Neuroplasticity and making music

Most of us enter the world with the ability to hear sounds, and we don’t remember the process of learning to differentiate one sound from another or learning that certain sounds or sequences of sounds communicate thoughts, ideas, emotions. We learn to hear and respond to language without being aware that we are doing so. But if we learn a second language at a later time, we are well aware of the struggle to match sounds with meanings and context.  But what if you had to relearn how to decipher all sounds, whether it’s the doorbell or the sounds of your native language? Continue reading

Practice, learning and memory, part IV

And continuing our practice strategies to ensure effective learning and memory:

Sitting on an outdoor bench in a scenic spot may not be your idea of practicing, but it depends on what you’re thinking about while you sit there.

7) Reflection.  Psychologists speak about reflection as a learning strategy – thinking about what you have learned and asking yourself questions to solidify Silhouette of an anonymous male alone on a bench at sunsetwhat you know. Find a quiet place to sit away from your instrument and quiz yourself on what you know about the piece or about the segment you just learned.  What are the key relationships, what’s the structure, where are the sections, patterns, motifs? The more you have to struggle to remember or perhaps check the score to verify, the more your brain fills in the missing information, consolidates, and makes the neural networks stronger. Continue reading

Practice, learning and memory, part III

And a few more practice strategies to ensure effective learning and memory:

Abby Whiteside5) Practice extremely slowly.  There has been a controversy for some time about whether slow practice is beneficial for learning fast music.  Many of us were told early in our musical lives that in order to play a passage of music that is very fast, we should practice slowly and build up speed.  But not everyone agrees.  Influential pedagogue Abby Whiteside  (1881 – 1956) declared that “Slow practice can establish habits that are completely unrelated to the coordination demanded for speed.”  Abby Whiteside on Piano Playing
Continue reading

Practice, learning and memory, part II

Chopin_Prelude_7Almost everyone who plays the piano has, at some point in his/her study,  learned Chopin’s Prelude in A Major, Op. 28. Only 16 bars and lasting a bit less to a bit more than a minute (depending on the performer), the Prelude is deceptively simple. A few repetitions and it feels as though we have it “under our fingers;” a few more repetitions and hey!  we’ve memorized it!

But wait – leave it for a couple of days, and all of a sudden, you begin to wonder: Continue reading

Practice, learning and memory, part I

None of my teachers ever spoke with me about how to practice.  They didn’t suggest strategies or give me tips.  I guess they assumed, since I memorized so easily, that I didn’t need any help.   I had what’s called a “good ear,” and I could hear the piece in my mind.  By the time I had developed the motor skills to play a particular piece, all of the melodies, rhythms, and harmonies were in my head, and I counted on that when I performed.  I assumed that good auditory memory was all I needed.   But after a couple of bad experiences following grad school, I decided that I needed to develop a more secure system for learning and memorizing.

Continue reading

From sight-reading to memorized performance

If you have performed from memory, you no doubt have had the experience of an audience
member coming up after a concert and saying in amazement “How did you learn so many spartito musicalenotes?”

In the last few posts about memory, we’ve talked about learning and memory as two sides of the same coin,  about the many kinds of memory in music, about the formation of neural pathways in the brain, and about our brain initiating a motor-action plan as we begin to play a piece of music. But how, in fact, do we “learn so many notes,” and what are the best ways to practice to ensure that the memory for all those notes will remain secure? Continue reading