The Learning Process

How it feels

practising in flow can essentially be described as a self-organizing process of ‘filling the holes in feeling and sound’. Once a good contact with instrument, body and sound is established, any technical difficulty which is not mastered feels like a hole - or a disturbance - in an otherwise consistently pleasurable stream of feeling. Now the process of practising is motivated by the desire to fill this hole of sound or touch.
Differently put: An unmastered fast passage or challenging shift is perceived as a roughness through our tactile senses, like an unpolished gem. Such movements feel as though they had edges and corners. Practising is then focused on continuously polishing and smoothing all movements until they lose their bothersome edges. Once this process feels completely smooth and pleasurable, the technical difficulties are mastered. Problems are thereby thoroughly unravelled and become deeply rooted into the sensory-motor body feeling. The essential point is that the player aims to be intensely in touch with how each movement feels.

Was dabei trainiert wird: Implizites und explizites Wissen

What is trained: implicit and explicit knowledge

Human beings have two very differently functioning learning- and memory systems: the implicit-procedural and the explicit-declarative system. In the explicit system, speech- and word-based knowledge is stored. Using this system we can answer questions such as “How much is 1 + 1?” or “What is the capital of the United States?” In the implicit system highly complex skills are stored: skills that cannot adequately be expressed by speech, such as our ability to ride a bicycle. Procedural knowledge is very resilient to disturbance – did you ever forget how to ride a bike?

Exactly this kind of knowledge is what we need on stage: a body-based knowledge which can be accessed spontaneously and flexibly without any thinking. However, in Western civilizations, instrumental skills are taught to a large extend through the explicit system, i.e. through speech-based rules, technical instructions and mechanistic methods: “This exercise 20 times in this tempo, then 20 times in that tempo…”, “Think of your right elbow, pay attention…!” As a consequence, we have developed a deep mistrust for sensual experiences and ‘unclear’ parameters such as ‘sense of coherence’, ‘sensation’ or even ‘well-being’.

The overemphasis of the declarative system in artistic learning processes has a number of negative implications. Firstly, in mechanical learning processes, the fine motor system is insufficiently fed with all the subtle information necessary to root complex movements securely in the kinaesthetic body memory.

This in turn has the effect of diminishing the artist’s trust in his or her implicit system which, as a consequence, develops poorly. The impression that many musicians lack trust in their implicit system seems to be justified; many movements remain full of ‘micro holes’, i.e. fine information lapses, which are rarely filled by traditional practising, and which sometimes, to the artist’s great surprise, cause failure on stage. Furthermore, undetected ‘micro holes’ almost always account for passages that do not improve despite long practice.

In stress situations (e.g. concerts, auditions), the use of the declarative system during the learning process and the correlating lack of trust in the implicit system cause the musician to leave the procedural mode and switch to the explicit, speech-based ‘control-mode’. Unfortunately, this mode is completely inappropriate to operate complex movements efficiently.

By way of contrast, practising in flow feeds the implicit system with all necessary information without any disturbance from the speaking system. It represents a learning process which is exclusively driven by sensual input and which doesn’t need any intervention from the declarative system.

practising in flow develops a strong trust in the procedural system and the habit of consistently using this mode - even and especially on stage - becomes deeply rooted. practising in flow allows you to learn an instrument in the same way you learned to ride a bike: by trial and error and through the enjoyment of sensual exploration.

Just to be perfectly clear: practising in flow doesn’t replace good instrumental technique. However, if you have understood and incorporated the principles of practising in flow, your way of teaching instrumental technique will be different: more sensual, explorative and body-oriented.

What happens in the brain

In terms of neurobiology, the learning process is based on the pleasure that is experienced when real playing coincides with your ideal – rather than on the ‘imprint’ of movements by mechanical repetition. The most effective memory retention happens in the moments of greatest perceived accordance between play and ideal and is accompanied by the release of endorphins and dopamine. practising in flow is learning by pleasure!