‘The whole art is a matter of listening’
The Swedish guitar maker Georg Bolin, probably most famous for having constructed the alto guitar, appeared at a seminar in Stockholm shortly before his death in 1993. On that occasion he stressed that his skill in constructing and building was not a matter of magic or mysterious in any sense: ‘The whole art is a matter of listening’, he said — as I remember it.
My main objective in this paper is to argue for a notion of knowledge in practices, musical and others, which can explain something important about practices, and which at the same time can be further developed and used in more detailed studies of, for example, musical practices. I will use two main notions: attentiveness and what ‘guides (leads to) the best’. Good listening is attentive, and is essential to making good guitars.
It is, moreover, important to avoid or be very careful about certain notions; the dichotomy between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ is one of them. Discussions of knowledge in our epistemological and cultural tradition tend to take for granted a dichotomy between theoretical and practical knowledge, between theory and practice. I am not going to deny that there are important differences between theory and practice. However, what is most important may very well fall between, or even go beyond, that dichotomy. For example, Georg Bolin talked about listening as a kind of work, hard work (Hammarén 1993). Listening is here both a key metaphor and a skill that must be understood quite literally. This skill is a kind of knowing how to do things, knowing how to listen. Attentiveness is however not enough. Openness is also required. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1988: 77) says, that ‘[t]he first thing with which understanding begins is that something speaks to us’. Skill and know-how are generally considered to be kinds of ‘practical’ knowledge. Skill in listening is also a matter of insight into, or understanding of, what one listens to, and an understanding of how one listens. ‘Insight’ and ‘understanding’ generally tend be seen as ‘theoretical’ knowledge. The best strategy now is to go beyond this dichotomy, and start with attentiveness.
The example of Georg Bolin will be developed to illustrate and provide support for my attentiveness approach to knowledge in practices. The inspiration for my approach was some words by the Swedish art critic and curator Ulf Linde in a radio programme during which he referred to ‘knowledge as a form of attentiveness’. He was talking mainly about painting, and he said that Picasso was always attentive. Linde went on to say that one could not be trained to produce masterpieces but that attentiveness can be learnt as a routine. The understanding of knowledge as a form of attentiveness is key. This was at first surprising. It was not primarily a question of learning (better) by being (more) attentive. The challenge was to understand knowledge as a form of attentiveness. My way to such an understanding went through examples, and that is the way I want to proceed here. In the next section I will give a sketch of one of the most important examples for my own understanding. But before that I need some more conceptual staging.
Attentiveness is not universal, and cannot be learnt from a course in attentiveness. Rather, as understood here, attentiveness is always attentiveness in action, attentiveness in a particular practice, for example attentiveness in an artistic practice. Having knowledge in a practice means to be able to perform, complete tasks, solve problems, and meet challenges in fairly successful ways. This idea of knowledge, and attentiveness, then demands an understanding of the practice, its point or purpose, and its standards of better or worse performances. Moreover, an individual cannot be said to have knowledge in a practice without an understanding of what he or she wants to achieve. It is in this sense that knowledge in practice is what guides us in the best way. I will return to this.
Georg Bolin was talking about the art of listening, attentive listening. His listening was a capacity, which he had developed as a skill throughout his professional life as an instrument maker and as a qualified listener to musical performances; many of his instruments were actually tailor made for individual musicians. He made wooden instruments, and wood is a living material that takes time and attention to learn. ‘It takes a lifetime to learn wood’, Bolin has said. Knowledge in practice is attentiveness in practice, that is, that which guides persons within a practice.
The singular form, ‘attentiveness’, may be misleading, for it takes on such diverse forms. In a musical performance a musician has to attend to the conductor, to fellow musicians, the acoustic qualities of the room and many other things. It can take a lifetime to form and develop the many different forms of attentiveness that constitute knowledge in action within one specific practice. Georg Bolin had to be attentive to the materials he was using, their acoustic properties, the kind of music and the performer for whom the instrument was being made. The multiplicity of kinds of attentiveness in his practice, and others as well, is worth stressing. Being attentive does not imply that one needs to think about being attentive, as a goal that should be attained or rule that should be followed. Quite the contrary, thinking about it may make it more difficult or even impossible to be attentive or present. Thinking and theory may make you absent.
Attentiveness in learning: a master class example
I sketch here an example, which shows that an interpretation in terms of attentiveness makes a difference. I found the example in Donald Schön’s book Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Schön had taken it from a book about the Beaux Arts Trio, which I will quote from. Here the master and teacher is Pablo Casals. In what follows Bernard Greenhouse, the cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio, describes his early lessons with Casals:
We spent at least three hours a lesson. The first hour was performance; the next hour entailed discussion of musical techniques; and the third hour he reminisced about his own career. During the first hour, he sat about a yard away. He would play a phrase and have me repeat it. And if the bowing and the fingering weren’t exactly the same as his, and the emphasis on the top of the phrase was not the same, he would stop me and say, ‘No, no. Do it this way’. And this went on for quite a few lessons. I was studying the Bach D-Minor Suite and he demanded that I become an absolute copy. At one point, I did very gingerly suggest that I would only turn out to be a poor copy of Pablo Casals, and he said to me, ‘Don’t worry about that. Because I’m seventy years old and I will be gone soon, and people won’t remember my playing but they will hear yours’. It turned out, of course, that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-seven. But that was his way of teaching … He was extremely meticulous about my following all the details of his performance. And after several weeks of working on that one suite of Bach’s, finally, the two of us could sit down and perform and play all the same fingerings and bowings and all the phrasings alike. And I really had become a copy of the Master. It was as if that room had stereophonic sound — two cellos producing at once (Delbanco 1985: 50).
But as soon as this degree of mimicry had been achieved, says Schön, Casals did something surprising:
And at that point, when I had been able to accomplish this, he said to me, ‘Fine. Now just sit. Put your cello down and listen to the D-Minor Suite’. And he played through the piece and changed every bowing and everyfingering and every phrasing and all the emphasis within the phrase. I sat there, absolutely with my mouth open, listening to a performance which was heavenly, absolutely beautiful. And when he finished, he turned to me with a broad grin on his face, and he said, ‘Now you’ve learned how to improvise in Bach. From now on, you study Bach this way’ (51).
When I introduced attentiveness in my reflections upon this story it made the story richer and more interesting. It began to tell me more. Earlier I had been thinking in terms of learning to perform: Greenhouse listens, then he practises more until he gets it technically right. But the story can also be told according to the following script. First, Greenhouse is forced to attend to what Casals does and how that sounds. Second, Casals tells-and-shows Greenhouse what he did and how he sounds to somebody listening. In and through this process Greenhouse learns to attend to his own performance, and at that point, where the quoted story ends, he himself can begin to really attend to Bach. He has become more attentive in his actions and reflections, and thereby learns more and, I would say, he knows better.
From this perspective the act of imitation or copying acquires a new meaning. Perhaps imitation is not as important as learning to listen attentively. Greenhouse had to learn to attend exactly to what Casals did by way of a combination of seeing and listening. In other words, he had to learn to be totally present, to be there. Greenhouse also had to learn to attend to his own performance. By demanding an exact copy Casals demanded full attention. The point was not really, as I read it, the copying; at least not only that. As I pointed out in the preceding section, attentiveness is not something separable from action, but it is part and parcel of carrying on a practice.
Before we leave this example I also want to outline various forms of attention and practice within the framework of the learning process as a whole:
- Practice or training, in this case playing the cello and listening; concern attentiveness in playing and listening.
- Discussions of technique, reflections on the way something was done, what other possibilities existed, and perhaps the sketching of further possibilities; in order to acquire a language that is an integral part of the activity. Or to put it slightly differently, their talking and reflecting together kept language and (musical) reality together.
- The initiation of an individual into a tradition through a master; anecdotes and reminiscences have an important role to play in the creation of a professional identity.
It is also worth paying attention to the relationship between necessity and freedom, between discipline and creativity — the dialectic of learning. Once Greenhouse had been forced to achieve an exact imitation, Casals reveals that no particular aspect of what he has learnt to imitate, such as bowing, fingering and phrasing, is key to his continuing study of Bach rather than Casals. Casals’ own improvisation is part of the teaching-and-learning process, through which Greenhouse is forced to go on learning in freedom, perhaps even learning freedom. The somewhat paradoxical nature of the lesson would seem not to have been lost on Casals, to judge by his broad grin.
Casals taught Greenhouse to imitate him to the point where ‘imitation’ meant that Greenhouse had to create a wholly new performance of his own, different from that of Casals. Schön (1987: 179) notes this, and goes on to mention the story of the rabbi whose pupils reproach him for not having followed the example of his illustrious father. ‘I am exactly like my father’ he replied: ‘He did not imitate, and I do not imitate’.
In all ‘practical art’ there exists a dialectic that resembles that of learning: a dialectic between ‘trusting blindly’ in one’s own knowledge and being forced to ‘go beyond’ it and steer one’s own course, with all the insecurity that may entail.
Steps to an epistemology of practice
The family of expressions around the concept of ‘knowledge’ is large, including, among other terms, ‘insight’, ‘skill’, ‘understanding’, ‘proficiency’, ‘competence’, ‘mastery’, and ‘wisdom’. However, for my purposes here I need one term to cover the whole family. Here I use ‘knowledge’ as this all-embracing term. The noun form can, however, easily lead us to think of knowledge as something object-like, something we have or have not. We should rather look for the forms of knowledge that people express by acting and practising skilfully and insightfully.
In the first section I said that having knowledge in a practice means being able to perform, complete tasks, solve problems, and meet challenges in fairly successful ways. That is what attentiveness is for. We can then say that people ‘know their way about’ in practices as they do in landscapes, and in life as a whole. We can even say that knowledge primarily exists only in the form of skilled and insightful persons. And I then presuppose beings who can be responsible to others and who contribute to human practices that are all essentially social. Most traditional epistemology conceives of knowledge as beliefs, statements, and theories about reality, which in turn are seen as depictions or representations of bits and pieces of reality. Whilst pictures, descriptions, and other forms of representation can be quite useful, the test of real knowledge lies in what people can do with these representations — whether they contribute to better attentiveness.
My goal is not a final or complete definition of knowledge. The key term ‘attentiveness’ is used to emphasize that what is at stake here concerns people judging, acting, and participating in complex practices. I use key phrases such as ‘what guides (leads) us best’ and ‘know their way about’ to sketch a more telling picture of the landscape of knowledge and ignorance. My examples, comments and key notions taken together will, I hope, contribute to making peoplein practices, including research practices, more attentive to what knowledge-as-attentiveness-in-practices is. (That is, the (possible) knowledge I want to express by my account of knowledge is to be interpreted through that very account itself, that is as (hopefully) making people attentive and guiding them in a reasonably good way through the epistemological landscape; and ultimately as a contribution to better practices. This is somewhat circular, but I think it is a virtuous circle and a test of the reflexive validity of the account).
The way I have approached knowledge and learning in practices presupposes that there are some standards of right or wrong, or at least of better or worse results. There must also be normal or standard tasks that can be carried out sufficiently successfully by routine procedures or performances. Routine performances give room for more attention to those tasks that are not routine. Practitioners who have attained sufficient mastery can — and dare — look for other alternatives than standard tasks and routine procedures. So, when Casals finally showed Greenhouse that the perfect copy is not the final result, he told him that he must now continue by attending to Bach and to his own playing.
The description given by Greenhouse does not mention attentiveness directly. Rather, it is a notion, or key perspective, I use as a reflective tool to bring to the fore what is essential in the learning process. Certainly there is no attentiveness ‘in itself’. The knowledge and understanding involved is best described by reference to procedures, judgments and the results of the practice in question, for example musical performance. Talking about attentiveness adds something important, but does not make other descriptions superfluous. The Casals example shows a learning process. Knowledge is best understood within such a perspective. An attentive person who wants to learn is also attentive to what can be made better: the framing and formulation of tasks, procedures for solutions, self-understanding, and many other things. A person who does not want — or dare — to learn, will not learn. From the point of view of attentiveness, the skilled and insightful person is really a person that is still learning. Gilbert Ryle has formulated this succinctly in his idea of ‘intelligent practice’, which is essentially knowledge in practice:
It is of the essence of merely habitual practices that one performance is a replica of its predecessors. It is of the essence of intelligent practices that one performance is modified by its predecessors. The agent is still learning (1949: 42).
But as we also have seen, learning to make replicas may be one step on the path to ‘intelligent practice’. The modification Ryle refers to need not be something that radically changes a practice. In an essay on logging, the Norwegian poet and logger Hans Børli said, ‘I have worked in the forests for more than forty years, but I still consider myself far from fully qualified. I discover continuously small secrets of the work’ (1993: 109).
A person that masters a practice or profession masters a complex whole, not only ‘technical’ matters, which includes good participation in the practice. This does not presuppose full agreement among participants about what is good or bad, better or worse, but it does presuppose persons who can develop, stand for, and debate values and standards. What is best, or comparatively better, for human beings is partly a question of what a good life is, to which there is no final answer. It is also a question of good practice from within a practice. A definition of practice suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre can take us a step further. At the same time it will bring to the fore an important challenge for both artistic research and an epistemology of practice. Here is Macintyre’s definition:
By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partly definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved are systematically extended. Tic-tac-toe is not an example of a practice in this sense, nor is throwing a football with skill; but the game of football is, and so is chess. Bricklaying is not a practice; architecture is. Planting turnips is not a practice, farming is. So are the enquiries of physics, chemistry and biology, and so is the work of the historian, and so are painting and music (1985: 187).
The American pragmatic philosopher William James sought to conceptualise knowledge as a comprehensive whole, covering potentially everything in life and not only what is good in particular practices. He uses ‘leading’ and ‘guiding’ as key notions, and says that the only test of knowledge is ‘what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted’ (James 1978: 44). This is a regulative idea, a kind of ideal demand. In practice we can perhaps only make judgments about what is better or worse. I will return briefly to ideas of good practice and good knowledge when I discuss the politics of knowledge in the last section.
The study of artistic practices — making reality richer?
I will focus here on the study of musical (and other) practices by referring back to the Casals example. Towards the end I turn to the question of research practices.
In the Casals example I pointed to various processes and goals in the three stages making up the three-hour lessons. The first hour was devoted to the training of more or less ‘technical’ matters. During the second hour master and student discussed and reflected on questions related to the practice of the first. So far this shows a learning process changing between reflection and action, which is a quite a common way of depicting a learning process. Again, I suggest that we try to restructure our understanding of the process of learning with reference to attentiveness.
During the first hour attentiveness was focused on exact performance and exact listening, that is, on the execution of the task at hand. The student was then fully engaged in the performance, that is, ‘close to’ the action. During the reflection and discussion the student and teacher either created a distance from the performance, or used the distance that had already been established. Now attentiveness turned to alternative performances, and the place of a specific sequence, or to a way of playing, or to the piece of music as a whole. This short sketch should be sufficient to indicate how the conceptual pairs ‘close-distant’ and ‘part-whole’ can be better understood with reference to various forms of attentiveness.
In the description I just gave I referred to the binary pairs of closeness–distance and part–whole. I also mentioned alternative performances; the meaning and importance of a particular performance is brought out by attention to viablealternatives. I use these (here italicized) key notions, together with that of attentiveness, to ‘frame’, in Donald Schön’s sense, the learning process (1983: 40, 1987: 4–5). We do not then have to rely on a general notion of ‘reflection’, with its (too) broad spectrum of meanings.
It is now also easy to see that attention to alternatives and switches of attentiveness between closeness and distance, and between part and whole, may be at work both during training and during the reflection and discussion. The short description of process quoted above did not account for all its details. It is however not difficult to imagine switches of attention in the training hour, between, for example, a single tone and the musical phrase of which it is a part. It is also easy to imagine a switch of attention in the discussion, and that there was some reflection and discussion during the first hour, and some elements of training and demonstration during the second. My conclusion is that these conceptual pairs can structure the process at all stages.
I have avoided the contrast between tacit knowledge and verbally or symbolically expressed knowledge because the use of language (here and in the sequel understood in a wide sense, including other notations) is not external to practice. Language is used all the time in the cello learning process, not only during the second hour. And again we can make reference to the notion of attentiveness. Language is used in and for the guiding of all forms of attentiveness. It is very difficult to attend to something without a suitable language, or a suitable conceptual framework. However, language (concepts) and practice can begin to move away from each other. Greenhouse and Casals keep language and musical practice — that is, musical reality — together by sharing experiences in the practice and by talking about common practice and common experiences.
Finally in this section, I make some remarks about the study of practices. There are, as I have said, many ways of studying musical practice. I want to emphasize a few aspects, which come to the fore when using attentiveness as a key notion for an epistemology of practices, including research practices.
When knowledge is understood in terms of attentiveness, a learning process built on examples (cases) requires no recourse to ‘possible generalisations’. Attentiveness is deepened, sharpened or redirected by the experience of differences between various examples. Questions are almost always important, and descriptions may be essential to the learning process, but the latter are not what primarily express knowledge. Results of a study must however be communicated to people other than those who have carried out the study, in order that they may take part in learning processes, understood primarily in terms of their ways of being attentive. Verbal accounts are then essential.
What now becomes especially important is the study of musical practice from the point of view of these very practices themselves, or with reference to other musical practices. Given my focus on attentive persons and learning processes, such practice-based research provides unique forms of access to practice. With a slight exaggeration one could say that ‘the practice is the medium’. Attentiveness in a practice opens up reality in a unique way and structures the learning process, which can result in knowledge about the practice in question. This is not to say that such a practice-based perspective is always the best, and it is certainly not the only way to study musical practices. However, a practice-based way of framing investigations has been used only to a limited degree, and there remain plenty of opportunities for such studies.
As I said above, the results of studies must be communicated to other people in the form of verbal accounts, and through other symbolic forms. Descriptions (documentation, ‘data’, explanations etc.) are essential tools for focusing attention. Written accounts are particularly important because they are relatively permanent and admit the reader to go back and forth to find out ‘what’s in it’, which is important for critical questions as well as additions. Here I will talk about descriptions quite generally, using the term in a wide sense.
My approach to knowledge in terms of ‘attentiveness’ and ‘leading’ or ‘guiding’ is not, and does not imply, a notion of descriptions as representations of reality. I follow instead William James’ conception of (true) descriptions as ‘additions’ to reality:
Truth we conceive to mean everywhere, not duplication, but addition; not the constructing of inner copies of already complete realities, but rather the collaborating with realities so as to bring about a clearer result (1978: 207).
This is certainly not the final answer to the question of what constitutes a good study or good research results. But it frames the question in the right way: we can make reality clearer and richer by adding descriptions to it, and we can make it poorer the same way. We can even say, as some philosophers do: there is no ready-made world. To build knowledge is to continue to develop the world, and sometimes add to it, or even enrich it. But who is this knowledge building good for?
The politics of knowledge in practice
Knowledge is what guides in the best way, that is, also towards the best. However, what is best depends on, as I have said before, the question of what constitutes a good life, to which there is no final answer. The notion of what guides in the best way can be restricted to more objective, or at least intersubjective, factors, with reference to commonly acceptable standards of what it means to be a ‘good practitioner’, for example, a good professional musician or a good professional guitar maker. But who is to judge what is ‘commonly’ acceptable?
We have on the one hand judgements made from within a practice and on the other those made from outside it, by an audience, clients, customers or patients — that is those concerned with but not from within the practice. The definition of practice suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre (quoted above) sheds light on this difference. Key terms here are ‘standards of excellence’ and ‘goods internal to that form of activity’, which clearly invites the question: What other perspectives are there? Artistic, scholarly, and scientific practices all have their own standards of excellence, which may be contested, from within and from outside. Balancing an inside perspective against an outside one is important even if we don’t find anything common to all concerned. Again we can be helped by the key term ‘attentiveness’, as when one considers to whom a good practitioner should be most attentive, who is most concerned and what is good for those most concerned.
What is the difference, according to MacIntyre, between goods ‘internal’ to a practice and goods ‘external’ to it? MacIntyre sketches the difference with reference to playing chess. Beginner chess players may get something if they win a game, an ‘external good’, which is the only source of their motivation. However, later on the player may be motivated by goods, which are internal to the game, and relatively independent of ‘external’ benefits. MacIntyre says that
… there are the goods internal to the practice of chess which cannot be had in any way but by playing chess or some other game of that specific kind. We call them internal for two reasons: first, because we can only specify them in terms of chess or some other game of that specific kind and by means of examples from such games …; and secondly because they can only be identified and recognized by the experience of participating in the practice in question. Those who lack the relevant experience are incompetent thereby as judges of internal goods (1985: 188–89).
One important challenge for the study of artistic practices is to find a way to balance ‘the internal’ and ‘the external’, both as regards ‘goods’ and also as regards ‘standards of excellence’. However, goodness and excellence always have to be considered both from various perspectives and as a comprehensive whole. In this context it is worth bearing in mind pragmatism’s test for knowledge as whole, according to William James (1978: 44): ‘what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience’s demands, nothing being omitted’. This demand is certainly not a demand for ‘instant solutions’ but a demand to create and develop learning processes about what is good for people and what ‘those (most) concerned’ could and should mean in a practice.
According to any plausible account of knowledge, it is always possible to think that one knows without actually doing so. We cannot guarantee in advance that something guides better than something else. We have to make assessments as well as we can, with the help of attention to alternatives and differences. Judgements about best practices depend also on knowledge policy and knowledge ethics, which determine what values are judged to be more important than others: which learning processes, and whose, are we to judge as the more important? Judgements also depend upon and give rise to descriptions.
At the end of the previous section I said that descriptions add to reality. So, what is a good addition? Some make us see reality more clearly. Some make it difficult to see clearly. Some force us to change our mode of attention. Some make reality richer, perhaps by making a practice better, or by opening the eyes or ears of an audience. If this list is continued various value terms will appear. However, the result may be overloaded with additions. By way of conclusion, then, I would like to mention a kind of attention that I have only mentioned in passing — critical judgement. Critical questions are necessary to understanding of what can be (made) better, and it is important to make critical questions better for this can make critical practice better. The value of criticism is, however, also a matter of politics.
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