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Your Brain on Practice

Jenna Bauer

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Published: February 11, 2014 at 1:21 AM [UTC]

In order to attain a high level of mastery on the violin, it is crucial to understand the mechanics of our brains, as many great pedagogues have demonstrated. With this in mind, I wasn’t surprised when I uncovered a commonality between Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching and neuroscientist David Eagleman’s latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

Both texts bring out an explicit fact: the brain is jam-packed with antics and we are completely unaware that we are the subject of its pranks. Why is it that when you hear a recording of your own voice, or the “voice” you’ve developed through the violin, you’re taken aback that the sound is not what you expected...or wanted?

Galamian coins this as subjective listening. You believe you are hearing the sound correctly, but your desires and expectations mask the actual sound being produced. Our brains persistently conceal the reality of our interactions with the world to make everything more rewarding. While this may help combat self-hate, for a violinist it can be incredibly detrimental. The squishy organ in your head will gladly tell you that you’re in tune and in time even when you’re not. Eagleman illustrates this phenomenon in hearing, sight and time perception.

So how can you possibly defeat something so innate? Well the good news is, as Galamian writes, you can train your brain to hear more objectively. This is why violin teachers have always stressed the importance of using a tuner and a metronome in daily practice. Recording yourself regularly and singing are also effective ways to catch mental mishaps. But these devices alone will not save you from the toils of your brain.

There are three key areas Galamian points to, which need to be addressed every time you practice: building time (technicality), interpreting time (musicality) and performance time (complete run through of a work). But this is just the start. How can you use your brain most effectively during these stages of practice?

If your unconscious is allowed to take the reigns during building and interpreting time, then your conscious (the area you converse with regularly) becomes free to wander to beaches and meadows. Typically musicians refer to this as auto-pilot mode. In this instance, your mistakes go unnoticed and your practice becomes futile; the music becomes stored in the unconscious area of your brain, as is.

By this point you must be wondering: do great soloists tune out their conscious mind when they perform? Eagleman makes the point that in athletics, fastball hitters and world cup tennis players don’t have time to consciously think about the moves they make. All of their motions and reactions have been stored in the unconscious during practice time. When it’s game time their conscious awareness is better left on the sidelines. Similarly, the pro golfer is at a disadvantage if he becomes overly analytical: the unconscious area of his brain has stored the information necessary to execute the perfect swing, leaving his conscious clueless as to how he actually does it. What this tells me is that once you decide to run the piece all the way through (performance time) you should relax and allow your unconscious to take control (after all, you trust it to get you home from work everyday!). At this point there is no need for your conscious to be making corrections.

With repeated scrutiny, your conscious awareness will learn to listen objectively and overcome the urge to relay false information to the unconscious storage systems that make up the majority of your brain. By making performance time an integral part of your daily practice routine, you can train yourself to tune out the conscious babble when need be, in order to convey the music with finesse. Remember, the first step to improving your brain (and ultimately, your practice) is acknowledging its shortcomings.

Posted on February 11, 2014 at 4:28 PM
I am really glad to read about the cerebral antics. I may have developed my own syndrome in this regard.

I have never discussed this matter because it seems too bizarre. However, I have played in churches a few dozen times over the years and I NEVER remember the performance. I seem to drift into another dimension, play the piece and then return to normal. I am never even aware of the presence of an audience so I do not suffer from stage fright!

Does this report tie in with your research? I would feel even more uncomfortable if no one else had similar experiences.

Posted on February 11, 2014 at 7:50 PM
good entry! There's been a lot of research on how the brain works with music, and it's helpful to shape practice techniques. My teacher believes the subjective listening you mention is actually the cause of much of what people perceive as stage fright, or the "I don't understand why I can't play it at the lesson when it was so perfect at home" syndrome. It's just too easy to overestimate your skill when you're the player and the audience, but it becomes all too apparent in a public forum. Learning to listen to yourself accurately is so hard to do!

About the lack of memory, I had this when I used to play baseball. I never could remember much about actually hitting the ball. A doctor told me that when you're really using the motor control aspects of the brain at full concentration, the memory circuits seem to close off temporarily to allow extra capacity.

From Jenna Bauer
Posted on February 11, 2014 at 11:20 PM
Thank you for your comment! It made me really happy, because you validated the hypothesis I made in regards to soloists tuning out their conscious during performance. The same thing happens when we drive a car or lock up our house. We would only become consciously aware of these actions if our route suddenly changed, or if the door knob was moved 8 inches over! This explains why we sometimes get home and can't even recall our commute, similarly to what happens when you perform (lucky for you!). I am personally still working to shut out my conscious chatter during performances, it really gets in the way!

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