It’s in the Hands: A Reflection on Forgotten Processes

Last weekend, I read an article from the New York Times about a pianist named Christina Kobb who had studied a number of 19th Century manuals about playing the piano, and who had, through  years of careful study and effort, replicated the technique that they taught.  Learning the technique required a lot of work and practice, as it was different than the way she had learned to play the piano, particularly the posture and the position of her fingers and her hands.

Christina Kobb Photo Credit: Fredrik Solstad for the New York Times.

Once she mastered the technique, though, she was amazed to discover that not only did it produce a different sound, but that it also had benefits in making some elements of playing a little easier for her:

As Ms. Kobb became more fluent in this approach, she found that certain movements — jumping quickly between disparate chords, for example — became swifter and more fluid. “The elbow against your body serves as a sort of GPS, so you always know where you are,” she said.

Chords and scales sound smoother and can be played faster, Ms. Kobb also found, and dramatic pauses between notes — often a matter of physical necessity rather than of style — are lessened. The old style also allows the performer to be more discriminatory and subtle in choosing which notes to stress, Ms. Kobb learned, producing a performance that is subdued by today’s standards.

I read the article a few days after my post about the future of profiles in prospect research, and it got me thinking about the common fallacy that evolution is the same thing as progress or improvement.  Most people recognize the fallacy when it is pointed out to them; nevertheless, I think some amount of what philosophers or historians describe as the problem of presentist thinking is also built into our culture.  When I was teaching, I would encounter this sort of attitude frequently among students who seemed to believe in an idea of progress and continual improvement, as though everything is better now than in the past.

In reality, it’s not necessarily better, it’s just different.  There is a tendency both to judge the past by present standards and to assume that various innovations and changes are improvements, when, in fact, they often come with unforeseen costs.

As much as I value the increased efficiency that information technology and the internet brings to my work, I can’t help but wonder sometimes if I’m thinking through things as systematically or as thoroughly as I would be if I had to use more manual or more laborious processes.  Writing things down, for instance, usually helps me remember them better than typing them.  Likewise, while I’m quite skilled at research with the internet and with modern databases, and while I’m sure I can easily find many things that I couldn’t have found without a lot of work a few decades ago (when researchers had to rely on card catalogs and indexes of periodicals), I also wonder if there are connections I’m missing or overlooking simply because our contemporary processes are so much more targeted.  For example, browsing in a bookstore is a fundamentally  different experience from shopping on; likewise, leafing through volumes in a reference room sometimes reminds one of other areas of inquiry that might not come to mind with a more precisely focused search.

I once read an interview with a writer (I have no idea who at this point), who had an unconventional recommendation for people interested in writing.  She recommended that people interested in becoming more skilled as writers should copy their favorite book, word-for-word by hand.  I’ve never tried her advice, but from experience, I know that it is easier for me to remember something when I write it by hand than it is when I type it, so I would speculate that the mental processes involved in each are different, too.

I’d rather do the work I do now with all of the modern conveniences and innovations than without them, but the article certainly made me wonder if we might not benefit by introducing more manual or traditional processes into our work from time to time.  It may sound silly or frivolous, but if undertaken on an experimental basis, it may turn out that reacquainting ourselves with traditional ways of doing things (or learning them for the first time) may provide us with some insights about how to do things better, or at the very least, may give us a renewed appreciation for the way we do them now.

What do you think?  Have you ever wondered about what you may have given up by adopting new ways of doing things or technological innovations?  Is there value in going back and learning older ways of doing things, or would it merely be a distraction?




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