Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Value of Notation: A Bridge Between Brains?

Naomi Isaacson pondering on potential...... - Submitted February 7, 2000

For me the value of notation goes way beyond the "mere" (!) recording of movement for posterity, or for restaging works. While the division of brain activity into "right" and "left" physical segments is still under question, it seems there are definitely at least two approaches to perception, to which I'll refer as "right brain mode" and "left brain mode". Artists tend to work mostly in right brain mode during the creative phase, and often have a resistance to using the left brain, analytical mode.

I think dancers fall roughly into three categories: Those who characteristically approach dance in a) Left mode, b) Right mode, and c) Right-Left, or Left-Right, mode (ie an equal use of each mode, with a tendency to begin with one side or the other). An illustration of this might be the (a) type who can easily learn a combination by watching it done on one side, but has difficulty in working it out for him/herself on the other side unless it is demonstrated, compared with the (b) type, who learns slowly when seeing the movement demonstrated, but very quickly once each action is given a name, ie an analytical approach, or the (c) type who learns equally well either way, but may tend to favour one or other mode when first approaching the movement.

I was always fascinated by the fact that people can do quite complex movements together with a demonstrator, but afterwards retain almost no detailed memory of the sequence, which needs to be broken down into smaller, named-for-reference components (section 1, pas de chat, etc), for the left brain to process and reconstruct. The information then has to be passed from mode to mode in order for the body to receive the right message and perform the required action.

The reverse of this is perhaps the "glazed-look, symbol-searching" way in which people sometimes start to perform movements learnt from a notated score, until the movement has been "internalised" and made more flowing. Until the transition has been made from the left-brain, symbol-reading mode, into right-brain shape-flow mode, the movement doesn't seem to gel as dance. The same syndrome seems to apply to many dancers highly accomplished in performing difficult technical movement, but lacking in the dynamics which make for a truly communicative performance - they never leave left-brain mode.

As the ideal dancer needs to combine both the analytical ability to learn and perform complex, detailed movement, and the sense of holistic shape, form and dynamics to convey meaning through movement, both modes need to be practiced. Training for this comes partly through our habit of doing all class exercises on both sides of the body (is there a word like "ambidextrous" for the whole body???), and partly through the analysis and visualisation required by notation.

Is notation a Bridge between the Brains?

So often one hears in rehearsal a dancer say, "but I don't feel it" - and the rehearsal director's response: "Don't feel it, think it". (Or the reverse approach from each). The result is usually an impasse, and the dancer can develop an emotional block against the particular movement which delays improvement for some time. This appears to stem from conflict between the dominant left and right brain preferences of the people concerned, so if the angles of perception could be bridged, the problem could be solved more easily.

We should also remember that there is often a vast difference between the way a movement feels to the performer, and the way it looks to the observer. (One has only to see oneself on screen to realise this - often it comes as quite a shock!).

An important feature of motivational and goal-setting training in business is the focus on writing down one's goals, as well as collecting pictures to illustrate them. This is not just to have a record, but in order to develop a clear, detailed understanding of the goal rather than an overall, hazy notion. In order to write down a goal, one needs to crystallise one's thinking; and while it is the crystallisation that is important, the actual writing down seems to help the visualisation process stay clear.

Do we want Intelligent Dancers/Students?

Notating, and reading, dance can similarly provide the performer and/or teacher with an in-depth understanding of both the underlying structure, and the overall pattern, of movement. Whilst this would appear to be a strictly left-brain activity, the act of visualising the movement from a score serves as a link to the right brain; conversely , the act of visualising a notation symbol from the movement serves as a link to the left brain. That is, the translation process from one mode to the other required by notation is a key to developing the ability to shift fluidly from one mode to another - maximal use of the whole brain. It should be superfluous to say that such a benefit is of value not only in producing better dance performance, but also in all spheres of life; but despite the incorporation of arts education into academic curricula, very little focus seems to be placed on this cross-over process - students are taught to work in one mode or another (and continue to use whichever mode is most natural to them in most cases), rather than to practice the bridging process. As this last process requires a good deal of effort, perhaps teachers are happy to settle for second-best rather than try for perfection (or perhaps they are a little afraid their students will end up better equipped than they? Sadly, many teachers seem afraid to push their students beyond their own level of capability, which limits the students' growth, rather than taking the more adventurous approach of pushing beyond known limits).

A very gifted graphic artist, who now has to produce computer-generated work, recently said to me he often finds the computer "gets in the way". I believe this is due to his now having to negotiate his way between his right-brain mode of generating art-work, and the left-brain activity of having to make the software technically produce the desired result on-screen. One brain mode knows how to "make the pictures", and the other understands the software - but communication between the modes is somehow blocked, and there is a constant struggle to bridge the gap - requiring a great deal of patience and often causing great frustration. With practice, however, he is gaining the ability to use each mode to help, rather than hinder, the other - and is producing very exciting artistic work with cutting-edge technology.

Music students who play easily by ear frequently dislike having to read music notation - again a case of right-brain talent vs left-brain reluctance.

Similarly with dancers/movement practitioners, once the notation stops "getting in the way" of the learning process, and translation becomes easy with practice, one is able to use the shift from one mode to another to get better results than the use of just one mode permits. I don't know if people will ever use both modes absolutely simultaneously - which would probably be the ultimate "aha!" experience! - but the concept is fascinating.

Although the arts provide a link between inner and outer space by means of symbols, perhaps we have underestimated the need for symbols as an internal translating link between brain modes. Notation, incorporating both the graphic, shape aspect of the right brain and the analytical aspect of the left brain, could provide just such a symbol…….perhaps??!

Anyone care to comment - or does the above seem totally brainless?

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