Monday, September 1, 2014

Basic Instinct

Basic Instinct

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of taking some firearms classes from an excellent marksman and teacher, Mr. Alan E. Gantert. One of those classes was trap and skeet shooting.  I’m not a hunter, and not really interested in “sport” shooting, but I figured that being able to use a shotgun to hit a moving target might be a handy skill to have.
The class was made up of beginners like me. We went to various stations on the course, and took turns shooting, with Mr. Gantert doling out shells. On our command “pull,” he would catapult clay targets into the air, following a variety of  trajectories: from the left, from the right, ascending, descending, and at various angles.  With a 12 gauge,  like the one I was using, you don’t  have to be pinpoint accurate because the pellets spread out some.  As with horseshoes and hand grenades, close is close enough.  I did slightly better than average, I believe, but not much.
One particular station – it may have been on the last day of class – Mr. G. described as the most difficult. You had to stand with your back against a little concrete blockhouse, and the target came from high above and behind you.  We’d all been pretty successful up to this point, and Mr. Gantert told us not to be discouraged if we didn’t do very well on this one.  I volunteered to go first.
“Can I do a dry run before I shoot?” I asked. I just wanted to see what I was going to be up against. I took the position with an empty weapon.
“Pull!” I called.
A tiny dark thing raced across my field of vision and disappeared in the space of a single eye-blink.  I couldn’t help laughing.
“No fucking way,” I said to Mr. G.  This was going to be a pretty pointless exercise.
Then I took my turn shooting.
And I hit every target.
It was ridiculous. I wasn’t aiming. I was scarcely even looking.
“I want you to shoot again after everyone has had a turn,” Mr. G. told me.
No one else hit a single target.  Then it was my turn to shoot again. And I didn’t hit a single target, either.
Subsequently, Mr. Gantert and I discussed this incident more than once. He called it an extraordinary example of “instinctive shooting.”  Giving it a name, however, doesn’t mean we understand it.
I still puzzle over it. Somehow, when I had completely given up all “intention” of success ---because I thought success was impossible – I was able to succeed with perfection. On the contrary, once I knew that success was, in fact, possible and I intended to repeat my earlier performance, I failed utterly.  There’s a lesson here. I’m just not sure what it is. And as a teacher, I damn well want to know.
If I performed better without rehearsal than with rehearsal, why should we ever practice?  I know very well, from playing music, that you get better with practice.
And yet…
Certainly, self-consciousness is a major impediment to skill performance. But how do you account for an excellent performance when you don’t have the skills to begin with? What are we capable of doing “instinctively,” that is beyond our knowledge and skill?  How do we tap into that state of “instinctiveness?” How can I use this to benefit my students?
The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.


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