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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(March 2009)

Only once before, I think, in all these columns (this is the 67th!) have I mentioned a main passion of mine: music. It was a year or so ago, when I was commenting on an instruction in the Highway Code: Never sound your horn aggressively. I said that although Iím something of a pianist, I find it very difficult to get a car horn to sound anything other than furioso. Now why canít the sensitivity and control of the things be improved so that they may be played delicato, or even amoroso, if the occasion demands? Anyway, Iíve been thinking recently about the skills involved in playing the piano (I wonder if you can see where this might lead?).

Getting on for sixty years ago, I started learning to play the recorder, and trying to understand musical notation ó all those dots and lines (and Italian instructions!) on the page ó and generally acquiring Ďmusicianshipí. Later when I began piano lessons, the previous experience greatly helped my eyes, brain and fingers adapt to a very different instrument, cope with playing many notes at once, and absorb what my piano-teacher was saying.

Although you improve by practising individual pieces, a valuable skill is sight-reading: the ability to play music that you havenít previously met. Combined with my memory of compositions (mostly classical) that Iíve played and worked at before, it means that I can open almost any piece of music and launch into it straight away ... OK, not always at its full speed! But my eyes seem to take everything in, my fingers jump to the keys, and my conscious brain hardly has to help them at all.

When I think more about whatís going on, I realize that my gaze is scanning to and fro along the line of music all the time, from the notes that Iím playing right now, up to a point a few seconds ahead. As I near that point, Iím getting a sense of how its notes and chords link up with what Iím already playing, and by the time I reach it the fingers are in position to cope with them. And by then of course, Iím looking further ahead. Curiously, Iím sure there isnít always time for me to focus on all the notes that are printed on the page ó so how is it that I (usually) manage to play them all?

But itís not just a matter of hitting the right notes: you have to play them at a suitable speed and with the optimum strength. And both of these things need to be varied musically while you listen closely, aiming for the best result...

Whatís all this got to do with driving, you may be asking. Well, let me begin again: getting on for sixty years ago, I started riding a bicycle on the road, and trying to understand all those markings and traffic signs, and generally acquiring Ďroad senseí. Later when I began driving lessons, the previous experience greatly helped my eyes, brain and limbs adapt to a very different mode of transport, cope with the higher speeds (not that much higher, actually, than on my sports bike!) and absorb what my driving-instructor was saying.

Although you improve (up to a point) by revisiting familiar roads, an essential skill is the ability to negotiate highways and byways that you havenít previously met. Combined with my memory of roads that Iíve travelled before, it means that I can arrive at any stretch of road and follow it accurately and safely straight away ... OK, not always up at the speed limit! But my eyes seem to take everything in, my limbs control the car, and my conscious brain hardly has to help them at all.

When I think more about whatís going on, I realize that my gaze is scanning to and fro along the road all the time, from where the car is right now, up to a point quite a few seconds ahead. As I near that point, Iím getting a sense of how its features and hazards link up with where I am already, and by the time I reach it the car is in position to cope with them. And by then of course, Iím looking further ahead. Curiously, Iím sure there isnít always time for me to focus on all the things that are on or approaching the road ó so how is it that I manage to avoid them all?

But itís not just a matter of steering the right course: you have to traverse it at a suitable speed and in the optimum gear. And both of these things need to be varied intelligently while you observe closely, aiming for the best result...

I must say, when I started this column I didnít expect the analogy between playing the piano and driving to be quite so close! And thereís more: they both call for excellent coordination, controlled mainly by the subconscious. Key to both activities is maintaining a smooth rhythm without jerky movements or sudden interruptions ó especially important when you are having to keep pace with other people, whether musicians or road-users. And both at the piano and in the car, itís easy to relax and go into autopilot mode (do you find, like me, that sometimes you are hardly breathing at all?). This can lead to wrong notes and to accidents.

But if you stay alert and make the most of the skills that youíve acquired, you will end the journey (musical or automotive) with a feeling of quiet satisfaction.

Peter Soul

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