As many of you know, I am a doctoral student (Doctor of Musical Arts in Viola Performance) at Arizona State University. I am also an advocate for student musicians discovering their own best way to learn, and in a way that is sustainable and healthy.
My hope is to share my research with others, and begin a conversation about music that widens the circle of pedagogy to include disciplines outside the norm. I want musicians to be aware of more than just what their teachers tell them, and that there is currently research being done in many fields that all directly impact performance practice. Through this lens, I want to help string players form their own line of inquiry into becoming a better performer.
The problem with being a musician...
Currently, the biggest reason why people are discouraged from making music (specifically becoming a violinist or violist) is because of pain or injury. I was one of these students in my undergraduate career. I had tendinitis, and unfortunately I never was able to find the answers I so desperately needed through the path of western classical string pedagogy. Why is this? If I was to pursue a degree in sports or dance, a required class would involve injury prevention -yet most music schools do not offer or advertise such a class. In fact, a majority of professors encourage students to practice past the point of exhaustion, or that practicing 6hrs a day is the only way to learn. Even if this method works for you, it is by no means sustainable or economical with your time.
How does the brain best retain information?
It is scientifically proven that as human individuals we do not each learn in the exact same way. To begin, we may be visual, aural, or kinesthetic learners. In your own experience, you may have realized that in any group of people -the most effective use of time to learn something will be different. Some work best under pressure, others like time to process information. The environment necessary for the best possible outcome is different for each person. But this is just the beginning. Large leaps in neuroscience have been made in the past few years. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend taking Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski's free course on coursera titled "Learning How to Learn" (https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn). This course goes in-depth into the most effective strategies developed so far regarding information learning. I have found that applying these strategies in the practice room, greatly increased the amount of information I was able to retain and later recreate in a performance.
Within the same vein of research, I had the wonderful experience of attending a lecture by Molly Gebrian at the American Viola Society Festival hosted at Oberlin College in June 2016. She is a violist with a degree in neuroscience, and has been integrating these two fields in developing smarter and more effective ways to practice. One such method she advocates is interleaved (or random) practice. Instead of working with a large chunk of time, you set a timer and only work on a given spot for a few minutes. By forcing your brain to constantly change and adapt to different sections of music, you build-in a way for your brain to adapt when faced with something different in performance. The result is the ability to have the results you achieve in the practice room follow you onto the stage. I have personally been using some of Gebrain's techniques over the last year, and I feel so much more secure in my performances. If you want to learn more, she has an article published in the Journal of the American Viola Society (Vol. 32, No.2, Fall 2016. pg. 37-41).
It helps if you don't have issues with performance anxiety, but if so there are psychological tools that can change everything. There is an entire field of sports psychology that was developed to help athletes train in a way that is sustainable and works under stressful conditions. Dr. Noa Kageyama is a sports psychologist and violinist that combined his work to create his own method for musicians -with the intention of retraining your brain to work through performance anxiety. I personally took his "Beyond Practicing" course about 3 years ago when I was preparing for my Performance Diploma recital at Indiana University. I felt that I was under an incredible amount of pressure, and didn't want to take beta blockers or other medications. I knew about the "Bulletproof Musician" website, and thought the course would be worth a try. I really enjoyed applying the assignments to my own repertoire in the practice room, and I felt that I was able to face my fears of failure in a healthy and productive way. Needless to say, my recital was a success and I felt really good about the outcome. The course now costs about $250, and is available at: https://members.bulletproofmusician.com/edu/beyond-practicing-2k/.
If you are a student, some universities offer one-on-one counseling with a sports psychologist for free. It is worth getting in contact with them, and seeing if what they do would be applicable to your own performance issues. Each therapist is different, and it is always worth investigating the resources you have available as a student, before you are in the real world. Even if it doesn't pan out, inquiry creates demand in our society.
What if your problem isn't your brain per se..
Everything that you do creates or strengthens neural pathways in your brain. Taking this a step further, what you do outside of playing your instrument teaches your brain how to move, but also what information from your muscles is important and should be sent back to your brain. The proprioceptive system in the human body is what tells our brain how we are oriented in space, and how much force is necessary to move through space. This system is built throughout your life, and adapts to fit your environment. You may think you have a perfect proprioceptive system, but the reality is that if you play a stringed instrument -you don't. When playing, the left and right sides of your body are required to do completely different things at any given moment. This requires immense amounts of coordination, and for your brain to wire things in a unique way.
If you do active things outside of practicing, you will strengthen your proprioceptive system and coordination more than you can from practicing alone. Not only that, but you will greatly decrease the risk of repetitive injuries.
Some great ways of accomplishing this, that also increase awareness of muscle activation, are: alexander technique, feldenkrais, yoga, pilates, and martial arts. But of course there are many other methods.
My life can get incredibly busy, but by committing to a home yoga practice and constantly practicing awareness through alexander technique, I've been able to see much better results in the practice room. Many musicians can attest to this experience, but Karen Tuttle was one of the primary advocates for the importance of coordination in her pedagogical approach to string playing. If you are finding a lack of coordination in your own playing, perhaps a great place to start would be finding a movement awareness method that you find appealing -and see if you notice any improvement.
This increased awareness can also drastically improve your instrument setup. A faulty proprioceptive system is the reason why a certain chinrest or shoulder rest can feel great, but is actually hurting you over time. Your body is constantly changing, and every time you pick up the instrument you should be checking-in with your setup and making sure that it is the most ergonomic solution. I myself recently needed to change the shoulder rest I use, because the shape of my shoulder had changed over the past year. Not in a super obvious way, but enough so that it began to create tension. You shouldn't have to put up with any amount of pain in the practice room to see improvement.
Search for the cure
Ultimately, we each need to become our own scientists in the practice room. Come up with a hypothesis for how you learn, and then experiment. Never settle until you have the exact result you are looking for.
Let me know what you think! Have you done research outside of music that you believe has an impact in the practice room? Did you try any of these methods, and how did they work out for you? Thoughts?
*My statements have not been influenced by sponsorship of any kind