P7090530_kopio.jpgKatarina Nummi-Kuisma 2013 

A Virtuoso Thinking in Motion 

I am a pianist also working as a part time coach for musicians needing help in their working issues, often concerning coping in performance situations. All of them report increased amount and strength of verbal reflection prior to mess-ups or black outs. A crucial question for musicians performing from memory seems to be how to keep the reflective-verbal thinking at a not disturbing level in performance situations. This calls for relying on another kind of thinking. This article is about how to develop and strengthen these essential non-verbal qualities of thinking in music making, especially in performing[1].

 Early musicality and thinking in motion

Trying to study the non verbal aspects, so essential in a musician’s studying and performing, I had to look into the preverbal phases of human life: the infants. There is a fairly recent, large corpus of studies in infant – care keeper communication that I am referring to. Two important researchers in this interesting field are child psychologist, psychoanalyst Daniel N. Stern (1985, 2004, 2010) and child psychologist and psycho biologist Colwyn Trevarthen (2009, 2012). Trevarthen’s idea is that the early communicative life is essentially musical by nature. He is stating that preverbal proto-conversations have same narrative structures as songs or other compositions: there is a beginning followed by a development, a climax and finally the conversation ends in a resolution. Babies follow with their hand movements the melodic contours of speech and a sense of rhythm coordinates the developing body movements. Babies also prefer to follow speech around the middle C and above.

Babies – and adults – read human intentions by tracking and feeling each other’s movements. Stern and Trevarthen state that kinetic thinking – thinking in motion – is the primary way of understanding the world. Babies’ primary interest is motion. In test situations babies choose to look at faces that move instead of still faces. Thinking in motion precedes thinking in words. It is our innate way of perceiving the world. By moving we can tell how we are in reference to the world. Thinking in motion is holistic and multisensory. This means that we do not perceive our surroundings primarily in details but as a whole, using our whole sensory apparatus simultaneously. This makes immediate, fast action possible. Relating to our environment in a kinetic, holistic way is systemic. It is a creative, not entirely predictable relation.

Forms of vitality

In early life as in music the ways of feeling and thinking, the how our feelings, emotions and thoughts appear, evolve, climax and end is more essential than our so-called categorical feelings (e.g. happiness or sadness) or precise thoughts. When we talk about music – how the musical tension grows or relaxes –our language is also in motion. This in turn makes our inner, proprioceptive, bodily sensations move. Our thinking in reference to music is in motion.

Stern calls these ways of feeling and thinking forms of vitality (2010). Vitality itself is generated by forms of vitality. This has its effect on our memory: remembering the ways in which thoughts and feelings happen helps us to bring whole experiences to mind more easily and completely (Stern 2010). This indicates that in teaching situations we should speak about how emotions and thoughts are happening using language that is in motion.

Systems intelligence and intersubjectivity

How to help a student in pedagogical situations to reach this innate, immediate, kinetic and fast way of being, so essential for virtuoso playing? Philosophers Esa Saarinen and Raimo Hämäläinen (e.g. 2010) have come upon the notion of systems intelligence explaining how people – not the least newborn babies – are able to cope in situations that are still evolving, the outcome of the actions not yet being clear. Capacity to be in contact with still unknown, only assumed totalities or systems is innate: babies are born systems intelligent. In other words, we are born creative, able to “navigate our ways in new surroundings”. A sounding composition, a sonorous piece of music is such a gradually evolving totality that reveals its final appearance only in the end. A performing pianist needs contact with her innermost systems intelligence.

Persons interacting closely form an intersubjectively shared state or space (Stern 2004, Trevarthen 2009). They share emotional environments rather than exchange bits of information like balls in a ball game. In intersubjectively shared moments the participants’ brains align in sync (Hari & Kujala 2009), they tick alike. Intersubjectivity is a system. The real potential and beauty of intersubjectivity lies in that an intersubjectively shared space is always more than the sum of its components. When people meet in this spirit of shared intersubjectivity creative moments arise and qualitative leaps of whole systems occur. Intersubjecive meetings are the core of creativity (Trevarthen 2012). Here I am especially referring to intersubjectively shared systems between student and teacher through which it is possible to enhance the student’s possibilities to get in touch with her ability to think in motion and finally form an intersubjectively shared system with her audience. Intersubjective sharing in a concert situation means allowing the audience to take part in the building up of a sonorous work of art during the performance.

Systems never evolve in a linear, gradual manner. An intersubjective learning environment between student and teacher forms a dynamic state of development full of creative opportunities of discovery.

Being truly present

Why being present is so important? Connections, contacts and communication demand presence. We aim at musical communication, which cannot happen outside of place and time. A musical performance is unique and time bound. It cannot be entirely imitated, repeated or moved from one place to another as such. Ability to reach unreflective, immediate modes of action, our ability to think in motion, to act adequately and quickly is only possible when we are present. Stern (2004) also points out that remembering can only happen when we are present: episodic memory means reliving a past experience anew in a new context, bringing it into the present.

How to create a learning environment that enhances the ability to be present, so essential for thinking in motion and for remembering?  Being present is not self-evident. In a teaching situation the teacher can spend a lot of time on a meta-level, pondering about what she/he should be doing, what the outcome of the lesson should be or how the student should be playing. This is being not present. Sensory experiences bring you into the present. Thinking about a sensation activates the sensation in the body. A teacher’s  strong sensory presence in the teaching situation allows the intersubjective system of being present to develop. Intersubjectively shared experiences of being with another human being are expansive: they create new expectations in other communicative situations as well and make room for new responses in them. Thus being time and again present with the teacher in the classroom facilitates the student’s ability to be present in front of audiences.

From a teacher’s point of view true presence is possible when she/he enters the teaching situation with open senses, ready to feel, hear, see and take in everything that happens there. This means entering the intersubjective system with the student. The teacher respecting and being interested in the student’s own learning process, thoughts and feelings evoked by the music, bring the student in the system of being present, interested in respecting her/his own process. Coming in contact with the teacher the student enters the teacher’s scope of possibilities. For the student to feel welcome there, to understand that the teacher sees potentials in the outcome of the shared studying relationship, the teacher needs a big vision: experiences of purposeful teaching, excellent development, talent and musicianship. She/he also needs to see her/his influence in a wider perspective. Outside of pianistic endeavors and goals she/he can consider her/his possibilities of sharing kernels and key factors to a heightened quality of life: interest, intensity, joy of discovering new potentials and respect of companions!

How to help the student to rely on her/his ability to think in motion?

In my doctoral research I found that the pianist used her sensory apparatus in two contrasting ways, depending on how she was playing. When working with details, repeating small sections of music, she used her senses in a focused manner, which is what we call concentration. She was shutting out a large part of sensory information. When playing through a larger entity without interruption her senses were not focused, her awareness being open.

Fragmentary practicing is an essential part of the learning process. We need to focus a lot on detailed information when internalizing the musical notation. When the musical material is learned correctly and with care making mistakes later in the working process does not disturb the correct neural processes in the brain. The problem with focusing the sensory system comes in situations when the playing should move fast and smoothly and the memory should serve us without disturbances. Along with focused senses comes reflective-verbal and critical thinking which is too slow for performance situations. Focusing the senses stops the forward leaning movement of time that is essential in fast playing. It also stirs up critical verbal thinking, awakens overconcentration and causes memory problems. Critical thinking leads to increased self-consciousness and this often causes nervousness and even fear.

Elevation attunement

People interact with entities (wholes) in a special, distinct manner. The non-focused sensory apparatus, the open awareness gets active in front of totalities, as in uninterrupted playing. By the open senses I mean being aware of the peripheral vision, feeling the sound space around oneself and listening with the whole body, also sensing the sound with the inner proprioceptic sensations. The open awareness can be reinforced by mentally singing along when playing. When the senses are open the inner speech appears to be further away, more silent and less critical.

I call elevation attunement the psycho-physiological state of open awareness that seems to be the state when a person is in touch with her/his highest potential. This I have encountered besides in music making, also in other fields of human activity, for example in visual and performing arts, sports and lecturing. Elevation attunement is a way of acting systems intelligently and successfully inside yet unknown totalities, as in an evolving, creative musical performance.

Elevation attunement is present when music is being played without interruption as a larger totality, regardless of tempo or memorizing factors. The most essential quality of this psycho-physiological state is a strong sense of movement and direction over the totality of the piece of music concerned. Another important factor is receptive listening: the player is not only an agent, making the music happen, but at the same time a receiver, accepting and feeling the sonorous outcome. This happens, when the musician enters the performing with a sense of playfulness, makes a leap of trust and lets go of excess control, not trying to succeed in an obsessive way. In studying situations this means an attitude of experimenting rather than imitating or repeating.

Holistic and emotional learning

Evoking mental images and emphasizing emotions in learning situations makes neural connections grow faster, stronger and wider. Emotions help information to reach and consolidate in the long-term memory. Abstractions do not easily stay in memory. Especially working with children one should connect the music with multisensory images that are created by the child’s own imagination with the help of an interested teacher. 

Susan Hallam (1997) writes about two main approaches to learning and calls them linear and holistic learning styles. Linear learners start from details and go gradually towards commanding the totality of the musical material in question. In my experience with students linear thinking brings challenge to memorizing and speeding up the tempo, as we remember in totalities and fast action demands letting go of excess control possible in slow playing. The result of linear working strategies can be very rewarding because details are treated with care, but the learning process takes longer and the student can be less secure in performance situations. Holistic approach speeds up learning. As memory works only together with thinking in totalities a holistic approach brings reassurance in performance situations. Holistic learners are relying on their thinking in motion instead of reflecting verbally, they learn fast and prefer to play close to the final tempo. The challenge for them is to slow down to polish the musical details and refine their technical execution. But they have an advantage to linear learners in easiness of performing, the disturbing verbal thinking being less of a problem, and they of course acquire more repertoire.

In my experience linear learners are the majority (at least among Finnish music school students). That is why I consider it very important to emphasize holistic elements in teaching. It is worthwhile to build totalities from the start, combining the notation into larger units of chords and passages and uniting technical aspects into larger groups of movements. Trying out the final intensity and speed of playing is important from the start by improvising on the material of the current piece of music under study. Courage to take risks helps learning. 

Uninterrupted playing and sensory goals

Playing uninterruptedly, meeting the music as a totality, makes the musician rise to the level of elevation attunement, to open her/his awareness, to let go of excess control and direct her/himself as an arrow launched through the music, thinking in motion and not being disturbed by verbal thinking. To reinforce holistic aspects in a student’s playing one should give room for uninterrupted playing in lessons and not comment when the student is playing, as playing and verbalizing are hard to do simultaneously. It is wise to save the critical comments to the end. It is often enough to rely on the force of observation when playing through. Music students are self-critical and self-criticism does not help learning but narrows down the scope of awareness and induces fear. Letting go of criticism is an aspect to teach the student to integrate in her/his practicing. Otherwise we really train the student to stop whenever a critical thought arises. Quieting down of the inner speech is paramount for success in performance. Emphasizing expression and communication helps in avoiding the self-consciousness often caused by concentrating on technical execution. 

It is helpful to assist the student in building a multisensory mental image of the performance of a piece of music under study. This can be done by asking detailed questions about how the student feels, hears and sees the music performed optimally, just as she/he would like to perceive it in a concert situation in front of her/his minds eye. This is equivalent to effective mental training done in the shared intersubjective space of a piano lesson, done with the help of a teacher. Thus, just as in remembering, the sensory image can be lived in the present time of the studying situation and the student can prepare her/himself for the live process of performing the music. This kind of mental preparation also works as a practicing guide by giving the student strong and precise hints how to prepare for the performance. It opens up a way to conceive the mental and physical energies in the music and to find ways to meet with them, to grow as a musician and a pianist up to the level of the music.

The teacher’s responsibility

To help the student reach her/his ability to think in motion a teacher needs to awaken emotions and rich multisensory mental images in the teaching situation. The emphasis needs to be in the student’s own process, her/his artistic aspirations and goals. There should be room and time to let the student be whole and present, preparing for performance as a sensory, process goal. We need to remember that we gets what we focus at. It is ethical to assume high potentials in the student’s development and in the teaching outcome. It is not possible to predict the future achievements and development of a young person: I do not think it is ethical or wise to even try. As a teacher I must look for possibilities and potentials. I can honestly meet my students in the spirit of a meeting of champions, assuming possibilities of high qualities in my student’s life and development. 

When something goes well in playing during the lesson, it is good to bring it into consciousness by verbalizing it: this enhances learning (Hallam 1997). This can be done most effectively by asking the student to teach the teacher or a fellow student how exactly she/he just played and thought. Giving an account of a process is more effective for learning than describing a result (Spinelli 1999): the speech is set in motion which makes the thoughts and feelings move, the result being thinking in motion. If you want to enhance the possibility for success be sure to be able to cope with failure. In studies of real adult athletic champions researchers have found out that as a rule the way to the top was bumpy in youth. Systems are not direct. A straightforward development does not predict excellence in adult life! (Collins, 2011.)

Repetition does not explain the level of expertise (Ericsson 1997). The students need practicing strategies for building versatile multisensory mental images. Constant variation of practicing tactics is essential and there is always room for play and imagination in an effective lesson. Mental images induce emotions. In positive psychology scientists study what makes people feel well, cope and get in touch with their highest potential. Gratitude is the strongest positive force (Barbara Fredrikson 2010): cultivating gratitude is essential for learning! Nobody succeeds alone, so we need to emphasize the student’s respect and gratitude for her/his cooperation with her/his teachers and peers.

 Literature and sources

Collins, Dave 2011. Lecture 11.10. 2011, Science for Success III Symposium, Jyväskylä University.

Fredrickson, Barbara, 2009. Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.

Hallam, Susan 1997. What do we know about practicing? Towards a model synthesising the research literature. In: Jörgensen, Harald & Lehmann, Andreas C. (eds.) Does practice make perfect? Oslo: The Norwegian State Academy of Music, 179–231.

Hari, Riitta & Kujala, Miiamaaria 2009. Brain Basis of Human Social Interaction: From Concepts to Brain Imaging. Physiological Reviews, APS.

Mallock, Stephen & Trevarthen, Colwyn (eds.) 2009: Communicative Musicality. Exploring the basis of human companionship. Oxford, New York: University Press.

Martela, Frank & Saarinen, Esa 2013. The Systems Metaphor in Therapy Discourse: Introducing Systems Intelligence. The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, 23:1, 80-101.

Nummi-Kuisma, Katarina 2010. Pianistin vire. (The Attunement of a Pianist in Performance)  (Doctoral Dissertation). Helsinki: Sibelius Academy, Studia Musica 43.

Spinelli, Ernesto 2005. The Interpreted World. An Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology. London: Sage.

Stern, Daniel N.  2004. The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York, London.

–      2010. Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development. Oxford, New York: University Press.

Trevarthen, Colwyn 2012: Lectures 7.–8.5.2012 Jyväskylä University.






























[1] I studied these phenomena in my doctoral dissertation The attunement of a pianist in performance (The Sibelius Academy 2010), a case study of a pianist playing Scriabin’s Etude in D # Major op.8..


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