When you practice or perform, do you notice good things you’ve done, or just the things that didn’t go well?
It may not surprise you to know that, in my experience, classical musicians are THE WORST at noticing good things about their performance. They can tell me about intonation problems, about missed position shifts, cracked notes, fluffed semi quavers. Rarely can they tell me about the beautiful phrasing, the breath control, the semi quavers that went by without a hitch. In fact, if I mention the good things I heard, most of the time they didn’t even notice them. It is as if they never even happened!
A lot of musical training is centred around noticing and correcting the things that didn’t work. And don’t get me wrong, it makes complete sense to notice our mistakes and to attempt to correct them. But if we notice only the things that went badly, we risk setting ourselves up for a hard time, because we will actually be conspiring with the way our brains operate to work against ourselves.
Why your brain prefers bad things
First of all, our brains are, evolutionarily speaking, really well designed for noticing things that are potentially bad or dangerous. The amygdala – one of the most primitive parts of the brain – acts a bit like a security system to keep us away from danger. Our attentional filter also contains some pretty impressive neuro-chemical systems that are designed to break through whatever we are doing to keep us out of danger. You might have experienced this if you’ve ever been driving on the motorway, and only realised you’d let your mind wander after your brain has jerked you back from drifting into the next lane!
Because these systems are neuro-chemically based, and because the brain is a plastic (changeable) thing, by paying more attention to the things that worry us (like intonation problems or fluffed semiquavers) we can actually cause our attentional systems and our amygdala to fire more immediately at errors. We can, in effect, train ourselves to be more anxious!
Memory encoding bear traps
Additionally, when we practice a piece of music, for example, we are trying to create stronger memory traces in our brains so that the information can be retrieved more easily. But what is encoded depends on what we most pay attention to and how strong the emotional connection was (either positive or negative). My memories of the ultrasound department of my local hospital, for example, are primarily of the location of the toilets. I was pregnant and having my 20 week scan, and I had been told to drink water so the scan would be more effective. Increased water consumption and a squashed bladder coloured my perceptions and my memories of the space!
In a similar way, it seems likely that our memories of a piece of music will be coloured by what we paid attention to while we learned it. If all we thought about was the stuff that didn’t work or seemed hard, then that is most likely what we will continue to remember.
Learning to notice good things: creating a string of successful experiences
So the key, then, is to dampen down the effect of the amygdala, and to take advantage of our brain’s abilities in encoding memories by giving it the right stuff to remember. We want to encode positive experiences, not negative ones. And FM Alexander has something to say about how to do this.
A few weeks ago, my lovely colleague Karen Evans and I discussed that one of our favourite sections of FM Alexander’s books is his comment that “confidence is born of success, not of failure.” It looks like a simple phrase – because it is. It looks like a truism, too. Obviously, we will be more confident about something if we have success at it. But it really is worth unpacking the significance of Alexander’s comment.
What he is telling us is that, if we want to have confidence in the tasks we perform, we need to have had a string of successful experiences. This string of successful experiences doesn’t just make us feel good about ourselves; it gives us a solid foundation of understanding that, because we have completed the task successfully in the past, if we follow the same process, we will have similar success the next time. Our mission, then, is to generate that string of successful experiences.
And we won’t be able to even begin generating that string of successful experiences if we aren’t even able to notice the things that went well. I’ll talk next week about how we begin to structure our practice sessions so that we can generate a string of successful experiences. This week, though, I want to set you one simple task. Each time you practice, can you write down three things that went well? Can you begin each practice session with the intention to notice the good things about your performance, as well as the bad?
Give it a go, and I’ll be back next week with how we can utilise our new-found skills to construct a confidence-building string of successful experiences.
 Bella Merlin, Facing the Fear, London, Nick Hern Books, 2016, p.20.
 Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind, London, Penguin, 2015, p.47.
 Barbara Oakley, Mindshift, New York, Tarcher Perigee, 2017, p.34.
 Levitin, p.52.
 FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384.
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