PRACTICE: Make good on the good
Well, I had a nice post on the go about what I sometimes think of as "The Performance Dilemma": How to practice non-attachment (or letting go of results) in the practice room when you know you have a performance coming up. But then my sweet boy got sick and we had multiple power outages and, all in all, the last day or so has not been super productive from a writing standpoint. So, I'm going to let that post percolate for another week and pull a fun practice off the shelf instead. All for the best, perhaps, as I have been a bit lax about posting practice ideas...
This practice is inspired by and adapted from "Take in the Good" in Rick Hanson's book Just One Thing and it is all about the deliberate cultivation of positive states of mind. I have posted a bare bones version without the backstory over on the Practice page. But the backstory is kind of interesting, so if you're up for it, read on...
We'll start with the bad news: Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. What this means, in a nutshell, is that our brains are far more sensitive to and likely to hold on to negative experiences than positive or neutral experiences.
We see this in action everyday: Someone pays us a compliment and we feel good for a moment. But if someone insults us, we ruminate on it all day. That's the negativity bias and it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective:
Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: 1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn't one, and 2) thinking there wasn't a tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once. (Hanson, 2013, p. 23)
In other words, we evolved to take even the merest whiff of threat very, very seriously and, as a result, we carry around a lot of needless anxiety. This was great for the survival of our species but not so great for our mental and emotional well-being. This bias has two big downsides:
It amplifies the negative. According to Rick Hanson, it "...pulls your attention to what could be bad, makes you overreact to it, and stores the negative experience in your implicit memory." (Hanson, 2013, p. 29) [Sidebar: Implicit memory is largely unconscious and includes procedural memory -- your memory of how to perform tasks such as brush your teeth, tie your shoes...or play your instrument. Information (key signatures, the fingering for B-flat, etc.) is stored in your explicit memory.]
It decreases the positive by a) hogging all the attention and making it less likely that you'll even notice positive events and b) causing you to under-react to the positive events that you do notice. (Hanson, 2013, p. 29)
What does this mean for musicians? When negative thoughts are running the show -- even that low-level, seemingly innocuous dissatisfaction that just kind of runs in the background for a lot of musicians -- you are essentially behaving as though practicing and performing are threats. Is it any wonder then that performing sometimes feels scary and practice like drudgery?
But there is some good news! Your brain is literally built from the experiences that you have. That means that having more positive experiences will actually change the structure and function of your brain.
Luckily, we have positive experiences all the time. The problem is that because of that pesky negativity bias we often don't, well, experience them. If we notice them at all, we tend to dismiss them as insignificant. This is where the practice comes in.
The point of this practice is simply to get into the habit of experiencing positive experiences. It has just two steps:
Notice that something positive is occurring or has occurred. It could be anything, but here are just a few examples of positive things you might experience in relation to practice or performance: simply carving out the time to practice; completing an element of your daily routine or work on your rep; making any amount of progress on some aspect of technique or on part of your rep; staying focused on a particular objective for a certain period of practice or during performance; performing your best; performing less than your best but learning something valuable; getting a compliment about your playing; hearing someone else play really well; choosing new repertoire or new equipment... The list is endless.
Take a moment to let the event sink in an become an experience. Don't let your attention immediately flit away. Instead, spend 10 or 20 seconds to really feel how the positive event resonates in your mind and body. If you have accomplished something, even something small, take a moment to relish the feeling. If there are things that naturally easy or intuitive for you -- perhaps you are particularly expressive or a good sight reader or a very hard worker -- take time to appreciate the way these qualities contribute to your experience of being a musician. If someone pays you a compliment, say thank-you -- and mean it!
Of course, you can take this out of the practice room, as well. Begin to notice and absorb the moments of beauty and connection that are there all the time. It feels good, but I want to be clear that it's not just about feeling good. It's about working deliberately to undo some of the negative conditioning that is built in to our brains. Doing so will make us more confident and effective as musicians and as people.
Thanks for reading. Happy practicing!
Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness. New York: Harmony Books. 2013.
Hanson, Rick. Just One Thing. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2011.