Scientists have recently discovered that it is physically impossible for humans to multi-task (Link). When it comes to paying attention, our brains are wired to only focus on one thing at a time. What our brains do is trick us into thinking we’re multi-tasking by switching our focus between tasks very rapidly. Once we’ve switched, it takes a second or two to regain the focus level we had on the previous task.
What are the implications of this for improvising pianists? Students often say that they have difficulty figuring out what to do with their left hand while improvising in the right. Now that we know we can’t focus and actively improvise with both hands at the same time, the only solution is to put one hand on autopilot. The left hand will have to rely on muscle memory while we focus on new ideas for the right hand, or vise versa. It’s physically impossible to do otherwise!
More on autopilot and muscle memory soon!