Sunday, July 14, 2019

Motivation: A Little Brain Science, Part Two

Reward activated movement is the term for movement that happens because it is rewarding in some way. You read this term in Part One, where the chemical reward of dopamine was introduced.  This category of movement is fluid and comfortable and successful at reaching the planned goal. It feels good, so we want to remember it and repeat it.

Now for the tough question: what interferes with this kind of movement? The number one response I would get from my students is, "IT'S TOO HARD!" When a student says this, what is your reaction? I'll admit that I may question how the student worked on the piece first because "too hard" may very well be code for not practicing. But if I notice movement that is full of hitches and tension, I may need to concede that the piece is just too hard.

I call pieces that are a bit beyond the student's current level "challenge pieces." I am always clear that challenge pieces will be longer term assignments as compared to the pieces right at their level that tend to be learned quickly. I also give very specific practice guidelines for challenge pieces so the student doesn't become overwhelmed. And yet, sometimes the piece is simply too hard. There is no reward in the movements required to master the piece because the student doesn't have enough skill to get it to that level. Even if the student claims to want to learn the piece, even if the student brings in the arrangement of a popular tune and appears motivated in the emotional sense to learn it, a piece that is too hard is not a motivator if the student exhibits jerky movements when playing it. This is a sign of stress pertaining to the learning of that piece, and stress impacts dopamine negatively, which impacts the quality of movement. This is the cycle of events likely to crop up when the piece is too hard.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the role creativity plays in relationship to low dopamine. Anxiety and creativity may be linked for some people, largely due to the way imagined outcomes can be positive or negative. Both of these mental states may be exhibited in people with low dopamine levels. A student whose imagination runs to the negative will conjure up all kinds of perilous potential outcomes in performance and practice. These fantasies manifest in halting movements or extensive tension that limit success even further. As much as we encourage creativity, we would do well to check the nature of the creativity when it comes to movement.

Stephen Sitarski reports honestly on his travails with depression and anxiety in the above link. Notice how his creative thinking process disrupted his success. Notice he suffered from another sign of low dopamine: joint pain.

Creativity for movement can also go horribly wrong when the performer has limited knowledge of physical structure. A student who is moving according to confusions, fuzzy metaphors, or incorrect knowledge about how the body is structured is going to lack fluidity in movement. The series of posts under Finger Play and Cans of Word Worms include valuable information on Body Mapping, the process of conscious correcting and refining of the body map to find graceful, coordinated movement.
Check for resources on Body Mapping.

While we have little or no control over our students' basic health needs, we can observe movement that suggests stress or negative fantasies. As teachers, we can address stress from a musician's standpoint and help students to use their imaginations in more productive ways.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Motivation: A Little Helpful Brain Science, Part One

Not long ago I admitted to a colleague that I'm tired of "motivating" students. I want students to study and practice because they want to, not because I lit some magical motivational fire under them. I hear you all laughing, blog followers. I do. You want the same thing.

Probably most of us have employed the usual motivational tools: rewards, games, pieces that hook the student, even public performances for the students that only get really excited when they know a performance is coming up. These are all extrinsic motivators, and many of them work, at least in the short run.

But let's talk about truly intrinsic motivators. Like so many English words, the word motivation has multiple meanings. This blog defines motivation as the catalyst for physical movement. What spurs us to put one foot in front of the other or our hands on the piano keys to get ready to play? The interplay of brain chemicals and brain cells that results in a desire to move. In short, the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Neurotransmitters are the chemicals of communication between nerve cells. Nerve impulses jump across gaps between nerve cells in order to transmit information. Neurotransmitters are released into these gaps, called synapses, activating the conditions required to send messages from one cell to the next. Okay, that's all the science you need to know right now. Not too hard, right?

Neurotransmitters have particular jobs, and dopamine is key to stimulating muscles to move. Dopamine starts the engine of movement, it facilitates the continuation of movement, and it helps the brain to learn the movement to make it easier to access the next time it is desired. Pretty great stuff, right? And, guess what? It is often called the "reward neurotransmitter" because it also creates a sense of pleasure when we are doing something we like doing, which includes movements we like doing.

The brain is designed to create reward activated movement when everything is working according to plan. However, everything doesn't always work according to plan. Some external factors can impact the amount of dopamine in the system, thereby making movement less pleasurable or even harder to learn.

Here are some of the common interferences with reward activated movement:

  • STRESS   Big surprise, right? How do you move when you are feeling undue stress? What do you notice about your students' movements during stressful periods in their lives? Less dopamine means it's harder to get moving and to continue moving.
  • UNHEALTHY NUTRITION  Another obvious dopamine blocker. Junk food may offer a temporary "feel good" sensation, but over the long haul, it reduces the availability of dopamine.
  • LACK OF SLEEP  Do you or your students lack sufficient rest? Here's one more reason why you need sleep.
  • LACK OF EXERCISE  Prime the dopamine pump through purposeful movement. Walk the dog, cat, llama, whatever you own.
There are other conditions, including diseases, that can cause or contribute to a lack of dopamine in the system. Anyone with serious symptoms of fatigue, depression, and movement challenges needs to be evaluated. This list is by no means complete or to be used as a diagnostic tool. The purpose of this list is to help us understand that basic good health practices also help us move better. It's brain science, and it's not too hard.

Check out Part Two for practical tips on encouraging reward activated movement.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Small Muscles or All Muscles?

 In recent years, my circle of musician acquaintances has widened to include musicians with special interests in self-care and movement knowledge. Many of them belong to organizations that focus on elements of anatomy and physiology, and I am lucky to learn from them.

Sometimes I hear a group use a phrase I have to rethink, however, and this is the case with the expression that "musicians are athletes of small muscles." Hmm, really? I know the intention is good, but I doubt the substance.

First of all, let's examine the difference between a being musician and being an athlete. While both of these achievements require physical training, only one of them has the primary goal of communicating to an audience. With few exceptions, like figure skating, most athletes are honored for competing in arenas where the goal is technical and physical, not artistic.While a refined athlete may exhibit artistry in motion, it isn't the goal. The goal is, well, the goal: faster, longer, stronger than the other competitors. Musicians are required to be both technically competent and artistically successful.

Secondly, where are these small muscles that musicians use to display their prowess? Perhaps this is a reference to muscles of the hand, so let's start there. There are about 640 generally recognized muscles in the body, and about 35 of them control the movement of the hand. However, only 17 of them are actually contained within the area we consider to be the hand. The other 18 originate in the forearm, and they are much larger than the other 17.  Some of them actually have the descriptor "longus" in their designations. Without these longer muscles, we would have limited movement in the hand. Without control of these larger muscles, we would not be able to perform on our instruments.

Simply moving an arm from one place to another, something most musicians do at least to bring the instrument into playing organization, requires large muscles in the back that are connected to the arm.  Such movements also require large muscles of the torso and upper arm to go into action.

Drummers who play trap set have very active leg muscles. It's exciting to watch the movements of arms and sticks flying through the air, but take the opportunity to watch what they do with their legs. While small muscles of the feet are engaged in playing the pedals for drums, so are large muscles in the legs. They aren't trained for running, but they aren't untrained either.

Speaking of pedals, watch an organist for even five minutes to see legs in action. Organists learn refined balance so they can move both feet and arms in different directions at different times. I continue to find this an extraordinary example of whole body movement and co-ordination. If they only used so-called small muscles, the limitations would be extreme.

How about facial muscles? Are they small? Some of them are by certain standards, but facial muscles are interwoven in sophisticated ways, making them hard to separate from each other even in dissection. For this reason, wind players do well to refrain from getting overly interested in the small number of muscles they consider to make up their embouchures. Wind players also call on large muscles for breathing, including the involuntary diaphragm and large muscles throughout the torso.

Recognizing the whole body - all 640 muscles - as your vehicle for music-making grants more ease and flexibility in performance. And it's also the truth.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Won't Power: Part II

There is another phrase that comes out of the Alexander Technique glossary: non-doing. For most modern day Americans, non-doing sounds impossible. Doing is our primary function, and it often leads to over-doing. We are proud of how much doing we can cram into a day, and we boldly exhort it on social media. Even if we choose the quieting of meditation, we "do" that with special clothing, cushions, pillows, candles, music - whatever it is that reminds us we are doing something about doing nothing.

Teaching is about training someone to "do" something, after all, something they wouldn't be able to accomplish without guidance and perseverance and the occasional push from the teacher. And this is all well and good. However, when the doing feels like hard work, it is. When it feels easy and effortless, it is the outcome of the balance between well-directed movement and the natural process of inhibition as explained in Won't Power: Part I. The understanding that the brain will shut down unnecessary movements in favor of well-coordinated movement helps us to focus on the whole body coordination rather than concentrating on one element of movement. This is what F.M. Alexander referred to as non-doing.

How best can we instill this kind of ease in our students playing? Some suggestions:

      1. Teach them how their bodies work in the simplest language possible. If they understand their own structures, they are more likely to move in accordance with them. There are lots of helpful resources at www., and there are many good anatomy resources on line. Do your best to distill instructions rather than overwhelm the student with too many directions.

     2. Choose appropriate literature rather than pushing them through upper levels before they are ready. When the music is too difficult, there will be more likelihood of interfering neuromuscular patterns that want to take over. As one of my teachers once said, the mind wants to do what the muscles are not ready to do.

     3.  Use vocabulary that encourages ease and clarity of intention. Yes, I've said this before in different ways, but it is an ongoing project for me. If I were to identify the one aspect of my teaching that has changed the most over the years, it would be my use of words. And, yes, I still slip up from time to time and use phrases that promote more pressure than freedom, but far less often than before.

     4. Check in with them and ask them if they are comfortable. Be aware that some students, especially teens, are comfortable in ways that are not necessarily mechanically advantageous, which creates an opportunity for teaching about balance on the bench.

     5. Remember that one of the major interferences with free movement is the state of a performer's emotions. An anxious or fearful state of mind creates physical tension that is hard to override, regardless of how well-informed the performer is about movement. While we can't control how our students react in performance, we can do our best to create a positive environment for learning.

     6. Guide the student toward the expression of the music. Some students get so involved with the technical aspects that they forget to communicate the message, while others naturally know how to get the message across. We are always balancing those two aspects of performance.

Won't Power: Part 1

My dad tried a variety of diets before deciding that what he really needed was won't power. Will power was over-rated when it came to food, he determined. What was missing was won't power, the power to refuse unhealthy foods. Alexander Technique teachers define inhibition as "the refusal to react to a stimulus in an habitual way." Short cut that to won't power.

The word inhibition, like so many English words, has a number of possible definitions depending on the context in which it appears. Here's one from the online Oxford Dictionary: "a feeling that makes one self-conscious and unable to act in a relaxed and natural way." And here's another from the online Cambridge Dictionary:"the act of stopping or slowing down a process, or the fact of this happening."

On a physiological level, inhibition is defined as "the restraint, checking, or arrest of the action of an organ or cell or the reduction of a physiological activity by antagonistic stimulation." Thanks to Mosby's Medical Dictionary for this thought-provoking explanation. Or, no thanks, depending on whether or not this makes sense to you.

What is fascinating to me about how we decide to react in any given situation is how much of the brain is actually devoted to won't power. At any given moment, there are many options for response to a stimulus that are available. Take my dad staring at the Klondike bars in the freezer for starters. Things he could have done include:

     1. Take one out and eat it while standing in   front of the freezer.
     2. Take one out and eat it at the kitchen table.
     3. Take one out and eat it at the dining room table.
     4. Take one out and eat it in the living room while watching the news.
     5. Take two out, eat one, and give the other one to me. Please vote for this option.

I know what you are thinking - where's the won't power in all of these options? He is still eating the Klondike bar! Correct, he is. That was his goal all along. The won't power came into play as he decided which motor plan to enact to achieve that goal. Once he decided on a location for eating, the other motor plans had to be scuttled.

This is what the Mosby definition of inhibition explains. When a person decides on a motor plan, the brain gets very busy not only directing the muscles required to put the plan into action, but also quieting competing patterns. This is the essence of antagonistic stimulation, a natural process of the neuromuscular response to a stimulus.

F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) discovered how to help people obtain natural co-ordination through a process that has helped countless people move with greater ease. He wrote about "getting out of one's way," which meant moving toward a goal with clarity and the freedom that excellent co-ordination allows. In other words, he advocated avoiding conflicting motor plans that would interfere with the natural process of energizing and inhibiting the structures of movement. Because so many options to reach a goal are always available, the brain is busier enacting won't power than will power.

How do we use this knowledge in teaching and performing? Get the scoop in Won't Power: Part 2.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Obstacles and Open Spaces

            A friend decided to learn to hang glide and offered one of the top pieces of advice the instructor gave: don’t look at the obstacles. She reported watching other novices who ended up in trees and on fences because they were so wary of crashing into them. These hang gliders learned the hard way that your vision determines the way your body leans.
            I learned this also in my attempt to become a horse rider. My teacher’s frequent reminder: your eyes are your commitment. The same thing happens on a horse that happens on a hang glider. Your weight shifts according to the direction you look, and the horse responds to the shift. If you are shifting toward an obstacle, chances are your horse will head in that direction as well.
            Our visual systems like to find a point of focus. Staring into space is an action that we tend to consider a negative.  It’s something that teachers notice when a student seems not to be paying attention, not being focused, in both the visual and the mental senses of the word. Those of us who went to school in buildings with very large windows will remember teachers catching us “daydreaming” by looking outside.
            But clearly there are times when it is advantageous to take in the larger view. both literally and metaphorically. Standing on a high point is a great opportunity to see far into the distance and notice what comes into view. If you do this with a friend, you may be surprised at your different aspects of attention. The wider scope provides a different perspective from a directed focus, even though a point of focus may come into awareness during the experience.
            And so it is with our teaching. It is quite easy to apply narrow focus on what seems to matter the most. For some teachers it is fingering, for some phrasing, for me – counting! We may begin assessing the quality of performance from that one point, the apparent obstacle to success.
            What happens when we instead soften the focus and let our attention open? What comes into view?
            I’ve been considering focus in relation to transfer students. Sometimes a transfer student comes in with excellent preparation, the kind that allows us to move forward with ease. But sometimes all I see and hear are obstacles, and they are not obstacles that can be ignored if there is to be forward progress. There are multiple fences to get hung up on, and passing over one treetop only leads to landing in the next.
            This is the time to sit back and find a little clearing. What is working well for the student? Sometimes it’s the student’s desire to play the piano. The student wants to learn and wants to improve. Building on desire helps to put the details in order and gives a frame of reference for the focus on the details at hand.   
Finding appropriate repertoire is the next best step, and possibly the biggest challenge. The music needs to be simple enough to allow attention to the obstacles without being either frustrating or boring. This can be a tall order, but luckily there are many collections of teaching literature available.
Notice also the physical tensions that may be interfering with overcoming obstacles. A chicken/egg phenomenon for sure, but physical tension is often the outcome of being unable to decipher notes and rhythms. Tension can be due to visual issues, a possible learning challenge, or some confusion remaining from previous study. If your larger view of the student includes physical tension, encourage more freedom. This can be done at the piano through approaches such as Body Mapping® or it can be done away from the piano through whole body movement. Playing catch is one of my favorite ways to get a student to experience whole body movement, especially if you emphasize that dropping the ball is allowed.
Perhaps the most important way to look for open spaces is to avoid mentally labeling the student. Thinking of the student as the one who can’t count, uses bad fingering, has an attitude – whatever that means – sets up the likelihood of predicting obstacles rather than looking into open spaces. Every student can surprise by doing something unexpectedly well, even if briefly. Be open to the delight of these changes as they come into focus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


"Snow is falling, snow on snow." One of my favorite carols is In the Bleak Midwinter, with lyrics by Christina Rossetti. The words are simple but beautifully arranged, like "snow on snow." I wasn't thinking of these words while sitting halfway up a hillside, unable to get traction to the top, but the word "bleak" may have been appropriate.

My fellow travelers and I were aiming at the top, but not in straight lines. Depending on which way the skids had taken us, we formed a kaleidoscope of angles and colors against the gray surface of the icy roadway. We sat in our metal cocoons, not quite sure what sign would appear to let us know that we could forge ahead. We all waited.

At some point, maybe after 30 minutes or so, one person stepped out to see what was going on ahead. Not only was the surface slick, but visibility was poor. That one person unintentionally gave others permission to do the same. I stepped out to ask for help from the truck driver next to me, who kindly pushed me to the left lane so I was less of an obstacle to those behind me. I then walked back to the car behind me to explain that I couldn't get a running start. Neither could he. We began to connect in our plight, some of us shrugging, some complaining, some making light jokes "in keeping with the situation." (Thanks, Dickens!) In and out of vehicles, in and out of snow, in and out of communication.

After about an hour, a state trooper and a snow plow arrived. The trooper became an impromptu conductor, planning our exit order, and pushing us out with the help of some stronger stranded drivers. I remember one of them smiling with the knowledge that his helping was valuable. His face seemed to say, "I can do this."

All of this excitement happened a week after the fall studio recital. My opening recommendation to my students was to exhale while waiting to play. Let's face it, one of the biggest differences between practicing and performing in a studio recital is the waiting. I've been considering that it is an element that needs to be addressed more directly.

When I assemble the order of performers, I do my best to take into consider the ability to wait. There are some students that I will ask where they would like to be on the performance schedule. There are others with diagnoses like ADHD that I will place earlier in the program.  I also consider the personality differences, hoping to place a calmer student next to a more excitable one. Occasionally there is conflict that requires a student to play earlier or later in the program to accommodate another commitment. Yes, even for recitals we are faced with this dilemma.

But what about the rest of the students, the ones who could potentially perform in any order? What is waiting like for them? I imagine they are not unlike my fellow stranded travelers, some taking it in stride, some worrying and mentally planning what will happen when their turns arrive. When I asked one of my students which piece she liked best on the program, her response was, "I was so close the end of the program that I really didn't listen to the other performers very well."

While as we teachers we may address self-talk in advance of performance, we may or may not address the mental game of waiting. One the few crash-and-burn performances I have experienced with my students proved to me that this can be disastrous. A well-prepared student had spent the whole car ride in crippling self-doubt, which did not go away at the venue but increased, ruining what would otherwise have been a fine performance. These are things we don't forget as teachers, and definitely things our students don't forget. Trauma is not too harsh a word.

As I look back on this year's recital, I am grateful that no one went deep into the land of negative self-talk, but I still remember that the potential is there. At the moment the hands touch the keys, there is no rescue team available, no one to push the student to safety. The success is riding on preparation and learning to wait with an attitude of  "I can do this."