One of the most important things for the high functioning of the brain during practicing is maintaining a high level of engagement. Essentially, we learn the most practicing pieces that are the most interesting to us. The second most important element is repetition, which allows the musical and technical process of our practicing to be stored in the memory. Being able to play through a piece is just the beginning; mastery comes after much repetition.
Another important feature is the goal we set for our practice session: what we are planning to achieve and how much time we require. As each day is different, it is advisable to keep your planning flexible, but with a preference for studying interesting material. For many people, their concentration peaks are at 10 AM and 5 PM; these are the ideal periods to do the most difficult work. We can divide the physical practicing into three categories: new pieces, repertoire pieces and daily exercises or technique.
New pieces require the most concentration and therefore should be studied in the morning. When the next study session starts, it is best to review what was studied in the previous session, especially when memorizing music. I suggest setting aside the end of the day for your own performance of the pieces you are working on. This provides an opportunity to play as beautifully as possible with complete concentration in order to see what still needs to be done, and, more importantly, to inspire yourself with new musical ideas. This is the moment where you will have to “go with the flow” and find a balance between the rational things you have learned, the expressive, emotional beauty of the piece, and the technical or physical control. A 30-minute workout at the beginning of the day, like jogging, swimming or biking, results in a far better functioning brain throughout the day.
Here is an example of a daily schedule:
For an optimum practice session, it is important to make sure that there are no distractions. This pertains both to mental distractions and also to the practice environment itself. The brain uses oxygen and glucose transported by our blood. When engaged in high-level thinking, the frontal lobe will need almost all of the blood circulating in the brain (which is 1 liter per minute). Due to our innate survival instinct, our eyes will constantly scan our surroundings for danger and this energy diminishes the learning process. Try to remove work that needs to be done, turn the telephone on silent and create a comfortable working space with good, fresh air. Research has shown that working on a clean desk in an office increases productivity by 12%.
Memorizing is a process that places information within a context. Through associations, many aspects come together such as melody, fingering, notation, harmony, analysis, touch receptors, movements, body, view surrounding, musical expression and many more unconscious factors. Memorizing is a conscious action, but we need to be aware of unconscious intrusion of extraneous events or information. For example, motor memorization needs a great deal of repetition, but we cannot be sure that it is being stored correctly. What we do know is that everything will be stored, even wrong notes or movements. Therefore the biggest challenge is to work as perfectly as possible. I once saw a documentary with John Williams while he was practicing guitar. It struck me that he did not make any mistakes! I realized that I was accustomed to practicing my mistakes. John Williams seemed to have a more positive approach, taking everything at a slower tempo and trying to achieve an exact and perfect performance. It is a fact that the tempo of music in our mind is very flexible. A mistake at a fast tempo is probably also a mistake at a slow tempo. But playing at a slower tempo gives the brain the feeling that it is easier, and so it relaxes. When there is a small passage that goes wrong constantly for the same reason, this passage will succeed only if it is taken a bit more slowly.
Finally, I want to emphasize the power of studying without the instrument. Visualization automatically demands excellent concentration and is more focused on the music because of the lack of physical problems with the instrument. Visualizing your playing is especially good for memorization and creativity. The best way to test whether you have mastered a piece is if you can play it completely in your mind with every single element.
Paganini told Max Schottky in his years of glory: ‘If you think that I have been practicing a lot, you’re mistaken. Since three months, that is during my illness I didn’t take my violin even once’.
Our brains are a flexible, ever-changing representation of who we are. By knowing how the brain functions, we can improve our capabilities and even change who we are; we are in a way, a reflection of our brains. (Note: see the book: ‘We are our brains’ by the author Dick Swaab)
Using the natural memorization path (NMP) and a balanced use of the two brain hemispheres, we can make our brains work up to ten times more efficiently. This is how a musician can enhance his talent to develop his musical and creative potential. The development of this potential can be diminished if the musician’s tools, sight reading, harmony and analysis are not internalized to such a degree that they become automatic.
Memorization is a process that requires the efficient use of these tools. Implementing this advice may require changing attitudes and habits to begin a life-long learning process based on interest, beauty and joy.
It is important to realize that our minds act based on their previous experiences. Our brains sort and store information depending on how experiences are embedded in context. We can actively give direction to how the brain grows. The phrase “use it or lose it” implies that our actions lead to who we become and how we develop. What we do is what we become. Our tastes can expand and change positively by going to excellent concerts, drinking better wine, reading inspiring books, but also by the friends we have, lifestyles we lead and even the countries where we live!
The brain is like an inexhaustible library, preferably with the best books and as many different books as possible. This is your knowledge and your total being. Memory is the retrieval of books, which calls for a creative way of storing information with many associations. For this, the natural memorization path (NMP) is ideally suited.
Jan-Willem van den Brandhof
Gebruik je hersens, Verba, 2006
Musicophilia, Meulenhof, 2007
Het geheugenpaleis, Bezige Bij, 2011
Wij zijn ons brein (We are our Brains), Contact, 2011
Master your memory, Pearson Education, 2006
Je ongekende vermogens, NLP, Kosmos, 1988, 2005
Het maakbare brein, Bert Bakker, 2011
Waarom ik voel wat jij voelt, Archipel, 2009
The Inner Game of Tennis, Pan, 1974
Musik als Klangrede, Bärenreiter Verlag, 1982
Vroeg beginnen, NAW 5/11 nr. June 2, 2010
Dr. G. C. Kop
Mens en muziek, Broekmans en van Poppel, 1974
Leer tekenen, Bigot en van Rossum, 1983
Watch your thoughts, for they become words
Watch your words, for they become actions
Watch your actions, for they become habits
Watch you habits, for they become your character
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny
Ajahn Chah of Wat Nong Pah Pong, a Thai monk