When you are looking you are not listening

I have been working on some tango guitar pieces but have been frustrated. I just could not get them to sound as good as I would expect. I tried different techniques but still they sounded rather flat.

I tried playing in different ways, with different amount of power, and different techniques.

At some point I tried to change the position of the guitar such that I am not looking at the fretboard.

I noticed some improvement.

Not looking at the fretboard made me aware of how I was hitting particular notes that sound better or worse.

This morning I decided to try practicing the piece without looking at the fretboard and it sounded great.

I was actually listening to what I was playing and getting the best possible sound out of the piece.

Then I realised that when I am looking at the fretboard I am too focused on getting my fingers in the correct position but am not listening to to the sound being produced.

The visual modality is somehow interfering with the auditory modality.

It is also interfering with the kinaesthetic modality because when I am not looking directly at the fretboard I find that I am actually placing my fingers more effectively to get better sound.

Practicing this way I also noticed that I am overly reliant on the visual image to memorise the tune, so that as soon as I stop looking it pops out of my head.

This reminded me that actually in dancing tango, as long as I was looking at my feet, or looking at anything, I was always frustrated with my dancing and hit roadblocks.

I was struggling to follow the music, the lead-follow was clunky and the embrace was creating tension.

What I see when I look at people dancing on the tango scene is a lot of tension.

When I decided to stop looking I was able to listen more effectively to both, the music, to my own body and to my partner.

I started progressing towards dancing in a way that is enjoyable.

I didn’t stop looking because it was suggested in a standard tango lesson or workshop. There was one teacher of tango milonguero who told me in a private lesson to practice with my eyes closed.

At the time I was also doing Contact Improvisation and Feldenkrais and you do much of that either with eyes closed or at least without focusing on anything in your visual field.

Vision organises movement but it also has the tendency to screen everything else out when it’s focused on something. Visual mental images of the wrong sort can also have this tendency.

I would say that the sooner you stop depending on looking, on the visual modality, and learn to listen to the music, to your body and to your partner the faster you will progress, whereas constant dependence on looking (at your feet, at dancing performances, at the people around you or at the tables) will prevent you from reaching skilled tango milonguero dancing.