11/30/2011 11:13 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2012

Taking Things Apart

I've always played poorly at my viola lessons (I'm really a visual artist and not a musician, I tell myself). Playing in front of a teacher made me self-conscious, and on top of that I never practiced much. I never sounded as good at a lesson as I did when I played alone. Something else was also at work -- thinking really closely about something while doing it makes it next to impossible to do it well. Yet to learn we have to look very closely at what we do. Doing something really well "requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence." ("Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers" by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker, October 3, 2011). You have to be bad at it and not realize it, be bad at it and know it (the hardest step) be good at it because you're thinking about it, then forget it all and just do it, and do it well.

A good teacher makes you think about what you're aiming for and will reaffirm what you're doing well, but will also help you see what you're not noticing. "No matter what a person's complaint when he has a lesson with me, I have found the most beneficial first step," W. Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance stressed, "is to encourage him to see and feel what he is doing -- that is, to increase his awareness of what actually is." It's hard to hear about what we hadn't noticed, sometimes very hard. "We almost never catch ourselves in the act of making intuitive errors," ("Before You Make That Big Decision... " by Daniel Kahneman, Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony in Harvard Business Review, June 2011). "Experience doesn't help us recognize them... This inability to sense that we've made a mistake is the key to understanding why we generally accept our intuitive, effortless thinking at face value... after all, it's difficult for us to fix errors we can't see."

I recently sat in on a master class at Idyllwild Arts taught by Movses Pogossian, Professor of Violin at UCLA. [The premise of a master class, if you haven't seen one, is for a student to perform a single piece, the teacher to offer guidance, and the student to play again -- all in front of an audience of fellow students (hard to imagine being more on the spot).] A student played the Rondo from Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, a virtuosic showpiece for violin, which she played flawlessly and in complete technical command. Movses acknowledged her preparation and skill and then observed that she moved only from the arm, wrist and fingers. He suggested allowing her entire body, including larger muscles of her back, to project into her sound, and to use her own awareness of body movement and balance to enter her playing. This idea sounded a bit abstract to me -- after all, her bow arm and left hand were moving with precision and clarity, but when she did what he offered, her playing resonated with a fullness, clarity, and focus lacking in her earlier performance. The difference was dramatic.

This expansion of skills through awareness (often beginning with someone else's observations) close analysis, and reflective thinking is the basis for getting better at things. We attend to what is brought to our attention, and then we practice getting it right. Behind all this is the fact that you have to care about what you're doing and doing it well. You have to enjoy doing it (at least some of the time) and see that it is possible for you to get better at it. Truth is, you have to want it more than anything else. Motivation produces attention that makes you work to improve your art. Motivation -- attention -- practice -- down to the smallest element. "Caress the detail, the divine detail." (Vladimir Nabokov).

The critical, verbal, analytical side doesn't help while you're creating something or performing. At the time it gets in the way -- it's only useful before or later. There are only so many things you can think about at once, and there are often many pieces to making art. The "conscious incompetence" piece can be overwhelming, inhibiting and discouraging. A good teacher helps us remember that all this is manageable and can be done; you'll get there.

Take a word and repeat it until it loses its meaning and you hear just the sound of the word (semantic satiation). Take something out of its context in order to really know the shape and sound of the pieces, then repeat it, and return it to see how it fits -- it's how the pieces fit together that ultimately matters. Artists often start with a unitary notion or motivation, however undeveloped; and it is a unitary whole that they are creating, far greater than the sum of its parts. You have to take things apart to get there.

Here's what's going on in your brain: verbal input (what the teacher says) is governed by the temporal cortex in the left hemisphere; schematic knowledge (pattern) works from the parietal cortex in the right hemisphere; and procedural awareness (process) operates from the premotor cortex, cerebellum, and the basal ganglia (from "Why the Arts Matter" by Jerome Kagan from the Dana Foundation symposium Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain.) But you don't need to know that to make art.

Ultimately an artist learns to notice things by him or herself, maturing as an observant and reflective individual. The creation of art is ultimately not entirely a product of conscious intent, though conscious awareness helps a lot. Teachers help us get there. When everything comes together, intentions and preparation melt into seemingly effortless expression. Creative expression is the freedom an artist gains from self-searching, clear analysis and disciplined practice; what seems natural is often anything but.