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.