Psychology of Music: Your Brain on Practice

by Jenna Bauer

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.