Multi-tasking can be overrated!

Everything today is about speeding up, absorbing more input, operating more efficiently, doing six things at once. Now, as it happens, I have always found it easier to do several things at once, quickly — in a sort of rapid-fire time-sharing — than any one thing slowly. Nonetheless, as I observe my children’s world, it seems obvious that their world is flattening out in direct proportion to the sheer amount of input they have to deal with. 

When I saw the piece below, by my friend Dale Matthies, a talented musician,  I asked it if it would be all right to pass it along. He said, Sure, go ahead,” so here it is. On his email, he used as a subject header “monaural brain…that’s my problem”


 monaural brain…that’s my problem

A few days ago I experienced my 59th birthday. For 49 of my years I have played musical instruments (accordion, organ, piano, guitar, string bass, tuba, trumpet, baritone, voice). By far the most difficult, and frustrating, of those instruments has been learning to play the classical organ. I had an “aha” moment today while I was reading a news article about multi-tasking while driving.

Page 4 of that story said,

The researchers concluded, “Don’t multitask while you are trying to learn something new you hope to remember.”

“The brain is fundamentally built to unitask,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, where he is also a co-director of a=2 0new automotive research laboratory.

That’s when I realized that I have a monaural brain but I am trying to live in a 7.1 stereo world. I have ignored my own advice that I have given to music students trying to learn an instrument, “Don’t try to do it all at one time.”

When I learned the accordion, my first song appeared to be a daunting task. With my left hand I had to push buttons that I could not see, my right hand had to focus on the white and black keys all while some wizardry of muscle actions in my shoulders and left arm pumped the bellows to move air over the reeds.

But, even as a 10 year-old, I soon learned the magic of the subconscious mind and the conscious mind. It did not take long to learn that once I mastered a few simple repeated patterns with the left hand accompaniment buttons, I no longer had to think about it…the subconscious mind takes over.

Playing classical organ is different because it definitely requires multi-tasking. At any given time there are two to four notes to be played in the right hand, two to four different notes to be played in the left hand, a pedal note to be played with the right or left foot. In addition, there are times when the player is required to change sound controls with either the feet or the hands.

Now that is just the mechanics of it. Beside all of the mechanical stuff that a properly programmed robot could do (the subconscious mind), the player needs to be aware of which portions of the music contain the melody or counter-melody. Those portions require proper phrasing techniques to bring out their lyrical qualities. It’s a wonder anyone can play this monster!

So, my aha moment was when I realized that if I practice each part separately, after a few hundred times (well, maybe a few thousand times) my subconscious would have the muscle motions memorized. Then, I would be free to focus on just one aspect of the music at any given nano-second. So far it is working with a new Bach piece that I thought was beyond my ability. The last Bach piece took me several years to learn with my old method of practicing. I believe I will be able to play my current piece in a couple months. 

I suppose that if I were working with a teacher, he or she would have pointed this out to me long ago and I could have avoided a great deal of frustration. Did I just hear you say, “Experience is the best teacher?”

3 thoughts on “Multi-tasking can be overrated!

  1. I have an even better practice technique for your friend on organ, if he wants to contact me. I can learn extremely complex pieces in a very short amount of time, using ths tehcnique, and have taught it to others. It is much more efficient than the “learn parts separately” technique.

    And as for multi-tasking, I put drum kit ahead of organ for complexity. I’ve tried both and decided both were beyond what I wanted to put effort into; I stick pretty much to melody instruments, although I developed my practice method when studying classical guitar, which has the fingers on both hands doing complex tasks that are separate but must still coordinate well. I have found that the more complex the instrument, the better the method applies.

    But your article explains why I am having such trouble learning a new language during my commute; of necessity I have to pay attention to my driving, and I’m having memory problems with the new language. Never was much of a multi-tasker!

  2. This was an interesting take on things. I will have to say I have experienced the “subconscious” learning so that it can take over as I learn a more advanced experience of the same thing…..not musical instruments, but other things I have to do at work or to progress. I have noticed that when one part of what I am doing moves from my conscious to my sub conscious then I am ready to move on at more speed and I feel a sense of relief when that happens. I think we all multitask all the time, but we don’t necessarily notice or think of ourselves as doing that. Modern society has taken an age old way of life and made it into something that sounds “modern society”.

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