Be A Scientist (Explore Your Own Results)

Put it all together by investigating what works, and what doesn’t, for your playing.

 Experimenting with cause and effect leads to better art

Experimenting with cause and effect leads to better art

It's not only about art

When we think of a scientist, we might conjure up a professor or lab worker in a white coat. But we should imagine a violinist (or cellist, or pianist, you get the picture)!

We might think that playing music is only about art. With music, we are in the realm of beauty, passion, and expression. But to get there, we must also think carefully and measure what we are doing.

Science and music both work on the basis of careful observation of cause and effect. Both work by measuring precise amounts. Musicians may not be measuring chemical substances, but they are trying to get a certain frequency of pitch at a precise time. They must learn how to produce that desired effect.

Cause and effect

There are specific things we must do in order to produce sound on the violin. If we don’t rosin the bow, it won’t catch on the strings and make them vibrate. If we have stiff fingers, the bow will bounce. If we press too hard on the bow, we crush the sound.

It is knowledge of all of these relationships of cause and effect that produce good playing. By knowledge, I don’t mean simply intellectual or “head” knowledge, but deeply felt, internalized, experiential knowledge. What Suzuki meant by the equation Skill = Knowledge x 10,000, is that doing something many times produces the kind of knowledge in the body that results is ease and fluency of playing.

In science and in art, complex combinations of causes and effects are learned over time. This complexity is what produces the art! It may not feel like that, because we become very intuitive about the causes and effects, and they seemingly just "happen." 

Do an experiment

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Even though we already know many basic causes and effects of playing music (such as what happens if we don’t rosin the bow), there are going to be some things that are unclear, or that we haven’t figured out yet. For example:

  1. How do you change the bow without hearing the change?
  2. How do you do vibrato differently to adapt to the mood of a piece?
  3. How do you know where to shift for 4th position?
  4. How do we make the detache sound?
  5. What do we do to unlock our pinky when it is stiff?

And so on. There are hundreds of other possible questions we could ask. A student can Google or YouTube the answers as a place to start, but then they will still have to try out the answers on their own. As they feel their way into the answers, they will gain a more intuitive understanding of how to express themselves artistically.

Form a hypothesis

If you form a hypothesis first, the aim of the exercise will come into sharper focus.

For example, a student may have a question like the one above on how to change the bow, without hearing the change. Rather than simply stating the correct answer, a teacher might suggest experimenting with the timing of movement of the fingers at the frog.”

After practicing some exercises designed around agility and timing, the student discovers that this improved the sound. She may also discover additional factors as she explores on her own.

When we help students form a hypothesis about what it is happening, we help them take ownership of their playing, teach them the scientific method, and increase their powers of imagination. Three powerful cognitive exercises in one.

Write it down

This is easy to miss, but we need to write down the results of our cause-and-effect experimentation.

Writing things down sends a message to the subconscious: “This is important!” It also helps us remember what happened later as we are trying to track our progress. Both are important psychologically for motivation.

Writing it down creates a seriousness around practicing, elevating it to something that matters. This is essential for a budding musician who is learning to take ownership and preparing for later schooling and a possible career.

ACTIONS FOR THE WEEK

Gather some scientific data on your practicing. Get into the details, and write it down in a log.

  1. How often are you practicing? How many minutes per day?
  2. What is being practiced and for how long each?
  3. How many repetitions were done of each area?
  4. What’s the metronome marking for each scale, exercise, and piece you are working on?

Do an experiment where you change something:

  1. Compare a number of positions or ways of moving
  2. Try a fingering or bowing that is different from what’s printed in the music
  3. Try a different tempo, dynamic, or style than you are used to
  4. Remember to record the results!

Good science, good art

The best playing comes from a fusion of rational thinking and creative expression. Good science leads to good art and vice versa. If we are willing to carefully gather data, we may get an insight or a breakthrough that makes what we do more beautiful and more artistic.

Teachers and parents, help your students be more exploratory by encouraging them to make hypothesis about an aspect of their playing. Help them experiment with ways of moving that improve their playing, and help them record the results.

Remember, the best scientists were also artists, and vice versa. Da Vinci, Einstein (a violinist!) and Darwin all combined creativity with science in a way that changed the world. Make resolution in your playing to be more scientific, so that you can build upon your learning, and you’ll reach a higher plateau with your art.

May good science and good art work together for you and your students. Happy experimenting!