When you’re looking you’re not listening

Today I had an aha moment. I’ve been working on some tango guitar pieces but I’ve been frustrated. I just couldn’t get them to sound as good as I would expect. I tried different techniques but still they sounded rather flat.

Yesterday I was working on Amurado determined to figure out why I’m not succeeding. I tried playing in different ways, with different amount of power, and different techniques.

At some point I tried to change the position of the guitar such that I wasn’t looking at the fretboard. I noticed that there was an improvement.

I noticed that I was hitting certain notes in certain ways that didn’t sound so great. I didn’t notice this before. Not looking at the fretboard made me more aware of how I was hitting particular notes that sounded good or not so good.

This morning I decided to try practicing the piece without looking at the fretboard. Bingo. It sounded great. I was actually listening to what I was playing and getting the best possible sound out of the piece. I started looking at the fretboard and again wasn’t getting good sound.

Then I realised what was happening. When I’m looking at the fretboard I’m actually not listening. I’m focused on getting my fingers in the correct position but I’m not listening to what I’m playing. The visual modality is somehow interfering with the auditory modality.

But not only that. It’s also interfering with the kinaesthetic modality because when I’m not looking directly at the fretboard I’m actually placing my fingers more effectively to get better sound. And when I’m not looking I actually have no memory for the piece. I rely on the visual image to remember.

This reminded me that actually I had exactly the same experience with dancing tango. As long as I was looking at my feet, or looking at anything, I was always frustrated with my dancing and hit a roadblock. I was struggling to follow the music, the lead-follow was clunky and the embrace was creating tension.

It’s actually what I see when I look at most people dancing on the Argentine tango scene. There’s a lot of tension there.

Then, when I decided to stop looking I was able to listen more effectively to both, the music, to my own body and to my partner. Everything worked better. I started progressing towards dancing in a way that is enjoyable.

I didn’t stop looking because it was suggested in a standard tango lesson or workshop. There was one teacher of tango milonguero who told me in a private lesson to practice with my eyes closed.

At the time I was also doing Contact Improvisation and Feldenkrais and you do much of that either with eyes closed or at least without focusing on anything in your visual field.

Vision organises movement but it also has the tendency to screen everything else out when it’s focused on something. Visual mental images of the wrong sort can also have this tendency.

I’d say that the sooner you stop depending on looking, on the visual modality, and learn to listen to the music, to your body and to your partner the faster you will progress, whereas constant dependence on looking (at your feet, at dancing performances, at the people around you or at the tables) will prevent you from reaching skilled tango milonguero dancing.

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