Violin & Viola Practice: Habits & Learning New Ones

Scientists* refer to 3 parts of the brain in terms of how functionality occurs in human beings: the Reptilian or Lizard brain, the Paleomammalian or old Mammal and the Neomammalian or new mammal brain.

The Apaleomammalian  or old mammal brainis has to do with motivation, emotions and memories, our motivation, emotions, and memory, including certain behaviors. 

The Neomammalian or new mammal brain,  makes it possible to have and speak languages, abstract thinking, reasoning, and the ability to plan. 

For the purposes of understanding how musicians learn violin or viola technique the Reptilian brain is of great importance and will be the focus of this article. 

The Lizard brain is involved with our primitive drives such as thirst, hunger, sexuality and territoriality. But its also responsible for habits and procedural memory, like the things we do without thinking about it. Lizard brain refers to the brain stem also responsible for primitive survival instincts such as aggression and fear ("flight or fight")  Riding a bike, putting keys in the same place, or other actions that  need no practice to accomplish are done with the Lizard brain. 

The constant repetition of violin or viola practice eventually creates habits that are formed and accessed through the Reptilian brain. Therefore it is only natural that when working on improving or changing these habits, its may seem extremely difficult. Over time the habits formed in the practice room are so ingrained in our Reptilian brain that they occur automatically. 

 

Forming good and bad habits are determined by how much those habits are practiced. And those bad habits may form, regardless if they bring satisfaction in doing them.  There are numerous examples of habits that human beings form, whether they are beneficial or whether they cause pain or suffering over time.  To change these habits Moshe Feldenkrais would say that one needs awareness. 

To know where you are going, you need to know where you are.**

Excess Tension

This profound yet seemingly simple theory espoused by Moshe Feldenkrais, and proven by experts the world over, may at first seem like common sense but the reality is that most players don't notice things about his or her playing at the most advantageous moment.  Many players may complain about excess tension.  While playing whether during practice or performance, there may be aches in the shoulder, neck, wrist, thumb for example. The problem is we tend to notice these things when its too late.  Unfortunately it doesn't do much good besides create a sense of helplessness to become aware of the problem after the fact. Its necessary to become aware of the tension as its beginning to occur! 

In order to recognize small changes in effort, the effort itself must first be reduced. More delicate and improved control of movement is possible only through the increase of sensitivity, through a greater ability to sense differences.**

So what does all this have to do with overcoming excess tension in playing?

If, for example the player has a tendency to experience excess tension in the right shoulder when playing, then chances are the seedling of that habit occur as one is taking the bow in the hand and then placing the bow on the string. Most likely once playing commences its too late to notice the important stuff.  While it may seem at first like a frustratingly small thing to be attentive about, being able to notice the instant that tension occurs and in effect 'freeze framing' the experience, is the starting point of the necessary information that the brain, yes the Reptilian brain, to begin to make positive change for the better. 

“What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies, but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity.”*

* https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/managing-your-memory/201712/don-t-listen-your-lizard-brain

**Moshe Feldenkrais https://www.movingexperience.eu/quotes-by-moshe-feldenkrais/

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