Posted by: laurie689 | November 26, 2015

Performance Anxiety – Part 2

This article is a continuation of the one posted last time, which you can find below this one on this page.

As a performer, your demeanor signals audiences how to react; it affects how they feel about you, about your music, and about your instrument, and even how they feel about themselves! The audience will take its cues from you. If you look serious, they will be serious. If you are witty, they will laugh. If you are confident, they will be supportive. Whatever you do, you can count on your audience to feed back to you in greater measure whatever you give to them.

Your audience wants to like you and enjoy your music; they would not be there otherwise. They are there to make you feel good, and vice versa. Let your audience be your support system!

When we forget that our audience is our best source of energy and confidence, we may begin to think they are sitting in judgment of us and are planning to hate us. This is insanely silly, but such fear is all too common among performers!

What are we afraid of? That we might mess up. Have you noticed that a confident performer seems to make very few errors, and a nervous one many? That’s because nervousness causes errors; not the other way around. The syndrome we call “stage fright” is actually self-sabotage. We create it, and we give it power. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” The confident performer knows that mistakes account for very little, and so is not much concerned about them.

The physical reaction we feel as stage fright is actually “fight-or-flight” syndrome: when the brain recognizes a situation it interprets as a threat, it orders the adrenals to flood the system with adrenaline, which, if you really were in a threatening situation, could be very helpful. Adrenaline can make you stronger, faster, and more clear-headed. But too much adrenaline when it isn’t needed can make you confused, sweaty-palmed, and shaky-handed. (And it can make you play too fast.)

Why is it so threatening to get on a stage, be in a competition, or sit in front of a teacher? Because someone told us it would be. If you observe children, they are great hams. A three-year-old will readily perform (“Watch me!”). It is only when someone says “Weren’t you scared?” or describes being scared, or they see someone else being scared, that they begin to think that if someone said they ought to be, it must be true. Stage fright is a learned response, not a natural one. How unfortunate.

I find that stage fright is exacerbated if I have not practiced adequately. If there is any question at all about whether I can play a piece of music well in front of an audience, I don’t play it in formal performance.

To assure that you will perform as well as you know you can, here are some guidelines:

  • Practice very, very well. Then practice some more. Make sure you have played each piece well many more times than you’ve played it badly. It should feel natural and easy to play. If it feels difficult, you are not ready to perform it.
  • About 2 weeks before a performance, start pretending you’re in front of an audience as you practice. Visualize the venue and the people as you play.
  • Act confident even if you’re not.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Don’t have any alcoholic drinks or use non­-prescribed drugs before performing.
  • Put feeling into your music. When your mind is thus occupied, it forgets to be afraid.
  • When you can, put yourself in situations that are challenging beyond your comfort zone  –  that makes everything else seem easy.
  • Always arrive at a gig in plenty of time to relax, have a snack, tune more than once, do a lighting and sound check, and practice a bit before the audience arrives.
  • Then, sit where you can unobtrusively watch the audience for a while  –  they will then seem more familiar when you’re playing for them.
  • Before a performance, sit meditatively for several minutes and think of all the reasons you’re grateful for the opportunity to play music. (You’ll be surprised how much this helps!)
  • Hear each part of the music in your head a split second before it’s played, and hear it played beautifully  –  that way you’re choosing how it will sound, instead of waiting to see how it comes out.
  • When a difficult passage is coming up, take a deep breath and then exhale as you play it. You’ll wonder how it got so easy!

Those of us who have stage fright are in good company; Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Lawrence Olivier, and many other “stars” report being severely impacted by it. There is a story about Pablo Casals who, upon injuring his hand, was relieved to think he might never have to perform again. (His hand healed, and his career continued.)

There are prescription drugs for stage fright, which are potent and can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Beta-blockers were developed to slow the heart, so you can imagine what they could do to you if used irresponsibly. Only a doctor can advise you about them. If your career is at stake and you obtain a prescription, there is nothing immoral about using them. Why ruin a career because you refused to use something that could help?

The best cure for stage fright, however, is experience. Once you see that people aren’t going to throw anything at you or stampede the stage, it will become easier and easier.

There is more perspective on stage fright in my book Body, Mind and Music and in the book A Soprano on Her Head by the late Eloise Ristad.

Whether stage fright affects you or not, remember that you took up music for the joy of it, so have fun with it and don’t let anything seem scarier than it really is. If you truly want to share your gift with others, nothing can stop you.

Posted by: laurie689 | September 18, 2015

A New View of Performance Anxiety – Part 1

“Stage Fright”, as we often call it, is the bane of many a performer, both amateur and professional. Although some won’t admit it, a majority of performing musicians experience some form of it, from mild jitters to debilitating fear. When it’s mild, the feeling of increased adrenalin can actually help us perform well. When it’s profound, we can’t perform at all. When it’s moderate, it may make us play too fast, play inaccurately, or just not enjoy ourselves while performing.

I’ve heard budding musicians say they don’t think they are qualified to perform until they get past their feeling of nervousness or insecurity. In that case, they’ll probably never perform! It’s normal to feel some jitters before or during a performance. If you suffer from stage fright, you’re in good company.

Interestingly, very few music teachers address this issue with their students. It’s always a surprise to hear people ask about it as though it were a brand new subject. In actuality, it’s as old as the human race.

What exactly is the cause of performance anxiety? What has traditionally been done about it? What are the current and most effective ways to understand and handle it? Let’s look at each of these questions.

 The Cause

The strangest thing about stage fright is that it has no logical basis. Being anxious actually creates the situation we fear. The shaking hands can cause mistakes. The sweaty palms can make strings and keys slippery. The breathless feeling and distracted state of mind prevent focus.

So what is it that actually causes such a lack of confidence? Here’s a checklist. Before reading on, check off only what’s true for you.

I’m not confident because…

__ I haven’t practiced enough.

__ Someone said this should be scary.

__ I might make a fool of myself.

__ I’m not qualified to do this.

__ The music is too difficult for me.

__ The audience is too large.

As you can see, there are a number of reasons we can develop fear. But only a few of them are valid: if you haven’t practiced enough or the music is too difficult, those are real and can be easily fixed. All the other reasons are stabs in the dark to explain our anxiety, and probably none are true.

For instance, a large audience is no different from a small one. You’re playing for individuals  –  the same as if you were playing for one person. And by whose standards are you not qualified? And by whose judgment will you make a fool of yourself? And what authority told you it should be scary?

Actually, anxiety pops up unbidden in response to putting ourselves in situations where we feel under pressure to do what we assume is the impossible. How many times have you seen a performance that was so amazing that you had no idea how it was humanly possible and the performer must be superhuman? That’s why we call them “idols”.  But the fact is, they are human. Many have stage fright. Some make mistakes. But they excel because they refuse to let their fears run their lives.

Another factor: performance anxiety seems to crop up when we perceive we are committed to doing something that we think is at the apex of our ability. But our apex is merely what we think it is, and it may not really be the limit of our ability. (For instance, public speaking is notoriously nerve-wracking for many. But as a performing musician, public speaking is easy for me. It’s the playing of complex, difficult music that scares me  –  that’s my perceived apex  –  even though I’m a professional )

The obvious fix for this is to purposely do, and do often, things that are way above your confidence level, way beyond what you thought you could ever do (with plenty of practice, of course). If you’re scared to play for twenty people, play first for 300. If you’re scared to play two pieces of music for an audience, play six pieces.  If you are scared to play at a nursing home, play first for a wedding. Everything else will be a piece of cake for you after that.

Another way to get past stage fright is to play in public as often as possible, and is as many different situations as possible.

By the way, I think many an amateur musician doesn’t realize just how confident you need to be with a piece of music before it’s performance-ready.  If you can’t play it without feeling like it’s playing itself, you probably can’t play it on a stage.  It should be as automatic as tying your shoes. That requires a lot of practice. Don’t underestimate this!

Additional advice:

  • Release the idea of “performance” and play the music for its own sake. Show us how beautiful it is, not how good you are.
  • Know that the audience is on your side. They are there to enjoy themselves, not to judge you. If someone is judging you, that’s their problem, not yours.

There are a few people for whom experience and practice are not enough. For them, even over a lifetime of continuous performances, stage fright may actually increase. In such cases the usual logic and the usual advice aren’t very helpful, because for them there are other causative factors. Some are physical.

For instance, for those with head or inner-ear injuries or balance problems, there’s an explanation. My ENT doctor explained that the part of the brain that regulates the fear response is located next to the balance response, so it’s common for the signals to get mixed. Such people can experience unexplained anxiety in many kinds of situations, and anxiety issues increase if the balance problem worsens.  In such cases, amazingly enough, balance therapy with a qualified physical therapist can be helpful.

New Approaches

The best news is that new research has turned up some great fixes for stage fright.  First, I highly recommend this book:  by Marti McEwan. She leads excellent workshops as well.

Certain body postures have been shown to increase confidence. Some postures actually cause a release of testosterone in the body. (Women, that’s OK. We all have, and need, some testosterone.) It is the “confidence hormone”. Other postures tend to release endorphins (positive brain chemicals) that relax us.

I’m not talking about “correct” posture or anything uncomfortable! So don’t go all military. Here are a few of the postures recommended:

Before a performance:

  • Avoid any posture that makes you look or feel smaller.
  • Relax your shoulders, hold your head high, and raise your sternum comfortably.
  • Stretch out your arms like you’re embracing the universe, and hold that pose for a minute.
  • Arms akimbo: like the Jolly Green Giant. Hold it for a few minutes while imagining or actually observing the audience from an unobtrusive place.

More next time….

Posted by: laurie689 | August 28, 2015

Elements of a Successful Gig

Although there are many things to keep in mind in making a gig successful, we can think of it in two simple foundational aspects: logistics and delivery. Logistics is preparation and set-up. Delivery is the actual performance. They are of equal importance.


Naturally, adequate practice is ninety percent of a good performance.  If you’re unsure of or not totally confident with a piece, why perform it? Playing it only “pretty well” at home usually translates to playing it poorly on stage.  It’s a good idea to practice a piece so well that it feels like it’s on autopilot, in different tempos and in many different places such as outdoors or in front of the TV, before you perform it.

When a gig is coming up, it helps to practice in the mindset of performance by imagining yourself on the stage as you play  –  with the lighting, audience, sound system and all the accoutrements and atmosphere of performance pictured in your mind.

On the day of a performance, spend the day focused on preparing and practicing.  Concert day is all day! Doing something unrelated before a gig can make it hard to shift your focus to the performance. If significant travel is involved, do it the day before if at all possible.

Make sure you have made a contract agreement with the management or sponsor that states your needs clearly, including your arrival time, the temperature of the venue hall, provision of a quiet place to tune that is at the same temperature as the stage, when and how you will be paid, what sound equipment you will need, and so on. There’s a reason contracts are commonly used. Don’t wait until you have an experience that shows you how necessary they are!

If the performance is outdoors, make sure your contract states that in case of rain or too-hot or too-cold weather (you can state specific temperatures), an alternative indoor location is planned, or you have the option of not playing. Why take a chance on ruining your instrument (in rain or heat), or playing badly (when it’s cold) and jeopardizing your reputation? And always be sure to make shade a requirement when the gig is outdoors!

A day or two before the gig, double-check the details of your contract or agreement. Sometimes organizers will have changed certain details on a contract without pointing it out to you, and that can lead to disaster. (I almost didn’t notice one time when a sponsor changed the date!!!) Another time I showed up for a wedding a year too early! Had I done a more careful reading of the contract after it was returned from the signator I would have noticed that.

Arrive at least an hour ahead of performance time. That way you won’t have to feel rushed, and if something unexpected arises, such as a sound check problem, you’ll have time to handle it.

But  –  tune your instrument right away! You never know what else will come up, and you could run out of time for tuning the instrument later. Also, it’s a good idea to tune the instrument more than once if possible, leaving it to settle for a while in between.

After you’ve tuned, familiarize yourself with the stage and the rest of the facility. Take some time to stand or sit meditatively on the stage before the audience arrives. Decide what moods and feelings you want to create there. Relax a while and get used to the place.

Make sure the sound system is working well and the lighting is right. Most tech people will be helpful and kind. If they’re not, don’t let them intimidate you. Make sure they get it right. Your performance depends on it.

Bring your own seating if possible. The height and angle, the comfort, and what you’re accustomed to, can make a huge difference in the quality of your performance.

Do what you can to create an attractive and pleasant visual atmosphere/mood. Be sure your instrument is dusted, its stand is attractive, your seat is attractive, and you dress nicely. People do like pleasing visuals.

I like to find a spot where I can look at the audience for a while before the concert begins, maybe from the side of the stage or sitting on the stage stairs. If I can watch them for ten minutes or so, they won’t look like strangers when I  get on the stage.


Good delivery consists of three elements: playing technically well, playing expressively, and connecting with the audience.

Playing technically well involves using a reliable technique that is relaxing and comfortable, produces optimal tone, and enables you to play accurately.

Playing expressively is an outgrowth of having practiced enough to be confident, so you are relaxed enough to plan in each moment how you want the music to sound. This puts you “at cause of”, instead of “at effect of”, your own music. Expressively can be practiced ahead, but it can also happen in the moment as a response to the mood of the audience. I’ve expressed most of my pieces very differently in various situations.

Which brings up connecting with the audience. This is being aware of how your music is affecting them, and in turn using that information to enhance your playing. It’s a feedback loop that draws them in and also makes you perform maximally well.  Also, maintaining a pleasant demeanor, and at least looking relaxed, puts the audience at ease. Let it be fun, even if the music is serious! They are there to enjoy it.

One way to appear engaged (even if you’re actually distracted), is to shift your gaze between several different audience members in various locations around the room, looking just above their heads. This makes it look like you’re looking at people without making anyone uncomfortable.

Other considerations:

How successful you consider a gig to be might also involve how much you are paid, how much feedback you get afterward, whether you enjoyed it, and whether it leads to more gigs.

Good pay is a function of a good contract  – see that info above.

Feedback is something that requires interpretation on your part. Of course there will be those who will compliment you no matter what. Or there will be the occasional jerk who has to criticize no matter what. Don’t let anyone’s words cast a spell upon your feeling about your abilities. You can often discern when a compliment is sincere if the person gives details on what they liked about your playing. Constructive criticism should only be offered by those who are qualified, who have been asked for feedback, and who have no vested interest in putting you down. Consider the motivation involved.

Your enjoyment of the gig will tell you whether it’s the kind of gig you want to do more of. If not, ask yourself specifically what detail was not ideal for you. Then you can determine what other kinds of gigs might offer more satisfaction.

If you sell CDs at a gig, the number you sell is a direct indication of your success. I used to gauge my success on percentages: if I sold half as many CDs as there were people in the audience, that was a good sign. Sometimes I’d sell 100 percent or more. Sometimes less than 50%  –  in that case I’d try to analyze what in my performance was not up to par. Your own percentages will not necessarily be the same, but you’ll figure out what your expectations should be.

Of course, most importantly, have fun! There’s no use in performing if you don’t enjoy it. Don’t do it because someone pressured you into it or because you think it’s the only way to justify your music. There are many ways to share your music. If you do perform, be assured that it will be enjoyed by the majority who listen. You should be one of them.

Posted by: laurie689 | July 23, 2015

Why Play Music, Anyway?

Ask any number of musicians why they play music, and you’ll get a different answer from each one, ranging from, “My parents made me,” to “I can’t NOT play music  –  it’s my passion!” Assuming we want to play, what is it that drives us to pursue music? The answers are as diverse as are the people.

Have you ever experienced goose bumps while listening to music? If so, explaining passion to you isn’t necessary. Chances are it has driven you to play. If you get goose bumps while you’re playing, so much the better!

From early childhood I always knew I’d be a professional musician. Passion propelled my desire to play well, and practicing was what I wanted to spend my time doing. I probably drove my parents nuts. Why did I love music so much? Because I felt its emotions. Because it spoke more deeply to me than verbal language. Because playing music was how I was able to communicate, and I found that people would listen to my music who wouldn’t otherwise have noticed me at all. It helped me connect with the world.

In a way, music was my therapy. Many years later I would see in a Bill Moyers series, Healing and the Mind, that research had shown that the appropriate expression of all emotions (not just “good” ones) enhances the immune system. (The specific reasons for this are now taught in detail in most therapeutic music training programs.) Notice I said the expression of  –  not just the feeling of  –  emotions. Music expresses feelings as keenly as do laughter, crying, whooping it up, or screaming. When you really listen to music you can hear all those things in various pieces. It is an appropriate way to express emotions of all kinds.

But do you also put those emotions into your own playing? Many musicians are stuck in getting all the notes right above all else, forsaking music’s real purpose. It’s a worthy goal to get all the notes right; after all, that’s one thing practice is for, and since accuracy is what makes a piece musically coherent, it should not be ignored. But it’s not the end purpose of playing.

Can you remember why you started to play music? Surely you didn’t say to yourself, “I want to play music so I can get all the notes right.” Chances are you began to play because you heard some music that gave you goose bumps. If so, that wasn’t so much because all the notes were right, but because you felt the deeper meaning that was inherent either in the composition or in the expressive playing of the musician, or both. If you play expressively, you enjoy your own music far more than if you’re only trying to get it right.

I find it sad that there are musicians who use music as a merely Intellectual exercise, as though they don’t hear the beauty at all. Perhaps they really can’t. Perhaps intellectualizing is their passion, and if so, perhaps for that reason they do get as much pleasure out of playing music as any other passionate musician. That said, regarding listening, the most intellectual individual I know feels and responds to music with every cell of his body.

This discussion naturally leads into the subject of music as therapy. People tend to use music therapeutically even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. We get in the car after a day of work and turn on the music because it’s relaxing or energizing, depending on the genre, and because it can either match or change our mood.  We use music as the soundtrack of our lives.

Aside from the purposely or subconsciously applied therapeutic uses of music, hearing music is like going to a play or a movie. Have you noticed that plays and movies are boring if they have no tension, no negative aspects in the story that must be overcome? That’s because we humans thrive on drama. We create it in our own lives partly because it amuses us, just like movies do. Movies simply reiterate or fantasize life; otherwise, we’d have no interest in movies! It’s the same with music. We sing those sad songs, happy songs, angry songs, celebratory songs because they entertain us by reiterating certain aspects of life. They make us feel our emotions. The brain’s emotion-producing functions can’t tell the difference between an emotion felt while being entertained and one felt due to a real life circumstance. Therefore, playing music is like being an actor. We’re creating drama in music for others to feel. If we don’t allow ourselves to play expressively, there’s little to be felt.

For those who love session playing and jamming, music is also a form of sharing with friends in a way that produces a certain kind of elation. A musical conversation takes place that can elevate the goose-bump factor to new heights.

On the other side of the coin, and equally compelling, is the ego aspect of music-playing, which isn’t so much sharing it as showing off. It’s my guess that this is a struggle for almost every musician. When we’ve worked so hard at our skills, how tempting is it to show them off? After all, why work on them if not to make them heard? So in a way, maybe showing off isn’t so bad.

I would say that developing skill is about one’s own enjoyment. If I didn’t use my best skills in a performance, I wouldn’t feel satisfied. I like to challenge myself. But I will not try to use any skills I don’t truly yet have one hundred percent! That doesn’t mean I play perfectly all the time. It means I play what comfortably challenges me that I know will come out well – unless my finger happens to slip, which can happen on even the most basic tunes anyway. So I play to share, in the hope that it will cause goose bumps, laughter, tears, outrage, and celebration, and that maybe someone in my audience will be inspired to play.

However we use music, it’s good for the brain. All you have to do is google “music and the brain” or some version of that, and you’ll come up with more information than you have imagined on how music listening and music playing affect and enhance our neurologic systems, how it makes us smarter, how it can stave off dementia, how we absorb information better when music is being played, and so on.

So, getting back to the original question  –  why do we play music anyway  –  there are many reasons. Because it’s beautiful, because it’s our passion, because it’s a way to communicate, because it gets us in touch with our emotions, because it gives us a way to challenge ourselves, because it connects us with others, because it’s therapeutic, and because it makes us smarter.  (Have I missed something? Probably.) Whatever your reason, go for it! You’ll contribute to a happier world.


Posted by: laurie689 | June 17, 2015

We Can’t Hear What’s in Your Head

Your audience can’t hear what’s in your head. They can only hear what you actually play, and that could be a good thing, or it could be not so good.

What is in your head as you play a piece of music? Is it the “soundtrack” of the first time you heard the piece played on a recording or in a session or concert? Is it your version of how the piece or song should sound? Is it your own memory of how you’ve played it in the past?

Performers need to make conscious decisions about what to hear in our heads, because it affects what comes out our fingers! But at the same time, we have to remember that no one else knows what’s running through our brains.

What’s good about that fact is that when you play notes or chords you didn’t intend to play, or even get lost in a whole alternative melody or arrangement, how would we know you didn’t intend that? You might be convinced that we all know what you know and are therefore appalled at how wrongly you played something, but really, we don’t.

We don’t unless you give it away with your body language, facial expressions and comments. If when you err, you visibly or audibly react, you’re telling us all about something we probably hadn’t noticed. If you hesitate or go back and correct those unplanned or skipped notes, you’re subjecting us to unnecessary discontinuity. If you apologize, you’re embarrassing yourself and therefore us as well.

The appearance that many professionals give of playing perfectly is only that: appearance. Often what they are doing is using unplanned notes as inspirations to create variations and improvisations. The ability to do so is a result of the confidence borne of adequate practice and of knowledge beyond just how to play the right notes. Music is so much more than the right notes.

I know many people who, when they play something unexpected or miss a note, think they have failed. They have put themselves in a prison of their own making. What a shame. Music can’t be perfect, but it ought to be gratifying to play (otherwise, why play it?). We can allow ourselves that joy in playing by giving ourselves permission to play with more freedom. Despite our best efforts we all make mistakes, but if we treat errors as opportunities for variation and improv, we experience less stress and more gratification.

If you make some errors, who cares? You are the one who gives the clues about how important it is. If you’re ashamed of errors, the audience will be embarrassed for you. But if you ignore errors, they will also ignore them (unless there is an occasional jerk who thinks it’s his duty to point it out to you later. In that case, consider the source and don’t take it personally). And if you good-naturedly laugh off the errors that stand out like the feathers on a cat’s chin, the audience will laugh as well.

So… what’s the flip side of this? The negative aspect of the fact that an audience can’t hear what’s in your head is that many musicians never stop running in their head the first arrangement or recording they heard of the piece, or are “hearing” an idealized version of the piece, and don’t realize it isn’t how they themselves sound. All the audience gets is what they actually hear.

One of the most common examples I can think of is someone who learns a tune/piece they’ve heard someone else do well, and assumes that their being able to play the notes means it sounds just like what they originally heard. It doesn’t. It can’t. Every musician is an individual and you will, no matter what, sound like yourself. We must hear our own music. We must assess what we actually sound like.

When you play something, be sure you’re creating a piece that has structure, context and content, even if it’s as simple as a single-line melody. It doesn’t have to be complex. But you do well to hear it with the audience’s ears. They can’t fill in the chords or choose between several random notes to figure out which were the right ones. If you don’t use those random notes (mistakes) creatively to make some kind of structure, the audience can’t discern any structure, and structure is the key to understanding and integrating a piece of music. Pretend you meant it, use it well, and move on. Like the famous cat Haiku:

Grace personified

Leaps into the window pane

I meant to do that.

To reiterate: how do you reconcile between the first idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s good) and the second idea (they can’t hear what you intended and that’s not good)? Practice, practice, practice… and learn to play with the freedom of someone who knows their music structures well, so you can improvise around errors, yet play well enough to make a piece sound like a cohesive entity. It’s not difficult; even beginners can do this.

We can’t hear what’s in your head. Use that fact to your advantage! You’ll be a happier musician.

Posted by: laurie689 | April 30, 2015

Music Changes the Brain

In the last twenty years or so it has come to our attention that there is researched proof that music positively affects how our neurology develops. Humans are musical beings and have always used music for entertainment, ritual, and mood enhancement. Now science is beginning to be able to tell us why it is so important to our well-being and our brain health.

It’s a shame that music has largely been removed from our public schools because it is deemed unnecessary. Current science, however, says otherwise. Researcher and neuropsychologist Ani Patel, associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and author of Music, Language, and the Brain, says “there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have impacts on other abilities,” including speech, understanding emotions in vocal inflection, and even multi-tasking. “This could have a real impact on the value we put on it as an activity in the schools, not to mention all the impact it has on emotional development, emotional maturity, social skills, stick-to-itiveness, things we typically don’t measure in school but which are hugely important in a child’s ultimate success.”

At Boston Children’s Hospital, research is being done on how music-learning affects language development. PET scans show that musically trained children and professional adult musicians have “…more activation in prefrontal areas of the brain compared to their peers”.

There are several different neurosystems involved in learning and playing even a simple musical piece: the auditory system, motor system, executive function system (decision-making), and so on. Patel states, “There’s overlap between the networks that process music and the networks that are involved in other day-to-day cognitive functions such as language, memory, attention and so forth… music sometimes places higher demands on the brain, on some of the same shared networks that we use for other abilities.” Music learning and playing enhance those networks.

Yunxin Wang, a researcher at the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning at Beijing Normal University, examined the brains of 48 youths between 19 to 21 years of age who had studied music at least one year between the ages of 3 and 15. After controlling for gender and the amount of time they had been learning/playing music, she found that those who had been playing since before age 7 had significantly better developed language and executive functions.

It has also been found by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden that after a stroke or other negative neurologic impact, beginning music-learning enhances one’s ability to recover lost functions.

Musical study also affects how our personalities develop. Through cooperative music study such as school orchestras, students learn to work well with others. Through inevitable failures, students learn how to achieve a goal through persistence. Through experiencing such successes, they gain self-esteem. They learn to interpret and express ideas in new ways. They learn that hard work and dedication are more productive than raw innate ability.

What a shame that music has largely been cut from public education. How many young people will grow up with less cognitive and functional ability because they were not given the opportunity to learn to play music? We have no way to measure what the difference could have been for any given individual.

But we can still learn music-playing as adults, and those who do can vouch for its beneficial effects. Fingers stay more limber, the brain more “plastic” (able to learn on a broad scale); we retain memory better, we track conversations better, and of course we derive a lot of enjoyment from our increasing ability to make beautiful music if we stick with it. Not to mention the wonderful camaraderie of playing music with friends.

Music, by the way, is a language. It is learned and processed in the same way as the spoken word, because it contains the same elements: tone and pitch, manipulation of a specific body part or parts to make the necessary sounds, vocabulary, memory, intention, and communication. What we communicate in music tells a story or elicits an emotion, just as any language does. With this in mind, I’ll cite a study done years ago that is commonly referred to as The Nun Study:

The study was published by the journal Neurology and suggested that people with sophisticated linguistic skills can avoid developing dementia in old age, even if their brains show the physical signs of memory disorder such as Alzheimer’s. This long-term study 600 nuns in Minnesota, done by Dr. David Snowdon, uncovered a correlation between the nuns’ language skills and the likelihood that they would develop Alzheimer’s later in life. The young nuns who had sophisticated language skill, defined as the density of ideas per every 10 written words, turned out over time to be significantly less likely to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia fifty or more years later.

I believe there was an added component: not only the language skills they started with, but the fact that they were teachers who constantly used those skills through teaching far into old age, keeping those neurons firing. I tend to think that this constant usage was the more likely factor in retained brain plasticity. Like practicing a musical instrument every day.

What’s the upshot of all of this? Don’t let your music slide. Keep playing. Don’t just play what you already know all the time. Keep learning. Keep challenging yourself. Your brain will be happier for it.


-for more info on this and related subjects, see my book Body Mind and Music, available on the books page of this site.

Posted by: laurie689 | March 28, 2015

Are You Teaching Your Students How to Learn?

In a typical music lesson scenario, a student arrives, tunes his or her instrument, sits down, opens a book, plays the material assigned from the last lesson; the teacher critiques, offers pointers on technique (or not), and makes the next assignment. There may be instruction in music reading relevant to the material they are working on. Teaching methods are aimed toward meeting certain goals and standards. The vast majority of lessons are all about learning repertoire and how to play it to the teacher’s satisfaction. Of course, repertoire at increasing levels of challenge teaches skill.

Music teachers may be academy-trained or may be professional performers (in any genre) who also teach, and in either case some are good teachers, some are terrible, and some are in between, no matter how well trained they are. Some are quite flexible and creative, but many more are formulaic. Students can have rather unpleasant experiences. Often, the more painful the teacher’s own learning experience was, the more inflexible they are. They have a huge investment in that method being correct; after all, all that pain had to be for something, right?

In the teach-learn relationship there tends to be too much focus on the teaching end rather than the learning end. If the pupil can meet the teacher’s expectations, all is good. If the pupil cannot, the pupil is considered to be at fault and must face the drudgery of being forced to adhere to the method or is rejected as “not suitable.”  We fault the pupil, not the teacher.  Even when the learner is making an effort, we still assume that every student must adapt to the way the information is presented or be left behind.  Where is the sense of that?  Ignoring the learning part of the teach-learn dynamic, by ignoring the real goal  –  which is finding a way for the student learn what they hope to learn  –  is leaving a lot of potential talent untapped.  The key is that each person learns a different way, and there is no wrong way.

What every new musician wants to know is how to learn. Not just this tune and that tune and this technique. But any tune and many techniques. Of course we have to teach responsible skills, and of course students want repertoire. But we can offer so much more. A truly great teacher can offer instruction that gives a student wings to fly on their own.

First, helping a student feel successful and building up self-esteem is perhaps the most important thing we can do. And we can show them how to observe, to focus, to practice effectively, to access information, to experiment, to be creative, to improvise, compose, play with other musicians, perform well, and even how to surpass the teacher’s skills if possible. We can give them a foundation for the confidence and ability to be turned loose in the world of music and discover what makes a true musician. Every bird raises its chicks to leave the nest one day.

We can teach to a student’s strengths. Observe what their best method of learning is rather than teaching only from our method: you may be a tactile learner but the student may be a visual learner; you may be an aural learner but your student may be a spatial one. As teachers it’s our responsibility to know and use all the ways of learning.

Here are just a few horizon-expanding things we can consider offering our students:

  • Teach basic music theory. Not the kind that’s done on a blackboard, but the kind that relates directly to their instrument and their music. Teach it without paper first! Music theory isn’t about how to read music; music-reading is just an outgrowth of theory. Theory is about how music is structured: relationships between notes (frequencies) and how they interact with each other and with beat and rhythm and tempo and how to use those essential structures to create music or to understand how others create it.
  • Teach more than one technique/method. There’s always more than one equally right way. Focus on whichever one is best suited to the individual.
  • Encourage the student to listen to others’ interpretations of each piece they learn. This will show them that interpretive freedom is up to the player.
  • Encourage them to know each tune’s history, and its lyrics if it is a song. The proliferation of online information makes this easy. It gives a perspective on how the tune can be interpreted and the meaning of its title (which is not always what it appears to be).
  • Encourage the student to learn the deep cultural aspects, uses and nuances of the genre they are learning. Music cannot be understood when it is devoid of its cultural “clothing”.
  • Encourage students to create their own arrangements. Teach them basic theory so they can!
  • Show them how to create musically emotive statements, as opposed to just the dots and bars on the page, so they can play expressively.
  • Encourage the student to learn to sing or hum the melody before learning to play it. This greatly enhances retention of the music.
  • Encourage memorization. This enhances expressive possibility.
  • Teach them how to practice effectively.
  • Teach them to understand rhythm and to develop a physical sense of it in several esperiential ways: movement, counting, vocalizing, etc.
  • Teach the importance of breathing!
  • Encourage experimentation, improvisation and creativity.
  • Teach them how to compose their own music.
  • Provide opportunities for every student to play with other musicians.
  • Provide performance opportunities and teach stage skills.
  • Encourage every student to seek out more than one teacher and to absorb what they can successfully use from each.

No one knows everything, so no teacher can offer everything. But you can offer the tools that will open the door to your students to the potential of unlimited learning.


Posted by: laurie689 | February 10, 2015

Are You Sacrificing the Musicianship for the Music?

According to a dictionary definition, musicianship is “knowledge, skill and artistic sensitivity in performing music”. These three factors are inseparable, and each builds successively upon one before, so we can’t ignore any of them if we want to be true musicians.

Knowledge alone does not suffice, since playing music also requires practiced movement to develop skill; skill does not suffice, since artistic sensitivity is essential for music to sound musical; and artistic sensitivity cannot be expressed without skill.  But when all these factors are in place, we have good tone, smoothness, reasonable accuracy, confident playing, expression, dynamics, and the ability to learn well from whatever source is appropriate for the style of music we play (notation, tablature, by ear, etc.).

Many musicians believe that good musicianship primarily means being able to play a new piece of music at tempo and all the way through. There are certain situations in which one must play well at first sight-reading, but this skill is attained only after one has a good foundation in the other necessary skills. If the foundation is not there, its lack will be evident no matter how well you sight read or how quickly you think you’ve learned the piece. Learning a piece is so much more than just being able to play the notes at tempo. If you are striving foremost to get through a new piece so it sounds like you’re “playing music”, you’re barking up the wrong tree, because it always means sacrificing something such as fingering, technique, muscle memory, tone, and/or smoothness, but most importantly it often means sacrificing expression.

Expression comes after gaining a full understanding and experience of the music being played. Learning slowly, with focus, and with attention to detail and nuance, gives the player the ability to integrate a piece of music fully enough to then play it expressively. If you love music, why would you want to learn it any way other than completely?

Many musicians try to tackle pieces they aren’t ready for, perhaps because the pieces are beyond one’s current skill level, or because they assume some prior experience on another instrument will automatically translate to a new instrument. Intellectual understanding of how an instrument works and how the music is read does not translate to integrated skill!

In any case, not giving yourself enough time, with every new piece at any level, or as an actual beginner on a new instrument, rarely works well. Trying to “make it music” as quickly as possible sabotages the process of actual learning. The only way to achieve full musicianship is to be methodical and slow and purposeful and focused in practice until you know the piece inside and out. Then you will have both music and musicianship, rather than sacrificing the musicianship just to play the music.

Posted by: laurie689 | January 6, 2015

Studies on Practice: Truth or Fiction?

There have been a few reports of studies on musicians’ practice habits that have recently shown up on Facebook. Two that I found interesting were the one about what kind of practice habits are most effective, and another claiming that the much-touted 10,ooo hours or practice is not what makes a musician good. I have some opinions about both of these so-called studies.

One cannot do a truly scientific study on something as esoteric as how musicians practice, because there are too many variables. Every musician is different in background, attitude, and aptitude.  One simply cannot make blanket statements about what makes us good musicians or not. And it amuses me that these studies were done to acquire information that could have been obtained by just asking musicians how they gained their skills.

The “study” debunking the 10,000-hour rule hints that you’re born with talent or you’re not, and that if you’re not, no amount of practice will help. Worse, it suggests that if you are talented you don’t have to practice. Both of these ideas are proven wrong by millions of musicians very day.  As a professional musician, I can definitively say that no matter how much talent you possess, if you don’t practice extensively you can’t play well. And I can also tell you from a lifetime of careful observation that many people with talent who don’t work really hard can be bypassed by those with less talent who work harder.

Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist at New York University, remarking about talent and practice, states in his book Guitar Zero, “Hundreds of thousands of people took music lessons when they were young and remember little or nothing.” Well, sure. I took a number of courses in school about which I remember nothing. Why? Because they didn’t interest me. Any kid forced to take music lessons without wanting to is not likely to remember much. That’s not a significant way to look at the effectiveness of practice.

The other study stated that the difference between ineffective and effective practice, which leads to the difference between mediocrity and mastery, is practicing deliberately. This I agree with. It’s not how long you practice, it’s how you practice.

Many of us tend to be self-congratulatory about our progress much sooner than perhaps we ought to be. Good practice includes consistent self-evaluation and constantly correcting weaknesses. Practicing isn’t simply playing what’s fun and easy. Playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not the same as striving to reach a new level. Simply playing what you play best, or just goofing around on the instrument, is fun and necessary but it’s not all there is. You have to push yourself and focus on what you don’t yet know or can’t yet do, if you are to make progress.

Doing what you already do pretty well can include, by the way, just reading through tunes on a page. That doesn’t do much for one’s skills unless the music is also used as a tool for focus, analysis, and deliberate skill enhancement.

So, what are some good practice habits? See my previous blogs, and also consider:

There are two necessary kinds of practice: that which you do when learning a piece, and that which you do in preparation for a performance. They are very different.

  1. When learning a piece:
  • Learn by playing every tune
  • Learn a phrase at a time (don’t just read through an entire piece; that is not productive).
  • When you make an error, don’t just correct it and go on –  that is actually practicing the error! Figure out why you made it. Correct the fingering, eye movement or technique.
  • Address all errors by making the awkwardly executed phrase into an exercise and repeating it slowly until it feels natural and is easy to do right. Then you can play the phrase in context.
  • Always breathe while playing the hard parts.
  • Play with a metronome to increase accuracy.

Never shirk on any of this! These steps are absolutely necessary. Yes, even the metronome.

  1. When practicing for a performance, you will already have done the above quite a lot for every piece you plan to perform. You’ve already done what you can to correct errors. Since some errors will occur anyway, now it’s time to:
  • Learn to play through your mistakes and to disguise or ignore them.
  • Imagine being in the performance situation as you practice. Imagine the stage lights, the audience, the sound system, or whatever the situation will probably be.

Pushing ourselves to excellence through actual work, and never letting ourselves say, “That’s good enough,” produces real results.

Posted by: laurie689 | November 26, 2014

Effortless Musicianship?

Have you wondered how professional musicians can play intricate passages and really fast music in a way that looks effortless and sounds smooth? How do they get their fingers to know where to go faster than they can consciously think? Or even to play slower pieces confidently?

Think “learned movement that becomes habitual”. With consistent and focused practice, the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music improve, the ability to play expressively increase, and you get the feeling that you’re playing on “autopilot”  –  that’s the goal. And it’s usually attainable for those who are willing to work for it.

In all fairness, there are those who for one reason or another cannot develop habits of movement and must therefore learn other ways to play, and for whom it may never feel easy. I applaud the effort and the willpower shown by those who are willing to play even though faced with this challenge. I don’t think it’s impossible or wrong to play an instrument by intense concentration of every movement. No one should think they cannot play just because something that works for most doesn’t work for them. So don’t let anyone stop you.

But if you can do certain things kinesthetically such as tie your shoes, write longhand, and other such habitual-movement activities, then it’s likely you can learn to play music kinesthetically as well.  If you’ve never developed a kinesthetic (habitual movement) sense for music-playing, perhaps you’ve never been taught how! (And it’s not just a matter of how long you practice. If you already practice for reasonable lengths of time, you may not need to practice more, just differently.)

I was recently gratified to read in Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known book What the Dog Saw* a lengthy and detailed treatise on the subject of learned movement and the difference between what he calls explicit learning and implicit learning. Explicit learning is when you are beginning to practice a new physical skill, and it still feels a bit stiff and contrived due to its unfamiliarity. But as time and practice go on, it becomes more automatic and more fluid, even intuitive; it becomes implicit. One can then rely on the proper motions to happen masterfully without having to concentrate so hard on them, which frees up the mind to focus on other important aspects of the activity. Gladwell states that implicit physical learning happens in many kinds of physical activities (I would venture to say most).

Gladwell also cites what happens, using actual occurrences, when someone who has developed implicit knowledge (habitual, kinesthetic, intuitive movement) stops trusting it and reverts back to explicit knowledge. That usually happens under pressure. In sports, it’s disastrous. In my personal experience, in music it is equally so.  Therefore when I practice for a gig I always purposely practice explicitly and implicitly (with attention to details of movement and patterns, and also on “autopilot”). I never know until I’m on stage which state of mind I will be in; if I’m nervous it’s always the explicit one, which is far more difficult. Better to practice for that state of mind than to assume I will always be in implicit mode just because I so easily achieve that at home!  (That’s the same situation as when a student comes to a lesson and says “I played it better at home”. I’ve never known a student who didn’t experience that.)

As I said in a previous post, while you’re learning new music or skills, the neurologic system continually “files” the information in your subconscious, which allows later accessing of those skills or movements merely by “hearing” the music in your head. If you’ve practiced the piece well, the fingers can just play what you “hear” without your consciously telling them where to go. Your hands will know what to do because a direct connection develops between the muscles and the subsconscious mind, bypassing the conscious mind. At this point, thinking too much about the logistics of playing it (“Now I put this finger here…” or “next is a G note”) can actually sabotage the process. I’ll compare this again to tying your shoes: when you were a little kid you had to concentrate really hard on learning that skill, but soon you could do it on autopilot. Now if you tried to think about how you tie your shoes (“This end goes over that end and through this loop…”) you can’t do it as quickly as you can when you just turn your fingers loose to do it. Relying on muscle (implicit) memory is far more efficient than trying to think it through when you already know it.

For musicians who read music well, there is an implicit habit that develops in response to reading each specific note or group of notes: upon seeing them the brain tells the fingers where to go. You don’t have to think, “That’s a G note and therefore I have to put my third finger here.” Needless to say, this ability comes with a lot of practice!

Likewise, those who memorize or play by ear can have the ability to “hear” the note or phrase in your head and the fingers will automatically play it.

We’ve all heard that one must play a piece or passage or exercise every day for twenty-one days to set it in memory. I would say also to set it implicitly. That number probably came from someone’s research, and from experience I believe it’s true for most. Some with a great deal of experience get it much more quickly, but most mortals have to work at it.

Playing music is never effortless in the beginning. But it can get to feel that way (at least physically) when your skills are in place and you have practiced sufficiently. I see many people not trusting their hands even after they have developed a reliable kinesthetic sense, especially in regard to technique. If your technique is good, you don’t have to think about it except to fix the occasional straying away that can occur.  As one teacher used to say, “Once you’ve got the information, hang up the phone.” Trust your brain and your fingers. They are there to serve you.

*Gladwell’s book covers many subjects; the section I’ve referenced is only a small part it’s about how what we assume or what we consider common sense or common knowledge isn’t always accurate, and how we can benefit from looking at things from other and sometimes opposite viewpoints. His writing is always well researched and responsible, which is why he’s a respected best-selling author. I highly recommend the book.

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