The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Beyond dance

Although from my perspective as a former dancer, dance seems to present the clearest case of experts focusing on aesthetic properties of their movements via proprioception, I think it is likely to occur in other performing arts as well. And it might be that other types of performing artists would see their own art as presenting the clearest case of proprioception facilitating aesthetic experience.

To return to Charles Rosen, whose views on playing the piano we looked at in the prior chapter, we find he also highlights the idea of proprioceptively appreciating the aesthetic qualities of a piece of music in his discussion of what he calls “Chopin’s ruthlessness” (1987). Chopin, he tells us, makes no concession to any technical limitations of pianist. In his words,
[t]he Etudes generally begin easily enough—at least the opening bars fit the hand extremely well. With the increase of tension and dissonance, the figuration quickly becomes almost unbearably awkward to play. The positions into which the hands are forced are like a gesture of exasperated despair. . . . The performer literally feels the sentiment in the muscles of his hand. This is another reason why Chopin often wanted the most delicate passages played with the fifth finger alone, the most powerful cantabile with the thumbs. There is in his music an identity of physical realization and emotional content. (1987: p. __)
It seems very much that what Rosen is explaining is a proprioceptive aesthetic experience of playing; through an awareness of the positions of his hands, that the pianist experiences the emotional content of the music. Their proprioceptive awareness, it seems – contrary to the just-do-it principle – does not interfere with the performance: if anything, it seems conducive to performing well. Or at least does, if pianists do not get so immersed in their proprioception that they fail to pay attention to other relevant aspects of their performance. For example, Rosen comments that pianists are so focused on their movements that they may forget to listen to themselves, and indeed, as he explains. “many pianists developed the habit of recording themselves on tape, in order to hear what they were doing” (2002: p. 36). This practice, however, as he sees it, “is a disastrous one, [and instead] we need to increase our awareness of what is taking place at the moment of performance” (ibid.).

It may even be that athletic performance occasionally involves proprioceiving aesthetic properties of one’s own movements—and not merely in sports such as gymnastics, which have a dancelike elements, but even in sports such as baseball, soccer, and hockey (see Cohen, 1991). Perhaps the beauty or graceful feeling of a movement can be a guide to what works in sports. Rather than thinking about the movement on a muscular level, perhaps sometimes the best way to assure a slam dunk or a home run is to focus on the aesthetic qualities of the movement.

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