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The skills we learn as musicians can counteract today's short attention spans

Are apps, tweets and status updates killing our minds? Ariane Todes argues that string players are uniquely placed to rise above the dangers of modern technology

Monday, 31 March 2014

Is the internet and mobile technology changing the way we think? It’s a big question these days, one discussed in panicked tones in the various media forms whose existence is threatened by the phenomenon. And, if we believe what we read, there are huge and alarming implications for the lives of string players and their audiences.

Apparently, thanks to the internet, we can’t read long narratives or follow complex arguments without losing track or getting distracted. We never give anything or anyone our full attention because we’re always waiting for the next text message or status update to make us feel loved. We don’t have to remember any information because every fact ever anywhere in the world is available at the click of a mouse. The killer thesis from neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield is that our brains are actually changing physically as a result and that the minds of future generations will consist of soggy mush.

All of which, of course, spells doom for the performance of classical music, which relies on an absorption in large narrative structures, immense attention to detail, phenomenal powers of recollection and utter focus. Or does it? I for one am a classic technology addict. I sit at home on the internet, listening to the radio, with my mobile phone in hand. Matters became more serious recently with an upgrade to the ubiquitous iPhone after years of nose-thumbing, and the discovery of a whole new world of resources and time-wasting opportunities. Inevitably, I spent the first weeks downloading apps, trying out the many different sorts of metronomes, flitting through any apps that have the word violin in them (although, no, I don’t want to pretend to play the violin on the iPhone – that’s why I have a violin) and generally addicting myself to playing Scrabble.

After all the butterfly attention I’d given my new phone, I was relieved to discover that, when I practise, the necessary skills are still in place, and I am still able to focus as long as I ever could. It seems to me that our brains adjust to the uses to which we put them. If you spend your life surfing the internet and updating your status report, no doubt your brain will adapt to that habit. And that is exactly why we’re so lucky as string players.

On one hand we have all the benefits of the internet and mobile technology: the enormous resources and connections that they offer us, allowing us layer upon layer of information about string playing, players, instruments, history and all the rest, as well as instant connections with like-minded geeks around the world.

On the other hand, we have a musical training that demands utter discipline and focus. One-to-one relationships with our instrumental teachers require the speedy analysis and assimilation of received information and the concentration to apply it properly. As players we must focus simultaneously on different planes of experience – left hand and right hand; memory of notes past and projection of ones future; physical and conceptual; audio and visual. During orchestral rehearsals we learn the art of switching between intense concentration and boredom-avoidance over long periods. The very medium in which we work requires us to immerse ourselves in long, complex structures and usually to memorise them in all their glorious detail. Add to that the delights of chamber music, which must surely be one of the most intensely social experiences possible.

These skills that we learn as musicians counteract the supposed effects of today’s technologies. And as long as we use them, we won’t lose them. It’s possible that within a few generations people will no longer be able to reason, remember, research, communicate or feel empathy. But my hunch is that musicians will be okay. And when that day comes, maybe string players will rule the world.

This article was published in The Strad's February 2011 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase back issues click here.

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