Unconscious Grace

(I will continue to post some old pieces of mine  – this one from 2011 – until such time as events provoke some more timely musings.)


One of my philosophy classmates (issei) posted a Darwin quote on his FB page which prompted some further comments which reminded me of a similar theme in musical practice.

Issei Takehara – ” ‎”attention paid to the act of swallowing interferes with the proper movements,” which is probably why “some persons find it so difficult to swallow a pill.” – Works of Darwin: vol. 23″

Sharone Birapaka – “try breathing normally while trying to breathe normally”

Cameron Brown Rigo – “Not unrelated: ”to reveal intense application and skill robs everything of grace.” – Castiglione, Book of the Courtier” 

A musician whose attention is on the technique inevitably is less musical – less graceful, as Cameron’s quote points out – in the execution of a passage. This is why all traditions stress that one must learn the rules and techniques to the point of forgetting them – until they become second nature, as Aristotle would say. (Yes, I’m alluding to Virtue Theory.)

I’d say that one of our (uniquely?) human talents is taking some action that is initially entirely conscious in execution and, through practice, adding it to the vast repertoire of unconscious actions that are the bulk of our cognitive motor control, unconscious actions which are unconscious because such things would be too slow to be useful (evolutionarily) if they had always to be consciously initiated. (Granted, rapidity of response isn’t the only reason actions are unconscious: breathing, Sharone’s example above, is an autonomic nervous system task not because it needs to be fast, but a) because breathing is a basic necessary function which long precedes the evolutionary arrival of consciousness and b) because it would be mentally exhausting and dangerous to have to remember to breathe every second. Yes, I know it’s said that cetaceans consciously breathe, but being an aquatic mammal is a very different and special context.) The unconscious actions for which we have a inborn facility, which do not have to be learned, are those granted by long evolutionary processes, and constitute our first nature, if you will; those we add constitute our second nature.

These kinds of acquired physical skills, whether artistic, surgical, athletic, or in any other realm, all have a rapidity, a fluidity, a lack of hesitation made possible by their being habituated to the point of being unconscious. The basketball player who receives a pass, and as he’s airborne, heading out of bounds, swivels and executes a perfect swish basket (as my old drummer and pal Liz DiSessa and I once saw Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics do at the Boston Garden) has no time to think about what he wants to do; he reacts to the situation without thinking – without having to think. It happens at a cognitive level inaccessible, and properly so, to conscious deliberation.

About kaimuse

Kai Matthews is a musician, composer, and philosopher-in-training (with degrees in both fields, to the extent that that means anything.) As a 12th-generation American and 8th-generation Canadian, but born as an ex-pat in Germany and feeling more European in outlook, he feels at once both a deep rootedness in and a critical reserve toward his culture. He feels most comfortable being a little out of his milieu - that is, being uncomfortable and challenged. He's a cisgendered hetero white boy who's lived in a gay neighbourhood in San Francisco, and is a middle-class WASPy anglophone living in a poor, multi-cultural immigrant 'hood where most people's first language is neither French nor English. He was a rock and roll hippie getting a classical composition degree at a jazz school, and is a perpetual beginner student of North Indian classical music, in which his Western training is less help than hindrance. In philosophy, he naïvely wonders why the perpetually feuding analytic and Continental traditions can't just get along...

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