What Goes On in a Professional’s Brain When Playing?

Posted on Posted in Announcements, Stories, Tips from Mark

By Mark Hanson

Occasionally my amateur students ask: “How can professionals play music so smoothly and beautifully while I struggle?”  Well, besides magic (!), there’s a LOT going on in a pro’s brain that allows us to play a piece successfully.  This ‘magical’ ability, as I see it, includes mechanical, intellectual, aural and emotional aspects. We’ll start with the mechanical.

Muscle Memory. We all know that “practice makes perfect.” Well, correct practice makes for highest quality music. When practicing a new move you are burning new neural pathways. I’m sure you’ve remarked to yourself that certain pieces or passages in new pieces are pretty ‘easy’ — because your brain already possesses those neural pathways from previous experience. But new moves are more challenging: you have to develop new neural pathways for them.

In this context, our brains initially don’t know right from wrong, so inefficient movements can easily burn in poor muscle memory. Why not start by building good ones to avoid having to burn in better pathways later?!?!

A few practice suggestions: 

1. If possible, listen to the piece numerous times before you attempt it. This provides a feel for the structure and dynamics, amongst other attributes;

2. Relax your hands, arms, shoulders — and brain;

3. Play slowly and quietly at first. Speed and volume come with repetition and confidence;

4. Use a metronome, as you must practice the rhythm as well as the notes!

5. Learn a piece phrase by phrase, or section by section, then connect them.

When you have burned in the correct neural pathways — efficient, economical movements — at a slow tempo (it gives you time to analyze) you may be surprised at how quickly you can increase the tempo to performance speed without making errors. 

I’ll discuss the Intellectual aspect in Part 2.

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