INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR JOHN SLOBODA
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What we require classical pianists to do - and I suppose to a certain extent, what we require actors on the traditional stage to do - is actually a very unusual and strange activity for human beings, which is lengthy verbatim recall of material. That is not actually how the human brain is set up and constructed to operate. Because, by and large, what the brain seems to be is a meaning detecting machine. We understand what’s going on and when we are telling someone else what’s gone on, what we’re trying to do is not give them a photographic blow by blow account of exactly what happened, but to tell them what the meaning is of whathappened. So when I have a conversation with you and then I go away and talk to other people about it, “I met Alan Rusbridger and he said this and he said that”. It would be very rare that I would be quoting your exact words. I’d be paraphrasing what you said, maintaining the essential meaning of it but putting it in my own words. It turns out that a lot of musical activity is like that. You hear someone play something and then you remember something about it and then you play it but what you play is not identical with what you heard but it has a structure which is maintained. So it’s more like, you know, you get the gist of it. And that’s what’s built into what’s been the main tradition of performance over many, many years which is improvisatory tradition, you embellish. And it’s not, I mean, embellish isn’t even the right way of conceptualising it because that assumes that you have an exact memory of what you heard and then you are deliberately deciding to change something. But the embellishment of the improvisatory approach doesn’t even remember what the original was. It remembers the scaffolding and constructs a new performance on it. So I suppose what modern classical pianists are required to do means that they have to import extra scaffolding to allow their brains to do something which is not the normal way in which the human brain operates. So I completely resonate with you that this is an extremely difficult, an almost unnatural, act and it can never be achieved. There is no such thing as 100% note perfect reproduction of a piece. It doesn’t happen. Even, if you take the piano, if you say, well, ok I’ve played exactly the notes which were in the score, as soon as you go into the area of expression, and slight timing deviations, and slight ups and downs of volume, and all the rest of it, you can never produce 100% reproduction of anything and you’d never want to because, if you did, you might as well not bother. The whole point about interesting musical performance is that your performance is unique and it’s different from any other performance that has ever happened in the world up to this point.
There’s a whole debate in contemporary musicology about where does the work actually reside. Does it reside in the score, or does it reside in the performance, or does it reside in some kind of conceptual ether? These are big debates and I think the move is to say actually that we have been restricted and held back in some ways, now thinking of music, by identifying the music with the score, the work. I think most modern musicologists would identify the music much more in the moment of its realisation, so that the sound is produced and it affects some listeners, that is the work. So the question is what makes all those performances, performances of the same thing? That’s quite interesting. You’d need to talk to a philosopher of music about that.
I’m a very facile sight reader. The question is why would I, you know, what’s in it, to devote that huge amount of time to building up the scaffolding which is pretty piece specific, I mean, it’s not going to actually serve you for anything other than that piece. It’s like everything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it. We’re talking a span of years here. If you memorise a piece of the complexity of the piece you’re memorising, say, three or four times a year, which is what you’d expect probably a professional pianist to do, after you’ve been doing it for five or six years, it gets a bit easier. After you’ve been doing it for twenty years, it gets a lot easier.
Alan Rusbridger: Is that because the brain itself changes?
John Sloboda: Yeah, but it’s only in the sense that anything that you practise you get better at because the routines, the many sub-routines that you need, are assembled and they get more and more fluent and they get more and more embedded and you don’t have to think so hard about them. So it‘s all about the automatisation of routines. I mean, it’s very boring when you get to the level of detail. It’s just that when you do a small thing many, many times, it gets quicker and quicker and more efficient and then eventually it can be done without much conscious attention, or any conscious attention at all. And when you just put scores of these small routines together in a big thing then it allows you to do something very complex; but the actual basics of human learning are very, very simple. Pavlov, basically, saidit’s conditioning.
It’s something like a map, a conceptual map, but it’s something which, and it can be multi-dimensional. It can have, for example, a set of conceptions of what the structure is, how it moves through the structure. It can have something about the motoric aspects of it but it means that when you lose one bit of it, you can reconstruct from something else. It’s like a multi-dimensional map, and that multi-dimensional map allows you, if there’s enough complexity or enough different levels to it, to reconstruct the exact piece each time. But you don’t remember the notes, you remember the map, and then generate the notes from the map. There’s a whole set of researchers out there who’ve been trying to characterise what the actual nature of this map is.
AR: But there are people you meet who seem to have…nothing stands between their eyes and their fingers. And yet there are other people you meet who are fantastic pianists who unclear that must be something to do with the structure of the brain rather than conditioning.
JS: But the structure of the brain alters through experience. What Iwould immediately then say, is, ok take me back to the time when you first started learning an instrument, what did you do? What did you spend your hours and days doing? One of the things, it’s not entirely directly relevant to what you’re asking me, but we did a study to look at what were the main factors in people’s training and prior history which distinguished excellent from less excellent practitioners. We took a large cohort of students of the Chetham School of Music in Manchester. The only way you can get into that is by passing a fairly demanding audition, so it’s, kind of, a sample of the best teenagers in the country. And when we compared them with the control group (which) was people who applied to the school but didn’t get in, so they were obviously aspiring pianists. And then we interviewed them and we interviewed their parents and we tried to find, you know, what are the factors which distinguished the excellent from the merely competent, and it boiled down to a very small number of factors. The main one was the cumulative amount of practice over the lifespan. How many minutes per day you put into this activity and starting when. Basically, we found that this kind of conforms to a rule which has been found in a whole other domain of activities, sporting activities, chess, medical skills and so on. You need to practise a complex skill for something like five thousand hours in order to get good enough at it, as it were, to do it for a living. And you can do the computation yourself on that, which means, if you practise two hours a day for fifty weeks of the year, five days a week, that’s five hundred hours. So you’d need to do that for ten years to get to five thousand. We didn’t look at practising memorising, we just looked at practising playing, but my intuition, and I don’t know whether the research has been done on this, is what people are good at is directly correlated to how much time they’ve spent on it over the lifespan. When I was eight years old, a relative left my family a great stack of piano music. I don’t think, we may have had a radio, but we certainly didn’t have a gramophone, and I was just obsessed with music, so I just sat at the piano and drove my parents completely mad by working my way through this stack of difficult piano music from the age of eight onwards. And I much preferred to do that to doing the practice that was set for me by my teacher.
AR: You were just reading your way through it, not practising, not memorising?
JS: Reading my way through it, and not even correcting the mistakes. I just wanted to know what it sounded like. So I would say that, from the ages of eight to fifteen, I spent more time sight reading than doing anything else, and that‘s why I’m good at it. I was motivated in the first place, there’s no question about the motivation. I always found that more interesting and more easy than memorising, so I never did memorising. I found ways of getting out of ever having to memorise anything, and so I’m no good at it. Of course, that has affected my brain, and probably my brain is now permanently atrophied so I’m never going to be able to do that very well.
AR: Sorry for speaking in completely layman terms but what you’re describing is a combination of, for want of a better word, personality and brain. So temperamentally you’re more inclined to read but if you had been temperamentally differently inclined and had wanted to work out exactly how to get, then your brain would have worked……
JS: Brains change through activity. The brain is just a huge muscle, a neural muscle, and it changes because it is exercised by the person who inhabits it in different ways. I would kind of take that analogy, if you go to the gym and you do certain kinds of exercises on certain kinds of machines then certain muscles get bigger and other muscles get smaller. If you then change the machine later in life, it is reversible to a certain extent but the cost of that reversal is just enormous because you have to undo previous routines and replace them with others.
AR: So if I went and had my brain scanned there would be nothing that would…nobody would be able to say the reason you’ve got such a terrible memory is because……
JS: Not really. There’s an interesting study by someone who brain scanned adult violinists and brain scanned gifted children violinists and what you find is that the adult violinists had the area of the brain where the fingers are represented had, kind of, grown and it was much larger than average. The incorrect inference is that they were born with that large area but it’s grown because of the neural networks that were developed by ten or fifteen years of violin playing. The young violinists didn’t have anything different. So if we’d looked at your brain as a child, we wouldn’t see anything different from anyone else’s. The brain differentiates as you grow older.
AR: Looking back on your career what are the subjects that have most interested you in terms of the psychology and music?
JS: I started my musical research looking at sight reading. I wanted to look at the thing I was good at, and from exactly the opposite perspective, because just as there are people who are very good at memorising and other people who are not, there are people who are very good at sight reading and other people who look at you with complete astonishment. I’ve always been good at sight reading and I wanted to know what’s behind it? And what seems to be behind it, basically, is, on the basis of extensive knowledge of the style, making very, very accurate guesses about what will come next, so you can actually economise on what you’d have to take in from the page. So, actually, there’s a great deal of memory involved in sight reading but it’s memory of stylistic constraints which tell you that if that note was C, and the next note was D, and it’s going up, probably the next note will be E. And it’s lots and lots of very, very simple inferences like that that when they build up over, and it’s one of the reasons when you take a new style that you haven’t played before, your sight reading drops a little bit. I’m a great fan of Messiaen, but I found sight reading Messiaen almost impossible until I’d done four or five pieces by him and then you pick up the language and you start to be able to predict again. That was what got me interested and, through that, the whole question of what is this knowledge that we have which allows us to extract from the surface and see music as something which has meaning, something which has a direction, and a form, and a substance, and also its emotional power. So that then got me starting to think about how and why does music have emotional power? What’s going on when we get emotionally moved by music? And that turns out to be a very; very complex story, one which I’m still, and many people around in the academic world, are trying to pull apart bit by bit. It’s, again, it’s multi-dimensional. There are probably at least ten different ways in which music can engage your emotions and very often all of those ten are operating in different and contradictory ways at any one time.
AR: What about the business of learning later in life?
JS: Well there’s two things. There’s simply getting the 5000 hours in and when you get multiple commitments and family and job and so on it’s more difficult to do that. But therealso may be something about brain plasticity. Do you know that there’s a lot of evidence that shows that if you’re immersed in a second language before the age of, I think it’s, ten you just pick it up. If you’re immersed in a second language after the age of ten, you don’t pick it up, you have to learn it the hard way like the rest of us. There’s something that happens around the age of ten where a kind of informal soaking up type learning just stops happening. This is a huge dilemma for a lot of young gifted people who suddenly find that learning becomes more difficult in their adolescence, that they can’t do it the easy way they used to do it when they were a kid. And this is when a lot of young gifted people have a real crisis of identify and a lot of them drop out and it’s also at the time, of course, when there are all the pressures of adolescence, you know, wanting to have friends and wanting to do other things. And then, you know, this thing that their parents and teachers that they feel almost imposed upon them you know that you’re going to be a great musician, they have the great rebellion. So the fifteen to eighteen age range is critical for that. And that fits my case exactly, my rebellion was fairly mild because my parents didn’t care that much, but basically at the age of fifteen I waked out of professional, you know, the possibility of being a professional musician, because it all seemed too difficult. I think adult learners will have a different experience, they’ll still get there but it will be more of a struggle. I have great admiration for what you’re trying to do, it requires a lot of grit.
AR: So the work you do with these aspiring…when you go to the Guildhall now, part of the work is presentational stuff, what interests you most about it?
JS: What I’m interested in at the moment is what it is that musicians understand about the audiences that they are up in front of. This is what do they believe about the audiences, what do they think about them, how do they factor the audience into the choice of repertoire, how they present themselves on stage, or do they? And is there such a thing as an exemplary stance for that. What are the ways in which performing artists can get better, more reliable, and more helpful feedback from the audiences. So one of the things, and we’re working very closely, by the way, with both the LSO and the Barbican. There’s something called a Link Partnership which means that those three institutions try and work together on strategically important things when they can. Part of my job has been to sell these ideas to colleagues in the Barbican and the LSO. It looks as though one of the things that we might be trying to do more of in the next season is post concert events where performers expose themselves directly to feedback from audience members, on the same evening as the performance, as soon as it’s finished, and looking at different models of that, because a lot of musicians would just say, no, I don’t want to have anything to do with that, I want to just go home when I’ve finished. So I want to engineer events where actually performers can feel that this is going to be beneficial to their practice. And sometimes it’s about reassurance. A lot of performers have huge hang ups about “I played a wrong note in Bar 43 and that means the audience hates me”, and they actually need to hear that that doesn’t matter at all. So it’s not all about negative criticism although that’s what a lot of musicians fear. So the question is what is the right model? One model may be a Q & A model but another model may be something much more soft and malleable, for example, like a dinner where there are tables abut this size and at each table there will be one performer and a group of members of the audience and just talk, just finding ways, because the classical proscenium kind of setting is very, very distancing, the way that performers and audience go in and out different doors, don’t speak to each other, you know, the audience looks up in an almost quasi religious way at these priests of music performing their ritual on the stage and then they go away again, and trying to introduce some of the models that you find in other forms of musical performance where the level of achievement is just as high, like jazz. You go to a jazz club, you know, you expect to talk to the players and they expect to talk to you and they expect to get something from that interaction which is very, very real and articulated and well worked through. So one of the projects we actually have is a project which, we’re using one of the jazz clubs in London, the Vortex, which has jazz every day, and interviewing performers and audience members about their experience and then saying ok how do we translate the very, very rich, detailed, thoughtful way in which both audiences and performers think about each other and relate to each other in a jazz setting. How do you get some of that goodies back into the conservatoire? This is not the kind of thing that tends to get talked about in instrumental lessons. It’s always, you know, play this piece, let’s see if you can get it better.