Performance state

During performance, I enter a special mode of being; something I will refer to as ‘performance mode’. What is a mode, and what makes this mode different from other states?

Entering the Performance State

For me, the transition takes place automatically. No special ritual has to be followed, except for setting up the necessary equipment, focussing, and beginning. However, performance can be seen as ritual. Environmental elements of course come into play; for the focussing to be effective, a certain degree of silence is needed; also, if other people are present, these have to be ‘benevolent’ towards the performance. The feeling of disturbing somebody can seriously disturb the performance state.

Sensory perception is altered when in performance mode.

Reflecting on personal experiences, I can distinguish three main changes:

1) Auditory perception is increased dramatically; incoming audio information is treated differently than when in other states. Less analyzing and interpreting takes place; associative reaction to sounds is automatically prioritized.

It functions as feedback for the control of musical action, and also as source of inspiration, especially in improvisation.

2) Visual perception decreases dramatically; the eyes are either fully or half closed – but I couldn’t tell which, as conscious interpretation of visual information is minimized and reserved for certain controlling tasks. When leaving performance state, I couldn’t specify what I have been looking at – for most of the duration. This only changes when transitions have to take place that need visual coordination, like changing instruments, or when a change in the system has to be made where no intuitive control affordances are given.

3) Somatosensory perception: proprioception and haptic perception are altered. Certain parts of the haptic perception might get prioritized, especially fine / discriminative touch  – not only of the hands, but of all connecting points to non-bodily extensions of the system, like for example the lips and tongue while controlling the reed / mouthpiece combination of a wind instrument. Conscious attention however is given only in a training situation, or during ‘problem situations’ – for example, discrepancies between an expected tone result on the saxophone and the actual fingering situation.

Proprioception is heightened and includes – or at least seems to include – certain parts of the hybrid instrument that are perceived as extensions of the body, or as part of the hybrid system of body & instrument. This includes heightened attention to the position of the own body, especially relative to the theremin; the position of the saxophone relative to the microphone; the feet relative to control switches / pedals.

But in gestural control, also orientation and position of the sensed body parts relative to the sensor (or including the sensor) is part of heightened attention to proprioception.

This altered perception of the performance state has certain consequences on the demands, design & functioning of the hybrid instrument and the performance environment.

1) The auditory information at the position of the performer needs to either reflect the salient musical elements well (good monitoring); otherwise (bad monitoring), it should at least be possible to deduct these elements from actual auditory sensation, in combination with experience of previous situations and knowledge of deformation of auditive content.

2) ‘Performance blindness’ has consequences for the design of visual feedback.

3) Placing all important extension elements into the ‘force field’ of hybrid proprioception requires a certain ergonomic arrangement.

The ‘performance blindness’ might be related to transformed cognitive processes during improvisation, which in my opinion might also be seen as a dense network of moments of creativity – and in the moment that creative thought appears, visual perception is diminished.

However, consciously looking at objects is important at certain moments during performance. Like when driving a car, many actions can be ‘deferred’ to muscle memory, while the visual cognition is dealing with a wide stream of passing landscape. But at a certain moment, an acoustic warning signal might appear, and the visual perception now has to look for an indication of the source (‘blinking light’), and then give access to the displayed information (‘fuel low’). This is a different kind of looking than the ‘passing landscape’ mode; I call it the ‘state checking’ mode. And this also appears during performance / improvisation, especially when electronics are involved that use visual elements for state information. Also in group improvisation, a broad stream of gestures might be picked up from the other players, which might inform and influence us on an unconscious level; at certain moments however, visual cues or signs might be given, which have to be dealt with differently.

Switching between different modes of perception might also establish different modes of performance; the immersed, flow-like experience might change into a more self- and situation-conscious mode. This might also be recognized by the audience.

Quick switching of states and modes – including *back* into the previous (flow-like, for example) mode is thus an important capacity; it enables the incorporation of certain (possibly mode-changing) cues and pieces of information, without breaking the flow of the performance.

In my opinion, this ability can be trained by experiencing and practicing it, preferably in a performance setting (or at least in performance mode).

Like the ability to remember ones dreams and exiting / returning to dream state can be trained, shortcutting the long process that falling into sleep and reaching the REM phase normally takes.


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