Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Finger Knowledge, A Note About Me and My Machines

A couple of months ago, before I got my new machine, two keys on my keyboard failed. First the left Shift key failed, and then the left Command key (on a Macintosh). Both are important frequently used keys. But, as there are two of each, I decided not to get a new keyboard – who knows, maybe they’d come back.

Continuing one, of course, meant that I had to change my keyboarding habits, which I figured I could do. The fact is, though I’m a semi-competent touch typist, I never really got competent secretary-class good. Though I do a lot of writing, I never go for long stretches of flat-out typing. So, while changing my keyboarding habits was a PITA, it was no more than that.

It was an inconvenience, not a disaster.

But it meant that I actually had to think about what my fingers were doing while typing. I couldn’t simply let them go on autopilot. And I had to think about just what workarounds I’d use for various situations. For example, you need the Left Shift key to type a capital “i” or to type left and right parentheses, each of which I use fairly often. Now what do I do?

What I did isn’t important. What I’m getting at is that, now that I’ve got a fully functioning keyboard, I’ve got to erase those workarounds. And that takes conscious thought and effort. I couldn’t just flip some mental switch – zhupp! – and go back to the old routines.

It seems that, in order to learn these new routines, I had to “erase” those old routines. So, now I’ve got to erase the new routines and consciously “relearn” the old routines. And I’m particularly aware of that as I type this note.

That”s what interests me. That’s what this post is about. That mental threshold between being able to switch back and forth between two ways of doing something and having to learn, unlearn, and relearn “low level” routines. I’m sure that has to do with how the nervous system works, but I don’t want to think very hard about that and the moment.

I’m pretty sure that I could be a piece of software that would remap my keyboard to the more physically efficient Dvorak mapping – for all I know, something like that might actually be an option somewhere in the Mac OS operating system. If I did that I would have to expend considerable effort to learn to use that mapping. Let’s imagine that I did so. Would I then be able to “turn it off” and will and return to the standard mapping. Or would I have to “relearn” the standard mapping, just as I am, to some extent, relearning the standard uses of Left Shift and Left Command keys?

I don’t know.

Orchestral trumpet players have to do something like that. When you learn to read trumpet music you learn a certain mapping between the written notes and the (right hand) finger action – which of the three valves do you depress? – you need to execute that note. But there are times when you might want to play every note consistently higher or lower than what’s written. To do this you need to learn a different mapping between the written notes and your finger actions.

Sure, you can “calculate” in your mind what you have to do. And if the music you are playing is simple enough, this will rework. But there are situations where that’s not fast enough. To cope with those situations you need to learn a new mapping. Orchestral and other “legit” trumpet players do it all the time.

I’ve never learned to do that, because I’ve never needed the skill. How do these trumpeters keep the different mappings separate in their minds? How do they keep from slipping into the wrong mapping? If they played while drunk, would they slip?

Interesting questions.

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