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Catherine Manoukian

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Violin-Playing and Your Brain

Violin-Playing and Your Brain

Advice
Train your brain to multitask. Every now and then, you should play the violin whilst simultaneously doing something else that's cognitively absorbing. One of the best, I find, is watching a movie or a TV show on mute, with subtitles. Force yourself to read the subtitles and follow the story while you play. Record your playing and compare it to yourself when you're just focusing on playing. If the discrepancy is minimal (for example, no memory lapses, rhythmic mistakes, horrible bowing problems, etc) and you've managed to absorb the movie or show as well, then you've successfully multitasked.

Explanation
On certain levels, the human brain works a bit like a computer. There are systems and processes and functions. When I was a child, I thought there were “modules” for specific functions (ex. a little chunk of your brain controls talking and another chunk controls seeing). But this is wrong: your brain operates through collaborative activity spanning its different areas. Your neurons are engaged in teamwork. One reason why the brain works so well is that, when one team fails, there's usually another to pick up the task in its place. You could think of it as similar to “backup systems” on computers. The objective of my multitasking exercise is to overload your brain, forcing backup systems to come into action. Its purpose is to prepare your brain to function normally under abnormal circumstances. Stuff comes up onstage: you'll get distracted, you'll have a headache, you'll be tired, nauseous, dizzy – all sorts of things can happen. This exercise is basically practicing or training for your brain, a sort of mental equivalent of scales or studies.

Elaboration
Playing the violin is a difficult activity both manually and mentally. The current generation of violinists is very lucky, because there are so many excellent methods that show us how to get around the manual difficulties of being a violinist (Flesch, Auer, and Galamian are just a few examples that come to mind). There aren't, however, too many that focus on what goes on mentally when one plays the violin. In this area, we're still very much children of the 19th century. The general line is that you must be attentive and dedicated and diligent. The emphasis is on will power – a strong enough will, and your mind will do what it's supposed to do. I think that, although there's obviously truth to the idea that attentiveness and focus increase your cognitive efficiency, relying on will power alone is a generally ineffective strategy. The mental processes involved in playing the violin are far too complex for mere attentiveness and focus to get you around all the cognitive difficulties of being a violinist.

I should clarify what I mean by mental. (It's straightforward that the manual involves the functioning of fingers and wrists and everything else that's usually talked about under the heading of “technique”.) The following are some candidates for what falls under the category of mental: memorization, interpretative choices, the ability to get back in synch with the orchestra when someone misses their cue, or the quick thinking involved in grabbing the concertmaster's violin when something goes horribly and unexpectedly wrong with your own. Of course, the mental and the manual are inextricably bound up in practice – our fingers execute our interpretations, our hands make the motion of grabbing the concertmaster's violin, our eyes communicate what we want to the conductor. But there's a sort of “common sense” distinction between the two.

The mental is typically taken to be the origin of the manual. To use a metaphor, the mental is thought to be the driver and the manual the automobile. I think this idea is part of the reason why enough attention hasn't been paid to effective solutions for the cognitive difficulties of violin-playing. It's understood that, manually, what you're aiming for with practice is some degree of automation. We want to build muscle memory, just in case something goes wrong on stage, such as if our hands get cold or clammy or hurt. But automation is seriously frowned upon in matters mental. Don't let your mind wander. Classical music is an exercise in control: it's a discipline of fine details and nuances, carefully thought out and painstakingly executed. That's part of its charm. But a product that's polished, refined, and impeccably controlled doesn't need to rely exclusively on conscious control. In fact, if the cognitive aspects of violin-playing were to some extent automated, the final product would more likely turn out consistently polished and refined – there'd be backup systems to compensate for unexpected obstacles. My multitasking exercise is training in automation. It's intended to do for cognitive difficulties what manual exercises do for technical ones.

Obviously, generations of violinists have operated free of memory lapses and paralysis on stage without worrying about backup systems in the brain – they were lucky enough for such systems to evolve without any special efforts to that end. However, things happen. For example, people can develop very sudden nerve problems, and, when they do, abilities that were taken for granted start to seem shaky and unreliable. How practiced a person is determines how well they fare in such circumstances. This is uncontroversial when we're talking about technique. My point is that manual reliability and mental reliability are absolutely symmetrical in these cases: with automation comes resilience. You have to be prepared in both respects. Just in case.

updated: 4 years ago