February Ponderings

In last month’s post about music practise we talked about the mechanical “doing” stuff and motor learning.  This month’s topic is the related abstract “thinking” stuff.

We now know, with strong evidence from neuroscience, that music is a multi-faceted brain activity.  If you bung someone in an MRI machine and have them compose, improvise or play and instrument, lots of areas of the brain are seen to be lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree.   Aspects such as counting and rhythm, language if you’re singing, motor activity, audiation, and abstract thinking about form, structure and interpretation are all involved.  This, along with the obvious benefits of social activity and cooperative behaviours, is one of the reasons why music education is so important for children.  A good quality general music education helps other areas of intellectual, emotional and academic development.  I digress.  Off the soapbox and back to the point.

How does this relate to practise?  Well, one of the really nifty things we now know is that mental rehearsal works just as well for musicians as it does for athletes.  Sporty types have used this sort of stuff for ages.  If you put a gymnast through part of a new routine by assisting them to move in space slowly with a two-and-half summersault-twist-half-pike-with-a-dash-of-lemon and then have them stand to one side and rehearse it mentally, chances are they’ll be able to come back and give it a fair go.  This assumes some level of acquired skill obviously.  You can see this in action on the TV with elite athletes psyching themselves up for the big event as they go through the act mentally in advance.

It works because mentally rehearsing a motor activity actually engages the motor cortex.  Pretty amazing when you think about it.  There are some elite musicians, concert pianists for example, who can jump on a plane with a new piece of music to learn, and with a well-developed ability for mental preparation, learn and memorise the piece without actually having played a note.  Yes, we hate these people.

So, relating this back to practise for mere mortals, whether you’re a pianist or a singer, the same strategy can be applied at home.  Once you’ve familiarised yourself with a passage, go over it again in your head.  Imagine yourself playing or singing it.  Try to feel the keys under your fingers, think about the fingering, or recall the sense of ease and freedom in singing the phrase as you last did it so beautifully.  There are lots of advantages in this sort of strategy.  It’s less impact on family and neighbours for one!  Seriously, it can really improve efficiency in your practise and reduce the amount of time to get to the same result.  Give it a try.  What have you got to lose?  At the very least you can always get away with doing absolutely nothing with the excuse of “but I’m practising……really!” 

We’ll talk about inner hearing and audiation next time.  In the meantime, happy music making.

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