Friday, July 23, 2010

Parallels: Motorcycle Riding and.............. ................Piano Playing?!?

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Remember the posting about looking where you want to go applying to things other than motorcycling? In that case, it was kayaking.

Well, it doesn't seem likely, but there are parallels between riding a motorcycle and playing the piano.



You already know that I started riding the motorcycle late in life, but I have been a musician since around the age of eight. That is getting to be a long time ago. Time flies, doesn't it?

Amongst the instruments I play is the piano. When you play that instrument, there is a need for written music, and that is where the parallel begins.

The music for an instrument like a piano is written so that there are two rows called staves, one for the right hand above the other which is for the left hand.

In order to play them both at the same time, it is necessary to take in all of the information provided. You can't just watch either the upper, treble staff or the lower, bass staff. If you do, you will not be able to play them together.

I have found that a sort of peripheral vision is used to view the two staves together, and to look ahead a measure or two to anticipate what is coming next.

I have attempted to show this peripheral vision on this piece of sheet music. The clearly focused section is where the eyes are looking, but the blurry area surrounding this spot is viewed using peripheral vision, particularly to the right of the clear place.



There is some movement of the eyes, say, to concentrate on a particularly difficult phrase, or to check other details such as the loudness markings and written instructions, but you can't dwell too long on any one aspect of the music lest you miss what should be happening next.

Oh, and you can't be looking at your hands very much either, for the same reason.


Is this beginning to sound a bit familiar to those who ride a motorcycle?

When riding, we look where we want to go -- something like the place you are looking when reading sheet music -- but we also must be using our peripheral vision to examine the road surface, read road signs and signals, watch our mirrors, see cross traffic, and vehicles in adjacent lanes. This is augmented with occasional glances at details of the surroundings.

Here is an intersection that I travel through frequently.


The main road curves to the left, but there is a stop street coming at me, and another stop street coming in from the right. Cars stopped and awaiting on the street directly in front of me must look sharply back over their right shoulder to see if there is any oncoming traffic.

If I am approaching this curve in the road, I want to look as far through the turn as possible, say, to the arrow. All the while, my peripheral vision is taking in anything else that is happening, such as the car stopped on the street facing me. He may not realize that I have the right of way coming through the curve in front of him, or he may be so preoccupied with looking back over his shoulder that he forgets to look my way again before starting out.


Did you notice that the spot at the arrow is a good place to look, but there is a little opening (circled) between the bushes that gives a view slightly further around the curve that is better?

Some experienced riders go even further with looking through the turn. They look to where they think the turn ends, even if that point is not visible. That approach does not work with roads the rider is unfamiliar with, however, because he cannot tell where the real curve exit is. I do try to use that technique if I am familiar with the road.

As an aside, in left hand curves, it is difficult not to focus on an oncoming vehicle like the one in the picture below instead of looking through the curve as far as possible. You must view that vehicle with your peripheral vision even though it is moving, and tends to cause you to focus on it.



There is a further analogy between riding and piano playing, I think. When I am playing from a sheet of music, I can become overloaded, especially if I am not familiar with the piece, were the notes are particularly dense, where the passage is otherwise difficult to play, or when I am distracted by someone talking to me. Sometimes when this happens I become overloaded and my ability to look ahead is reduced. Then I begin to make mistakes, and may even have to pause for my eyes to read -- and my mind to catch up -- and get a little ahead again.

On the motorcycle, the same thing can happen, especially in dense traffic, or where there are back-to-back-to-back twisties, or in an emergency. You may not be able to process all of the information and begin to make mistakes, or, worse, freeze and wreck as a result.

How many times have to noticed an incorrect curve entry that leads to a more incorrect entry on the next one? It has happened to most of us. I think that can be caused by information overload.

In both cases, motorcycle or piano, the cure is to slow down until you have practiced enough to further develop your skills.

Of course, the consequences of overload are not as great when making music as when riding a scooter. One causes embarrassment, the other causes both embarrassment and pain -- the latter a decidedly bad thing.


If a musician is playing a more complex instrument than a piano, the sheet music may have three staves instead of two. Music for organ is like that, because you need a staff for the right hand, one for the left hand, and a third for the foot pedals.



The music looks like this:



It starts to get a little daunting to read all that information, eh? By the way, that piece of organ music pictured is a relatively simple one. Sort of like light traffic or easy sweeping curves.

And what if you are singing along? Then you have the words to read, too.

Can you feel it? The curves are tightening, aren't they?


A third parallel is that we develop muscle memory for the tasks. When practicing music, the fingers, hands, and arms learn where they are to go next with less conscious thought required. This is likely coupled with having at least partially memorized the music itself, so the whole process becomes more automatic and less mechanical. Grandma would say it is more from the heart. She would be right, since the mechanics of playing are handled in larger part by muscle memory so the expression -- the soul -- of the music can be developed.

In riding, too, we eventually learn how much to move a control, or look in the right direction, or know how much speed is appropriate for a situation without as much conscious thought. Maximum effort braking is another good example. It is best if you have some muscle memory and you are not learning how to do this in a situation where it is imperative to get it right, as in avoiding another vehicle, or coming into a turn way too hot.

We can also develop a memory for the road -- like the musician memorizes his music. The motorcyclist can memorize where the road twists and turns. Although this may allow us to negotiate those curves faster and more competently, there is one very significant difference. The road -- and the traffic on it -- can change with every trip, while the sheet of music is forever unchanging.


Remember earlier where I said that you are not be able to play the two staves together if you look at only one. When you are just learning a piece, you may take it in sections, say, the notes on one staff at a time. Later, you put them together.

This, too, is like motorcycling, where, while learning, you take a little at a time. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic Rider course doesn't cover every detail of riding, only the basics. You don't (and shouldn't) start out riding in heavy traffic or on the twistiest roads around until you have put in considerable practice on the basic control of the bike.


Another thing. Music teachers (and riding coaches) often make this observation: It’s a lot harder to teach someone who’s been playing an instrument (or riding a motorcycle) for a few years because the first step is breaking them of all the bad habits they’ve acquired, which are now part of their muscle memory. That muscle memory has to be overcome, and new neural pathways formed to be able to improve.

So the new rider -- and the musician -- should go out and get training before he learns those pesky bad habits.


Are you surprised or not about these parallels? Let me know.


Reference:

Muscle memory. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
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