The Habits that Create Knowledge

“An intellectual or bodily habit is therefore a structured discipline that generates knowledge. It is a discipline that requires a special kind of training, specific to each organum, and habitually idiosyncratic to an instrument.” – J.F. Gauvin (333)

These words zoomed out at me as I was reading a paper my wife prepared for her graduate course on the interdisciplinary practices and ideas of 17th century Italy. It seemed to perfectly describe the way I was thinking about an old and frustrating question in teaching music: technique or musicianship?

Of course, excellent musicians know that this is a false dichotomy. In reality, the two are holistically connected as part of a continuum. I asked to see the article in order to investigate the context of this extraordinary statement. Actually, the article was not about music at all: it was about the role that scientific instruments played during the early modern era in moving knowledge from the purely speculative and rational to the empirical through experimentation.

The author is an academic named Jean Francois Gauvin, curator of the collection of historical scientific instruments at Harvard. As I read further, I noticed that the purpose of his work was not only to highlight the role of instruments in advancing scientific discovery, but also to argue that the practice upon the instruments themselves yielded knowledge, and that part of that practice was beyond the realm of words and rational discourse:

“Instrument practices, whether to survey a field, observe the moons of Jupiter, perform logarithmic calculations, or generate new experiments under a controlled vacuum, all have something in common; they require coordinated movements, precise gestures that are difficult to characterize and ascertain. Such a bodily knowledge, impossible to articulate in plain spoken words or in writing, is often understood nowadays as tacit knowledge.” (328)

“Tacit knowledge!” It was this word “knowledge” that captured my attention in the first quote. I struggle sometimes to articulate the role that fundamental skills play in musical training. The word “technique” has a sterile, wooden feel to it: to many musicians it conjures the unthinking automaton, the skilled but uninteresting performer who has no imagination or heart. But “knowledge” is a powerful, sinewy word.

The concept of “tacit knowledge” seized me, because it provided a label for a concept that usually passes wordlessly between teacher and student. Both of my main percussion teachers – Michael Rosen at Oberlin and Robert van Sice at Yale – used to say to me “don’t tell me, show me!” The rational comprehension of what I was supposed to do, and the tacit knowledge that my hands and brain had to acquire to actually do it, were NOT the same in their eyes.

In Gauvin’s historical account, the practice or habit of acquiring tacit knowledge was called habitus. The concept of habitus was important enough to warrant a definition by the great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:

“Habit…is a generation of motion, not of motion simply, but an easy conducting of the moved body in a certain and designed way. And seeing it is attained by the weakening of such endeavours as divert its motion, therefore such endeavours are to be weakened by little and little. But this cannot be done but by the long continuance of action, or by actions often repeated; and therefore custom begets that facility, which is commonly and rightly called habit; and it may be defined thus: HABIT is motion made more easy and ready by custom; that is to say, by perpetual endeavour, or by iterated endeavours in a way differing from that in which the motion proceeded from the beginning, and opposing such endeavours as resist.” (331)

Habitus is essential to any discipline: art, craft, science, or sport. But the purpose of habitus is not mindless repetition for its own sake…it is to acquire a special kind of knowledge, without which the goals of those activities are not attainable. It can be a habit of the body (in corpore), and/or of the mind (in anima) (329).  As a practicing musician in a physically demanding field, I’m fascinated by the implications of the habitus in corpore, the effect that the training of physical movements has on the knowledge we acquire.

One of the problems with the question of technique in music is that the discussion rarely centers on the broad, encompassing vision of habitus. It is usually local to the practice that the speaker values or is familiar with. In the world of percussion playing, it might refer to a seamless snare drum roll. One might argue that acquiring the tacit knowledge of how to do this roll is essential to achieving mastery, but they are only talking about mastery of the specific types of music for which a roll is necessary.

As a teacher at a conservatory of western classical music, I prescribe many required habits that fulfill the demands of the music we study. That snare drum roll is among them, and so I put our students through the ringer of applying the habit of being able to play a roll. When they are called upon in orchestra to do it, they must already have a “motion made more easy and ready by custom,” and they must have spent much time “opposing such endeavours as resist.” Otherwise additional demands will overwhelm their capacity to perform well.

Too often, we are limited by the confines of the genre we operate within.  “Technique” then only applies to whether you can swing like Philly Joe, play a perfect snare drum roll, or lay down Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” on the xylophone without missing a note (all excellent things to be able to do).  Habitus asks the question: what do you seek?  The answer may very well be “I don’t know.”

Gauvin’s orbiting concept to complement habitus is organum, the instrument.

An organum is “‘that which is used by an agent in or for the performance of an action.’ It is a ‘thing with or through which something is done or effected.’ An instrument, at its core, is thus ‘anything that serves or contributes to the accomplishment of a purpose or end.’” (319)

Human-produced sound requires an instrument. Gauvin makes clear that the ancient definition includes more than material inventions, such as “a person…an organ or body part…a religious or sacred text…” (319) An instrument is the means to the end, and understanding the instrument is as important as any of the purely abstract knowledge we could hope to deduce or acquire about the structures of sound.

The nature of the habitus we develop is directly affected by the peculiar nature of its corresponding organum. I’m struck by how well this corresponds to a musician’s practice, and Gauvin even spends a page detailing the misfortune of a plucky organ inventor of the 1600’s who was sure that his 27 key octave was going to catch on with musicians because it contained “a greater number of consonances and other intervals in their justness,” and which would “be played as easily as the others when the hands become accustomed to them, because they follow the infallible rule of reason.”(332)

Habitus does not only serve to achieve mastery over something that already exists. Gauvin illuminates that the main purpose of applying the scientific method to the use of instruments was to harness the practice upon the instruments as a technique towards discovering something new, the essence of the “experimental.”

“…Galileo’s telescope was meant to observe something that was never seen before, though precisely what it was remained undetermined. Hence, a seventeenth-century organum was not an instrument restricted to a terminus ad quem (final limiting point), in the strictest scholastic interpretation (the hammer in the blacksmith’s hand was the most common example used). Instead, an organum, in the hands of an increasing number of natural philosophers, grew into an instrument guaranteeing a terminus a quo – a starting point, if used properly.” (316)

John Coltrane’s relentless and obsessive saxophone practice comes to mind: not just the mastery of an existing craft, but a push beyond, a searching into the void. In a recital I just attended, the pianist Richard Goode displayed a completely mastery of his instrument, transcending it and achieving a kind of pure ephemeral poetry. Only habitus achieves this, and only daily negotiations with the mechanisms of a cumbersome piece of 19th-century furniture produced the knowledge necessary for that moment to exist.

The problem – and opportunity – of percussion

As I speculated on this historical wisdom, I thought of my own practice, which is complicated and diverse. Richard Goode’s performance only increased my astonishment that something so exquisite could be wrangled from a big cabinet full of strings. A percussionist’s life consists of the tension between the demands of craft and the imaginative possibilities of many different instruments.

We see ourselves not just as practitioners, but also as curators. Our studios are like museums of sound, junk, and technology. In addition to the habitus of playing our instruments with taste and proficiency, we must cultivate a flexible approach to each new circumstance. We cultivate the meta-skill of knowing how to start a new habitus almost from scratch when a novel new instrument combination or setup comes our way.

Last year David Lang wrote a concerto for my quartet So Percussion to play with orchestra. The second movement requires us to play tuned wine bottles. Characteristically for David, the material is quite complex, and even more characteristically, we have to play it in unison throughout. The wine bottles are set up in a straight line moving outwards from the performer, so that all of our motions between them are a matter of bringing our sticks closer or moving them further from the center of our bodies:

Further complications arise from the nature of the scale that is used: G, A, Bb, C, C#, D, G. As the diagram shows, the 7 bottles are spaced out evenly in front of the performer’s body. If you take a look at the music, it seems to consist of straightforward notation: they are the same notes and rhythms that we’ve been using for years. But in this case, the physical relationship to the spacing of the notes is completely out of whack. Whole steps and half steps are meaningful aurally, but meaningless physically. The closest intervallic relationships between physically adjacent bottles are the half steps of A-Bb, C-C#, and C#-D, but the largest is the fourth from D-G! On any standard piano keyboard – which is identical to the way most tuned percussion instruments are grouped – these intervals would correspond to a physical space on the keyboard that corresponds to the aural space of the intervals and the visual space on the notation.

Not so in David’s piece. When I was first confronted with this setup, I was no more of a virtuoso with the instrument than would be anybody off the street. I had to develop a brand new habitus from the ground up, and a huge chunk of the learning curve would consist of training my hands and my brain to reconcile the cognitive dissonances of these new relationships.

It’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that I didn’t have any advantages in learning the bottle instrument. In a sense that’s true: my first attempts at playing this material were agonizingly slow and rudimentary. But there are other aspects of the percussionist’s habitus that compressed the learning curve for me.

To start, any time we play music with two sticks, we articulate in some binary combination of right and left — you’ll notice the R’s and L’s in my Lang score. This drumming habit is one of the oldest and most important skills we practice. It is the very first thing I cover with undergraduate percussionists, in the form of George Stone’s primer Stick Control.

The students must learn how to execute these permutations of stick combinations with perfect fluidity, at different tempi and dynamic levels. I use the snare drum as the basic instrument for these exercises, but you could whack on almost anything to practice them. When I learned the bottle music from Lang’s piece, the facility in executing these combinations was already ingrained. One major element is already crossed off the list of skills that must be incorporated into the new habitus.

At the Bard Conservatory, each of the four members of So Percussion teaches a semester of fundamental skills to the first and second year students. Although we’ve all acquired the basic knowledge to teach these skills, we’ve gravitated toward particular areas. I teach the snare drum semester. Josh works on basic timpani, which involves perfecting extremely simple exercises while placing the focus on producing a good sound. Eric teaches the elements of playing keyboard instruments such as marimba, which consists of focusing on the shifting mechanics of moving around the instrument. Jason’s semester fascinates me, because it’s like nothing I ever had: he works on the drumset, but rarely teaches anybody how to play a particular style of music. Instead, he applies a creative and permutational approach to 4-limb coordination, where the student may have to learn how to play Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” split up among their limbs, or read through many patterns in exercise books while shifting between hands and feet on the kit.

The purpose of this unified approach may seem esoteric to a student who is in the thick of the curriculum. After all, they are not yet really learning any music that will help them win an audition or impress their parents. But the ever-shifting and complex demands of percussion playing require that there be a baseline habitus in place in the future, that any new situation can be met with a confident set of skills that will provide a jumpstart in adapting to the specific needs of the situation.

Another established habitus that helped me work my bottle music up to speed is simply how often I’ve put myself through this process with different organum. Gauvin’s definition is sufficiently broad for me to think of each unique, curated setup of instruments as a whole. As such, although I have probably played each individual instrument within the setup before, the organum that is specific to each piece is its own new entity.

Constantly throwing yourself into new situations like this is a habit. I know how long it will take my hands and brain to begin to adapt, and how much extra time is needed to build basic fluidity as compared with marimba or another familiar instrument. I know that it’s going to be slow and painful for awhile, then get better. I know that I won’t be able to read the music with fluidity at first, but that I must keep plowing ahead.

Outside of the case of Lang’s piece, my group has our own collective habits that help us adapt together to new situations. Two of the most crucial are cueing and singing. Student percussionists are sometimes surprised at how much we insist on these tools, but they are actually lifelines that help us deal with the diversity of a repertoire where almost every single piece of music requires different physical movements. A string quartet, for all of its unique challenges, never even has to think about this. For us, singing has provided a way for us to utilize the same instrument in the preparation of almost every piece. We are able to check ourselves on where the greatest challenges of the music lie by having this baseline.

Cueing is another habit that glues us together. When I’ve looked over at Jason while performing together over the last twelve years, he’s been behind a different combination of instruments practically every time, but his body language and our unspoken communication have evolved a consistent familiarity. I can’t depend on him to always be in the same place on stage, nor to be making the same sounds. But I always know how he’ll show where the time is, or indicate that it’s time to move on from a looping pattern, or end a phrase.

Habitus in composition

Below is the video for the epic work that the composer Dan Trueman wrote for So Percussion called “neither Anvil nor Pulley.” You can chill out and watch the entire thing, or skip around to get a sense of what’s going on. The piece combines two of Dan’s primary areas of activity: fiddle playing (especially the Norwegian Hardangar fiddle), and building new instruments that involved computers.

Since the piece is a percussion quartet, there is no actual live fiddle playing. But movements 1, 3, and 5 are all fiddle tunes, orchestrated and composed out for our strange little percussion band. Movements 2 and 4 incorporate new instruments that rely on computers to manipulate and transform their sounds.
It struck me that in both cases, the practice of the specific instruments was essential in generating the musical material. The laptops respond dynamically to what the performers are doing, and their feedback suggests new ideas. The fiddle tunes have the contour and character of Dan’s fiddle playing…it’s unlikely that abstract structural planning would have created the same melodies.

When I say “abstract structural planning,” that is of course its own habitus in anima and it is usually developed through an intellectual organum such as serialism or sonata form. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m most interested in how the quirks of physical practice reveal knowledge.

I asked Dan – who is now a colleague at Princeton in addition to being a collaborator – to comment upon this way of thinking and working:

“This past year I’ve been giving a talk in various contexts (integrated humanities PhD program at Princeton, the national academy of engineering, others) called “Scordatura: on Re-mapping the Body to Sound (and vice-versa).” I begin by looking at scordatura on the violin, and how it subverts a deeply embodied hard-earned system that links ear, eye, and body. When highly trained, we hear a G, and our 2nd finger goes down on the E-string, or when we see a G on the page, our 2nd finger goes down on the E-string, etc. We have all sorts of patterns built into our fingers, and again expectations for how those patterns correspond to sound, or how they can respond to what we hear or see on a page. Once you re-tune the instrument, all of that gets subverted. For some like me (I learned to read music when I was 4, before I learned to read English) and many others, this might seem like a bad thing, but it is a fantastic tactic for opening up creative spaces.

That very system can be a bit of a prison: we just know it too well, and there is no room for surprise: re-tune, and BAM, all of sudden these familiar embodied patterns yield unexpected sounds, and we can explore. I do this *all* the time, and when I do I try to be sensitive to what I discover while exploring. I rarely come in with much of a preconceived idea about what I’m after (I might know i’m wanting something fast, something slow, something dark, something melodic, but maybe not even that), and rather just let my fingers roam and see what emerges. It really is part of a creative practice, in that I’m always playing, always listening, always trying to be on the top of my game (and often not succeeding), so that when I’m exploring a creative space like this I’m in the best possible position to find things that are inspiring to me. 

The next thing I talk about is the prepared piano, and how Cage’s approach achieves a similar thing for the piano, subverting a well understood feedback loop and making new creative space where we can leverage our hard earned physical knowledge (and even our music reading skills, whether or not the notes on the page correspond to pitches we hear; this is similar to scordatura notation that Bach, Biber, and others – including me – use). My own prepared digital piano (well-prepared digiklavier?) is similar, except that instead of bolts and rubber, I’ve dropped simple algorithms between the strings that respond to our playing in different ways. It’s a different preparation but a similar subversion, though in this case the preparations have consequences in time as well as in the immediacy of the sound we get back when we press a key; we play something, and then the instrument continues to respond over time, providing further resistance for us to wrestle with. Again, with this I build preparations, sometimes with an ear for a rough idea of what I’m after musically, or what I’m interested in exploring musically (dynamic tuning, asymmetrical grooves, etc…), and then I explore. I’m not a very good pianist, so I don’t have the same kind of embodied abilities as I do with the violin, but it is still an incredibly rich creative space to explore, one that led to some new etudes for digital prepared piano called “Nostalgic Synchronic,” and one that I’m continuing to use for pieces I’m working on now and will in the future. 

You (Adam) asked if it was a leap in my compositional evolution to this bodily way of thinking.  I think it was way back when i was getting started, and it came through the Hardanger fiddle primarily, since that tradition is full of scordatura. I think it was absolutely crucial to my development as a composer; whatever good work I have done is undoubtedly due in large part to having started working that way. Those ideas have extended to everything that I do as a musician, whether it be writing a string quartet, building a digital instrument for a group of percussion virtuosi, or working on a fiddle tune. 

Steve Mackey has this great quote where he parodies Groucho Marx: “I refuse to accept any idea I can think of.” I’ve always thought this is great, and resonates with how I’ve felt for a long time. Basically, we want to engage everything we can in the creative process, and our bodies are at the center of that. I’m usually most successful when I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I may figure it out later, but if I’ve got it all worked out while doing it, I’m usually bored with what I come up with!”

When I emailed Dan to ask him to contribute some thoughts, I knew he’d have something interesting to say, but I couldn’t have imagined how well it would correspond to the topic of this essay. Dan imposes an unfamiliar habitus on himself practically every time he composes, a sort of creative kick in the butt to make sure new ideas are available to him.

Final Thoughts

I believe we as musicians could benefit from seeing the world of our practice in a larger context. We are not only cogs in an industrialized wheel of music production.

We are creators ourselves, seekers of knowledge. Rather than only practicing towards a known goal – concrete goals are important, don’t mistake me – what if we saw ourselves as striking out into the unknown? Like Galileo, what if the main purpose of practice upon our instruments was to doggedly apply a useful habitus to an open-ended process?  This process may entail composition and improvisation, or it may be the crucial element in collaborating with a composer.  It may even be the process of constantly revisiting great old music to see what new knowledge accumulates from the generations of performers who are dedicated to it.  I enjoy reading about the weird contraptions, hare-brained ideas, and creative gall of the early 17th century.  I feel that we are, or could be, in a similar era for music-making.

But their example implies that we as artists must not only live inside the confined space of “practicing.” We must have a practice, a habitus that is intellectually and creatively engaged, mining our bodily insights towards new knowledge.

Links to Gauvin and his work on the web:
Work cited:
Gauvin, Jean-Francois. 2011. “Instruments of Knowledge.” In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Desmond M. Clarke and Catherine Wilson. 315-37. Oxford: Oxford University Press.






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