amygdala

Music therapist Lyle Sanford has a thoughtful blog that I enjoy reading and stealing and/or drawing inspiration from that often touches on science as well as musical topics. A recent post of his was entitled “Closed eye listening”, which is a trope on an article he found at MSNBC. The article was about a study that revealed that closing one’s eyes made listening to scary music more emotionally intense, i.e. it “ramped up [activity] in the amygdala,” the center for emotion in the brain.

In the original article it also says “When you close your eyes, your brain has this reflexive response to go into a different state of mind that results in the amplification of certain information.”  The article also gave a link to another article entitled “Amazing Power of Music Revealed” that begins “More than 7,000 runners who raced… in a half-marathon in London were under the influence of a scientifically derived and powerful performance-enhancing stimulant – pop music. … Music is a great way to regulate mood both before and during physical activity. … The link between music and athletic performance is just one example of the inroads scientists and doctors are making into understanding the amazing power that music has over our minds and bodies. Science is backing up our intuition and experience, showing that music really does kill pain, reduce stress, better our brains and basically change how we experience life. … Music can have a profound influence on mood, potentially elevating the positive aspects of mood, such as vigor, excitement and happiness, and reducing depression, tension, fatigue, anger, and confusion.”

Lots of food for thought here. The first thing that came to my mind was, “How we can use this?” For some time now I have been convinced of the efficacy of doing a lot of practicing with the eyes closed (with the prominent exception of sight-reading…). In learning a new piece, chop it into small bits, and do 97% of your practicing on it eyes shut. Playing it from memory automatically forces you to a higher level. You have to get past the struggle stage, but you actually acquire facility in the chunk much quicker and better. With eyes open, you still are “processing” the visual material, which slows you down. Your attention is also on the ink, outside what is really happening, both kinesthetically (physically) and aurally, i.e. we’re not really feeling or hearing what is happening. The ink tells us zero about what we just played. By forcing yourself to learn it from memory, you are able to really listen to what is happen and feel the details of what is happening, making it also easier to make an adjustment to do it better the next time. If your consciousness is mostly about the ink, your guess as to what to do to fix a mistake will be mostly that: a guess. By not looking, you have the best view of what’s going on and the best chance to learn and get it right the quickest.

Before I came to this conclusion/realization – many years – I was terrified of the idea of playing without the ink. But I finally found enough gumption to try and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it took more time to learn it that way, but the result was also much better. I was initially concerned about a memory slip, but found that it was like driving to Pittsburgh at night. You can only see a little ways down the road at any one moment – as far as your headlights illuminate – but you can drive all the way to Pittsburgh that way. I played a major solo in concert that way (eyes closed) for the first time a couple of years ago and the process unfolded in a way that could almost be called comfortable or easy. I just knew/felt what was was coming at every turn and was ready for it. You have to put in the time to get to that stage, but you can have a confidence about what is going to happen that is a wonderful thing on an instrument as slippery as ours. I now try to memorize at least one solo in every recital and wish there were time to learn them all that way. Another way to do it might be the way that Bernhard Scully did it when he visited the U of Iowa for a recital. He had the music on the stand for every piece, but he played almost the entire concert with his eyes closed, or open and not looking at the sheet music. It was there if he needed it, which he very seldom did (he, course, had had much practice playing from memory from performing with the Canadian Brass and in preparing for international competitions). Practicing this way early and often, it seems to me, is the way to go, and starting as early in horn life as possible is a good thing.

Some else in the amygdala article made me think: if music can have such a soothing, pleasant effect on us, why do we get so all-fired anxious for public performances? One reason might be hard-wired into our brains, which were made to live in a caveman environment; they have not had time to evolve and adapt to our current modes of “modern living. Humankind (and its evolutionary ancestors) has always been social, and banding together in clans and societies was an important aid to survival. A caveman on his own was most likely looking at a short career as a leopard hors d’oeuvre. Not good feeling. Better to be with clan!

I suspect that playing a solo stirs this ancient bit of caveman-alone DNA in us and triggers the usual symptoms of fight-or-flight, which are well suited to taking on mastodons but not so much for negotiating the complex series physical and emotional challenges of horn playing, like putting a Space Shuttle-grade engine and fuel in your Ford.

In the light of these studies about the powers of music to soothe and reduce stress, can’t we use this in performance situations? Or are we just not listening?

The studies, of course, were of people doing something else while listening to music, not of the folks making the music. But I think we can get some ideas about what to try out of this. One thing that I’ve tried in the past that seems to help in that eternity before you go on stage is the iPod. Instead of pacing back and forth or fighting the drunken monkey internal radio with positive affirmations, I plug in and listen to recordings of what I’m about to play, getting deep in the zone, grinding the tune into my chromosomes a little deeper, fingering/singing along. Eyes closed. It’s a good place to be.

There are certainly other scenarios and ideas to be extracted here that could be used in this search to use the power of music itself make it easier to perform in public. Feel free to comment here and share your thoughts.