Wednesday 17 April 2019

Taking up the flute again and the Polanyi from... to... structure

I learnt to play the flute between the ages of 8 and 18 to the standard that any reasonably assiduous but non-musical person might, but then just stopped playing when the rest of life intervened. A misunderstanding with an eBay robot purchasing agent (not an agent that purchases robots, sadly) just before Christmas accidentally bought me a new plastic student flute which piqued my fancy enough to try playing again.

I discovered that I had dramatically forgotten most of the theoretical ‘knowledge-that’ involved. A flute has, I think, 16 holes covered by keys connected together and to other keys and hence not every hole has a fingered key above it. I had forgotten on which keys the fingers rest (they don’t move much once placed) and had to look that up. I’d also partly forgotten the combinations yielding notes (which is almost standard over two octaves and then gets a bit weird). But once revision had answered some of those factual questions, know-how began to fill in the gaps. My fingers seemed to know how to play scales and arpeggios. And from this know-how, I milked the ‘knowledge-that’ of other finger placement. The plastic flute didn’t sound bad to my ear but the fingering was spongy and, anyhow, I own a couple of better flutes and so, ten days ago, I took up one of my original metal flutes.

It felt very heavy in my hand. Because the plastic flute has a bent head to reduce the reach needed by younger students, the full size flute felt very long in contrast (and after thirty years). But the most obvious thing was that the tone I produced, by contrast with what I’d achieved on the cheap plastic flute, was breathy, rough, impure.

Polanyi suggests all awareness takes the form of a from... to... structure. One attends from something subsidiary to something focal. Learning to ski, eg., one starts by attending (focally)* to the edges of the skis, their angle etc but as one gets the hang of it one can attend from them to where one wants to go on the hill. That’s how one conceptualises what one is doing. Of course, one is still in some sense bodily aware of what one is doing proximally with one’s skis even as one individuates actions distally: awareness of the skis is subsidiary awareness. And of course it can become focal again, especially in ski lessons.

*When one attends focally to the edges of the skis, from what does one attend subsidiarily? Good question! One might say: the position of the feet attached to them. But then, to learn to move the feet correctly, from what did one attend to them? Unconvincingly I think, Polanyi says that one has subsidiary awareness of one’s own neurological states of which, however, one can never be focally aware, rather extending the normal meaning of ‘awareness’. (I fear he suffers a ‘craving for generality’, in Wittgenstein’s pathology of philosophy.)

All that to raise a question. In the face of the poor tone of the metal flute, I tried changing my embouchure but couldn’t really tell if I was doing anything different and couldn’t hear any improvement, even momentarily. I tried to vary things but didn’t have a sense of what my mouth was doing in purely bodily terms and so wasn't sure I was doing anything different and if I were, what. (Perhaps at 18, I would have had a sensory vocabulary and corresponding sensory awareness for that but certainly not now.) And because I couldn’t improve the tone at all, I couldn’t link my ‘inner sensations’, as it were, to a change in tone as the manometer example in Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument suggests.

Ten days later, however, and after modest daily practice, it simply sounds better. I am doing something better. But I cannot see how there has been any feedback or any explicit trial and error. How is it possible to get better at doing something when - unlike the skiing case - it does not seem possible to be aware, focally, of what component actions one has been changing? There have been no eureka moments of thinking: I should form my mouth thus via a McDowellian/Evansian demonstrative concept. How could a telos be built into the practice when no element of the practice going well could be identified? It seems miraculous. Practice may make perfect but one needs some way to conceptualise the perfection and mine has merely been from a great distance as sounding rather better but not as sounding like that. What fills the gap? (No one say: reflective judgement, please.)

(Interestingly, my plastic flute now sounds very different and rather worse. Surely it does not actually sound different? Surely, I’ve not lost that skill, pushed out by the newer one over ten days? I am just hearing it against a new standard: the sound of a conventional flute, which I had forgotten over 30 years?)