The dancing centipede

Posted on: April 19th, 2005 6:52 AM GMT

Topic: thought, banjo, music, learning

Playing the banjo well requires executing a number of different picking patterns at high speed. As I've developed a beginner level of skill at this, I've learned some things about skill and learning.

It's wierd, but as I start to improvise, I realize that my mind isn't focused on the individual picking of each string. Rather it focuses on concatenating different patterns and chords together and listening to how the result sounds. If asked, I couldn't write down what I'm playing because I'm not even conscious of it in that way.

Some part of my brain must be stuck with the job of executing the finger pattern, but that part evidently isn't wired into my high-level consciousness very tightly. Wierd. To make it even more strange, if my conscious does try to intervene, it only fouls up the process. It's like the story of the dancing centipede:

The centipede was dancing and doing his thing with not a care in the world one day when an onlooker, observing the coordinated movement of all the feet, asked “How do you do that?” to which the centipede puzzled for a moment and then replied “Easy.” But then he stopped and puzzled some more, trying to sort out all the steps in his brain. The onlookers eventually left the centipede to puzzle to himself, and the centipede never danced again.

I've banged my head against the wall for hours trying to get the hang of picking patterns by picking out each note slowly and deliberately, but the more I try to wrap my brain around it, the more I fail at it. If I just try to play it fast from the outset it comes a lot faster.

We learn in some pretty strange ways. Sometimes I think If people really started to understand the process of learning, our children would grow up to be ten times smarter than we are.

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