My church has a big gathering twice a year, where everyone within a hundred miles comes to a Sunday meeting. The day before this meeting, there’s a formal training for all the local church leaders.
Well, the lady who’s really good at playing the hymns wasn’t available for that meeting. She asked all the other people who were good, but they weren’t available. She mentioned her problem to someone who knows me just well enough to think I play the piano better than I do, and when she asked me to help her out, I couldn’t refuse her.
Over the next weeks, I worked out the fingering for the hymns and I practiced the prelude songs. That Saturday, I arrived 40 minutes early so I could get used to the grand piano, and also so I’d have enough time to work the nervous icy stiffness out of my fingers by playing my favorite classics to an empty building.
When the conductor arrived, we quickly worked out the tempo he wanted for the songs– quick and upbeat, just how I like it.
The huge chapel filled. Then they opened the overflow.
When it was time for the opening hymn, I played the entire chorus at the correct tempo so the congregation would have ample time to realize we really were going to be singing this fast. I paused to let the conductor start us out. He raised his arms and beat time with sweeping, obvious, expert gestures, and I followed him.
Unfortunately, by the end of the first line, he and I were ahead of everyone else. I started singing while playing, trying to get the people on the stand to match up properly and lead by example, but it was no use. I had to slow down.
Sending a mental apology to the conductor, I worked at keeping it as fast as he wanted without losing the congregation. I was constantly making adjustments as I watched him while I listened to everyone, trying to head off the train wreck that was threatening at every second.
Near the end of the second verse, the person in charge of the meeting leaned over to me, held up four fingers, and mouthed that we were going to change plans and sing more verses than they’d announced. I gave him a quick nod and prepared myself to keep fighting the battle I’d thought was almost over.
Sometime during the last verse, I realized that I hadn’t paid any attention at all to the phrasing, fingering, or even whether I was hitting the correct notes. All those things were happening automatically, and being executed much better than usual, while I had no brain power to spare for considering those issues.
At that instant, my mind went back to worrying about whether I was playing the song correctly. What had, a moment before, been unconsciously running really well, was now hard work requiring great concentration.
It felt odd that when I didn’t think about the technical aspects of what I was doing with my fingers, the song came off better than if I had been. And the moment I recognized that was happening, I was yanked out of that state of mind.
That experience reminded me of a concept that was explained to me in law school, but which I apparently didn’t quite understand.
My negotiations teacher said there were four levels to becoming an expert in anything.
The first level is unconscious incompetent, where you know so little about the skills you need that you don’t realize how awful you are at those skills. It’s like watching a figure skater at the Olympics who effortlessly makes jumps and twirls, and thinking, “Oh, that’s so easy. I could do that.”
The second is conscious incompetent. That’s where you put on ice skates for the first time, fall backwards, and crack your head open.
The third is conscious competent. That’s where you’ve put in the hours of study and practice, and you see that you’re becoming good at this thing.
The last is unconscious competent. I thought this last level meant that if you practice something hard enough, eventually the skill becomes so ingrained that you can do it without thinking about it.
But maybe that isn’t right. Maybe practicing really hard will never get you there. It will carry you to the brink of the finish line, but not across it.
It might be that, after you put in the hours, you need to re-focus on something entirely external. That something might be unity with others; or, if you’re practicing solo, a unity with something higher than yourself. A lack of self-consciousness might be necessary in order to make that connection.
Now, if only a conscious change in focus can keep my fingers from turning into meat popsicles right before a performance…