For the past 5 years, my Sydney Conservatorium of Music colleague Dr Simon Barker[1] and I have been exploring a theory of skill acquisition and development called ecological dynamics.  This conceptual framework of learning and performance  – emerging from sports and human movement science – contributes a radically new approach to understanding expertise and development.  We feel that the theory offers a useful addition to other pedagogical perspectives such as the Deliberate Practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993) and Self-Regulated Learning (Bandura, 1997; McPherson, Miksza, & Evans, 2011; McPherson, Nielsen, & Renwick, 2013; McPherson & Renwick, 2011; McPherson & Zimmerman, 2002; Nilson, 2013; Pike, 2017) in that the key focus is upon creating flexible and adaptive artists through the principles of self-organisation, embodied cognition, and enactive engagement with the environment.  Ecological dynamics supports variability, exploration, and experimentation by the individual in order to discover and develop performance solutions and outcomes, and promotes the idea that the learner should be thought of as a complex adaptive system capable of self-organisation under interacting constraints (Davids, Button, & Bennett, 2008; Davids, Handford, & Williams, 1994; Newell, 1986; Renshaw, Davids, Newcombe, & Roberts, 2019).

Figure 1: The author in a favourite practice location, Mt. Keira, NSW. Image by Traianos Pakioufakis.

The ecological dynamics perspective combines the theoretical and empirical findings of ecological psychology – developed by James J. Gibson (1979) and others – and dynamical systems theory – as outlined by Kelso (1995), Thelen & Smith (1996), Juarrero (1999), Deacon (2011) and others.  Ecological psychology offers the idea that humans are intrinsically enmeshed within their environments, and that this relationship is fundamental, equal and reciprocal.  The environment provides an array of important information which is used by humans (and other organisms) to guide our actions.  In this sense, the perception of the environment is coupled to the action of the human.  According to Gibson (1979), action is for perception and perception is for action: we move to perceive, and perceive to move.  Further, Gibson described this state of reciprocal action-perception as the origins of cognition (an idea extended by work in embodied and enactive accounts of cognition[2]), and that the information from the environment does not require enhancement by internalised representations, processing, or modelling.  The perception of the environment is direct[3].  The environmental information provides the individual with affordances, or opportunities for action, and these affordances are always relative to the structure, shape, and capabilities of the organism.  For example, a door handle offers a different affordance to an adult as opposed to an infant human.  As our bodies change over time (strength, coordination, control, size, etc) different environmental affordances appear and disappear (Chemero, 2003; Heft, 1988). These changes occur at multiple scales of analysis: from moment-to-moment experiences, insights and realisations through to longer timeframes of life-long development and change associated with growth and aging processes.

Dynamical systems theory is concerned with mapping and explaining the ways in which natural movement systems – whirlpools, weather systems, flocks of birds, schools of fish, etc – form and change over time. The theory uses differential equations and topographical representations of attractors (affordances) and repellors (constraints) to illustrate the ways in which systems are attracted towards patterns (or states) of stability.  Jane Clark (1995) identifies four important characteristics of these systems: (i) constraints; (ii) self-organisation (iii) pattern formation; and (iv) stability. Constraints provide resistance to an activity which provides (or removes) certain action possibilities (Deacon, 2011).  Self-organisation describes the tendencies of movement systems to emerge and disappear spontaneously and without any direct or centralised control; the system is the product of the individual components combining into a unified synergy (Latash, 2008).  The nature and composition of the individual components – and the intrinsic constraints of this structure – provide the tendency for pattern formation over time.  Similar elements tend towards similar ways of interacting, and this creates stability within the system.  Importantly, each characteristic of the system influences and interacts with the other features by both permitting and restricting possible activities.

Movement systems possess properties (for instance, complexity in the number and type of individual components) which allow them to operate in both stable and flexible ways.  The dynamics of the system refers to its ability to form spontaneously in a self-organisation way, and to flexibly change to evolving conditions.  Think of the way that a whirlpool is constantly forming and reforming itself in response to changing water currents, flow pressure, and rock surfaces.  An example of self-organisation within a living system is human walking – which demonstrates the complementary states of both stability and flexibility.  The multitude of individual components that comprise the human body can form into patterns of organisation that allow a wide array of movement-options over changing terrain, speed and direction.  From a systems perspective, the human body represents an incredibly complex combination of parts which are largely self-organisational.  The structure and position of each component limits (constrains) the possible actions of the rest of the system, thus allowing the system to be organised under the interactions and relationships between (constraining) elements.  The knee limits the movement options of the leg into a swinging pattern allowing a forward-step (Kugler, Kelso, & Turvey, 1982; Latash, 2000; Smith & Thelen, 2003; Thelen & Smith, 1996).

Central to the understanding of these systems is that they are not reliant upon a centralised or ‘top-down’ executive ordering: we don’t need to (and cannot) consciously manage and organise the moment-to-moment activities of the individual components of the leg to achieve walking.  This description of self-organisation is applicable across multiple scales of analysis: from the microscopic activities of our digestion, immune, and reproductive systems, to the level of whole-body movement, the coordination and control of several individuals in joint collaborative activities like music performance (Clarke, 2005a, 2005b), dance (Bishop & al-Rifaie, 2017; Hristovski et al., 2014; McNeill, 1997), and sports (Den Hartigh, Van der Sluis, & Zaal, 2018; Fajen, Riley, & Turvey, 2008), and large-scale social organisation (Bookchin, 1982; De Jaegher & Di Paolo, 2007).

The ecological dynamics theory developed by Prof Keith Davids and colleagues offers a learning framework that combines the conceptual benefits of self-organisation, environmental affordances and a dynamical systems approach to constraints.  The theory prioritises the importance of three categories of constraints upon performance: (i) the constraints of the performance environment; (ii) the constraints of the performer’s body; and (iii) the constraints of the performance task (Davids et al., 2008; Davids et al., 1994; Newell, 1986; Newell & Jordan, 2007; Renshaw et al., 2019).

Learning is conceptualised as the continual attunement of the individual to the constraints ecology, and realisations and outcomes can emerge spontaneously and in self-organised ways relative to these interacting constraints.  Environmental constraints include important surfaces, objects and events within the performance space, and include musical instruments, tools and equipment, co-performers, audience members, venue size, ambient temperature, and so forth.  Constraints within the performer’s body include strength, motivation, cognitive states, affect and mood, coordination, conditioning, endurance and fatigue, history and experience, as well as performers’ intentional states, attentional focus, and the calibration capability of the sensorimotor system.  Performance tasks relate the desired performance materials, activities, processes, effort, goals, and purposeful outcomes.

Thinking about musical skill acquisition and development from the perspective of ecological dynamics offers alternative approaches to learning that are more dynamically rich and responsive to moment-to-moment performance conditions.  This approach appealed to Barker and myself as an exciting new way of thinking about discovering and developing creative improvisational skills.  To investigate the theory, I designed an experimental practice-project exploring key principles developed within the ecological dynamics research community.  The theory had not previously been applied to music practice and performance, and required some modifications – especially with regard to the self-regulatory and solitary nature of musical instrument practice (McPherson et al., 2011; McPherson et al., 2013; McPherson & Renwick, 2011; McPherson & Zimmerman, 2002; Renwick & McPherson, 2002).  I focussed my research attention upon the pedagogical methodology called the constraints-led approach.  This is a nonlinear pedagogy that encourages learning through exploration and exploitation of useful information within a performance context through the intervention of constraints upon performance activities.  For instance, a change in temperature, or venue size, or available acoustic characteristics can cause spontaneous (often unconscious) adjustments to take place by the performer in order to satisfy or accommodate the constraints.  Over time, this can encourage permanent useful adaptations to the strength, coordination and control of the performer. In our view, this method is particularly well suited to creative spontaneous improvisation and creative forms of music making, as it strongly rejects the notion of an idealised, referential, or correct version of musical materials and events, in part due to the prioritisation of variability, flexibility, spontaneity, and individual agency in music making.

My experimental practice-project was completed over a 12-month period, and included daily recorded improvisations in atypical outdoor performance contexts.  The variable conditions of the outdoor contexts afforded radically different situations within which to perform, and initiated many profound changes to my music-making abilities and aesthetics.  The new improvisational skills and materials were presented in my recording The Dark Pattern (Slater, 2019).  The work – featuring myself on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bassist Brett Hirst, and Simon Barker on drums – was produced following the guiding framework of ecological dynamics and the constraints-led approach.  The improvised trumpet performances I contributed to the recording document a dramatic shift in my aesthetic approach to contemporary jazz trumpet performance, and illustrates the skills and materials I discovered and developed through my research.  In particular, I learned to attune to the instrument, the other artists, and the performance space in a deeper, more refined and sensitive way.  An outcome of the research is that my subsequent creative work is evolving into a kind of moment-to-moment contemplative practice of attention as opposed to trying to present any pre-existing musical materials.  I feel that the ecological dynamics framework has provided me an immensely interesting and useful conceptional outlook which I intend to explore with future creative projects.

Phil Slater’s The Dark Pattern is released by Earshift Music and available through Bandcamp

The Music Trust published a review of The Dark Pattern here (highlight URL, right click then click on the title):


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[1] Simon Barker supervised my PhD research project, and is a regular musical colleague and collaborator.

[2] See the work of Evan Thompson (2007; 1991), Anthony Chemero (2009), Shaun Gallagher (2017), Alva Noe (2004, 2009, 2012, 2015), and Daniel D. Hutto and Erik Myin (2013, 2017), and Andy Clark (1997, 2008, 2010).

[3] The idea of ‘direct perception’ is an important contributor to understandings of cognition, and has been applied within cognitive science from an embodied, enactive, embedded and extended (4E) perspective.  These theories support – to various degrees –  a non-representational theory of cognition which offers an alternative to previous models of human cognition based upon ‘information processing,’ ‘computation,’ and ‘cognitivist’ accounts which are all reliant upon propositional content accounts of thought and theory or mind.

Phil Slater is a trumpeter, improviser and composer living and working in the Illawarra region.  He is the leader or co-leader of the Phil Slater Quintet, Band of Five Names, and Daorum, and has performed and recorded with a wide variety of artists including the Australian Art Orchestra, Sandy Evans, Archie Roach, Paul Grabowsky, Genevieve Lacey, Katie Noonan, Andrea Keller, Mike Nock, Jonathan Zwartz, Missy Higgins, Lou Reed, and many others.  He has composed and performed music for the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir, Legs on the Wall and Force Majeure.  He has been awarded the Bell Award for Australian Jazz Musician of the Year, the Bell Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Ensemble (Phil Slater Quartet), the National Jazz Award, the Freedman Fellowship and the Limelight Award for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Jazz.  His recent recording The Dark Pattern was nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Jazz Recording, the Australian Music Prize (AMP), an Australian Independent Recording (AIR) Award and an Art Music Award.  Phil is Lecturer in Jazz Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and was awarded a PhD in 2020.

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