the nature of muscle memory, we all learned in school that the brain does not do everything. When you pull back your arm after touching something hot, control extends no further than an arc from sensors on the fingers to the spinal cord and back to muscle activation. Those of us who studied things a bit further learned that there is considerable plasticity in our neural connections, meaning that our “neural network” can (and probably frequently does) rewire its configurations. Thus, it is entirely feasible that a variety of physical habits, including those required to play any musical instrument, may not necessarily involve anything more “higher level” than the spinal cord, let alone the cerebral cortex and possibly any of the other brain regions.
The bottom line is that life is far too complicated for mind to have to “worry about” everything. This is Elkhonon Goldberg’s metaphor of the “executive brain,” those areas of brain that oversee and regulate activities, rather than “micromanage” them. That idea of regulation, for which cybernetics provided a descriptive mathematical language, has been receiving more attention among those who study how the mind works. Antonio R. Damasio has pursed the thesis that emotions exist to regulate other bodily activities that could be destructive if left unchecked.
Thus, we can think of muscle memory in terms of “learned reflexes” (as opposed to innate ones), whose activation may require little (if any) activity from the brain itself. At most the brain may trigger muscle memories as part of its “executive” behavior. Nevertheless, the brain still has a role to play in the performance of music, at least for those capable of performing with more expressiveness than an automaton that happens to be made of flesh and blood.
This brings us to what, for me, is the most fascinating mystery of mind, the consciousness of time. When I say that the “executive brain” oversees and regulates, I implicitly assume that its monitoring processes are guided by awareness (knowledge?) of some kind of a plan; and plans involve the sequencing of activities (such as the activities required to perform music). Those who study the brain are only beginning to scratch the surface of explaining how all this works. However, it all boils down to a fundamental principle that has been with us at least since Augustine wrote his Confessions. That principle is our ability to differentiate past, present, and future and, as Augustine pursued in the Confessions how our present influences our thoughts of both past and future.
Where time-consciousness is often most critical is in improvisation. In Marc Meyers’ recent book Why Jazz Happened, I came across as fascinating quote from Buddy DeFranco:
The big problem with playing jazz, especially bebop, is your brain must always be several beats ahead of your ability to play. You’re constantly trying to catch up with what you want to do. [Charlie] Parker said the same thing to me.
When I have written about parallels between Johann Sebastian Bach and John Coltrane, this often involves the improvisatory nature of the music Bach has written, which may have emerged as an effort to document his own particular acts of performance. The student with the coordination problem that Fitzpatrick was coaching had prepared two movements from the BWV 1006 solo partita, the Preludio and the Gavotte en Rondeau, both of which have a highly improvisatory feel. As DeFranco would put it, while Bach was playing one phrase, his mind was already on the next one, which is why the rondo form of the gavotte plays out with a sort of you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet enthusiasm.
How the brain does this still requires explanatory capabilities not yet within our grasp. Gerald Edelman used the phrase “organs of succession” to denote brain areas that would deal with that Augustinian awareness of the interrelationship of present with past and future. Recent scanning results seem to indicate that those organs of succession are more than just a convenient hypothesis. However, we still have a way to go before we can say that we understand how mind deals with time.
At the very least, our technology will have to advance beyond scans that are basically snapshots. Presumably, the brain is conscious of time as a result of its own behavior in time. Snapshots that show activity in specific brain regions are helpful, but they do not yet capture the dynamics behind how those regions interact with other parts of the brain and body. One might say, by way of analogy, that we are still in the era of Mathew Brady’s camera waiting for the first movie camera to be invented.
Nevertheless, our understanding of time is critical to just about everything we do. After all, every action we take must, of necessity, exist in the time dimension. Since music only exists through performance, music is more tightly coupled to time-consciousness than many of our more “cerebral” activities. There is thus the possibility that our understanding of mind and time will be locked into a virtuous circle with our understanding of music and time. Perhaps those studying the brain should augment their expertise by learning to play musical instruments!