Understanding Free Brain Space in Ensembles


Yesterday I led a discussion with some university music education majors. At one point I was talking about practicesightreading.com, which I use regularly with one of my band classes during our pre-rehearsal routine. It's a very useful site that provides single line rhythms which I project on the screen in our rehearsal room. A question arose from one of the college students about whether working on rhythm devoid of pitch was de-contextualizing rhythm, perhaps even making it irrelevant. I thought it was a great question and an opportunity to discuss what I like to call (very unofficially) "Free Brain Space." There really wasn't enough time to answer fully so I thought I would follow up here.

If you have been teaching for at least a few years you are familiar with the situation whereby students leave out important musical aspects when they are struggling with technical details that they have not yet mastered. Continuing with the subject of rhythm, I know that when students are focused upon the rhythmic complexity of a passage I rarely hear accurate articulations, dynamics, blend, and intonation. Since they are using almost all of their processing for rhythm, there is not enough "free brain space" for these other essential items, so the overall performance is lacking. My goal is to help students master various technical issues to the point that those things are "second nature" at which time they are able to devote their attention to the details that make music more meaningful. If too many plates are spinning they are going to be in "survival mode" whereby it is nearly impossible for them to attend to much beyond their own part.

A lesson I have used in the past to make this point is one where I give two students different textbooks and ask them to read aloud simultaneously. I ask them to try to listen to the other student while they are reading their own text. After a paragraph or so I stop them and ask what they remember. Usually they are able to remember a little about what they themselves just read, and almost nothing about what the other person was reading. I ask them to "try harder" (sound familiar?) and start a new paragraph. This time is quite interesting, as invariably both readers end up pausing their own reading as they try to understand what the other person is saying. After this paragraph it is usually the case that they latch onto one or two words or ideas that the other person was reading, but they remember less of their own content. The soon realize that it is impossible to attend to both of these tasks at the same time.

The next thing I do is take one textbook away and replace it with something very familiar, like the Pledge of Allegiance, but I don't tell the other student what they are about to hear. As both students read aloud at this point, things are quite different. The student with the pledge knows it so well that she can focus more upon what the other student is reading, and the student with the textbook instantly recognizes the pledge. Lastly I ask both of them to recite the pledge. As you might expect, they automatically recite it together and begin to negotiate on the pacing and inflections in real time.

Although not an exact correlation to the way music works, the students are able to make the connection that when their own responsibilities are mastered, it is easier to attend to other things that are happening around them. "Free Brain Space" is an essential component of successful music making. So I suggest to you that the reason many school ensembles give lackluster performances is because students are playing music that is individually too difficult. They are using the majority of their processing power to "survive" their individual responsibilities. They might learn their part, but they never really learn the piece. That is something we must think about as teachers. What is the value of learning the third clarinet part to the Persichetti Symphony versus having an understanding of the entire work?

As an aside, I (conversely) believe the main reason that percussionists get a bad rap for behavior is because their parts are often too easy (or absent altogether), which means they have plenty of "free brain space" available for other things, and they do indeed find other things to do when put in that situation. Ensemble directors need to spend more time finding repertoire that properly challenges all the students in the ensemble.

I used the term "Free Brain Space" years ago, before I had any idea what it was really called. For those of you who are interested in the more official terms, what is really happening here is helping students to acquire procedural knowledge. Michael Polanyi is a chemist-turned-philosopher who talks extensively about "ways of knowing" beyond the more traditional types of knowledge that are demonstrated via pencil and paper. Naturally this has important meaning for those of us in the arts. For a quick overview (and extending) of Polanyi's thoughts I suggest you take a look at Fred Nickol's paper. A quick quote from Nickols on the subject of procedural knowledge:


Developing Procedural Knowledge

We are talking here of skill development, specifically, the acquisition of explicit, declarative knowledge as the basis for skill development. Often this works as follows:

1. We are presented with a description of a way to perform a task.

2. We practice it, perhaps haltingly at first but our proficiency improves with continued practice and it benefits from feedback.

3. Finally, we reach the point at which our ability to perform the task is automatic, we no longer have to think about it.


Sound familiar? Of course, this is exactly what musicians are working to accomplish every day. And once we get to the point where a particular passage (or the entire third clarinet part) is mastered, we no longer "have to think about it" which frees us up to attend to the entire piece. Suddenly the ensemble is better balanced, playing more in tune, and creating a more exciting performance.

All of that is a very long way of saying that using practicesightreading.com is one way of moving rhythm from "declarative" to "procedural" knowledge. If the goal is for students to learn the piece, not just one part, we need to work towards more procedural knowledge.