Friday, 30 March 2012


(Photo credit:  L. Gaertner)

After a busy couple of weeks, spring break is over.  The kids are back in school, and I can finally get some writing done.  I have five sweet hours to myself each weekday, a large chunk of which I spend sitting in front of the computer, with one eye on the clock to make sure I get out the door by 2:30 to go and pick up my munchkins.  But some days, by about 2:00, I’m tired of working, and give myself a reward for good behaviour:  I can play some music before leaving.

Before I sit down at the piano or pick up the flute, I usually set myself an alarm, or else I will be late leaving the house.  Once I start playing, other thoughts go out of my head.  I’m focused on the music:  getting the right notes, the right tone, the exact timing to elicit the feeling that needs to be expressed.  Time seems to stand still, and at the same time pass without me even noticing.  I am in a state of flow.

The idea of flow was popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  He describes flow as a mental state in which we experience a sense of deep enjoyment by feeling in control of our actions.  Despite absorbed concentration, we feel a sense of effortlessness.  Our sense of time may be altered.

Two types of activity that are often reported to lead to flow are sports and music, but flow can be experienced during any number of different activities.  What is required is that the activity is challenging for us, but we have the skills to match the level of challenge.  In other words, what we’re doing is hard, but not too hard.  Csikszentmihalyi puts it well:  “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act”.

Csikszentmihalyi describes other characteristics of activities that can induce flow:  there are clear goals and immediate feedback.  All of these characteristics are found in the task of making music.  It’s a challenging activity, but as long as the music we’re playing is not too difficult, we have the skills to perform well.  There are clear goals (the right notes, the right rhythm) and immediate feedback (we can tell if we’ve played a wrong note).  Music-making is also a flexible activity.  As our skills improve, we can play music which is increasingly difficult, so that the challenge level can always match our skill level. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, musicians are prone to this sense of flow, also described as peak or optimal experiences.  A 2011 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition described the frequency of flow experiences in professional and amateur musicians, and found that professionals experience flow about twice as often, and this usually occurs while they are playing music.  This study did not look at flow in non-musicians, but I would guess that non-musicians, on average, experience flow even less than the amateur musicians.  The authors of the study point out that the professional musicians may have been motivated to continue in their musical career because they experienced flow, or it could have been that the years of musical training and their skill level allow them to experience flow more.  It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, isn’t it?  However, we do know that musical training improves executive function, which means that musicians are better at having focused attention, a key element of flow.  This may make it easier for musicians to experience flow.

Another study, published in 2005, surveyed the experience of flow in 90 classical musicians.  The authors, Bloom and Skutnick-Henley, report that musicians are most likely to enter a state of flow when they exhibit high levels of self-confidence when playing, and have a strong desire to experience and express their feelings through music.

The sense of enjoyment that so many of us derive from making music is a key motivator for musicians.  I want to play music all the time because it makes me feel good.  It allows me to let go of my worries and burdens for a time.  And I want to improve as a musician so I can continue to have challenging and interesting music to play, and feel a sense of accomplishment.

As a music teacher, it’s important for me to try to help my students find this sense of flow in their music playing.  I think that too often we hurry students from piece to piece, so they are always working on songs that are a little too hard. After all, that’s how we develop new skills, by continually pushing ourselves to play songs that are more and more challenging.  But practicing difficult music is definitely not the same as simply playing music for enjoyment.  If a student is working through a new piece, constantly making mistakes and correcting herself, it’s probably not very satisfying.  This is not a situation that is likely to induce a state of flow.  After she’s worked on this song for a few weeks, she will have mastered the song (and the new skills involved), and then when she plays it, the level of challenge will match her skills.  It is at this point that she can achieve that sense of flow. She can play with self-confidence, stop worrying about getting the notes right and focus on the underlying expression in the music.  Unfortunately, what usually happens when a piece is mastered is that the music teacher says that the piece is “done” and that the student can stop playing it.

I think we need to help students seek out that sense of flow.  We should encourage them to keep playing pieces that they play well.  (This is also a good way to keep a current repertoire of “party” pieces for when students are asked to play for people on the spur of the moment).  Perhaps every practice session should start or end with a few minutes of playing “for fun”, pieces the student has previously mastered, or maybe a little improvisation.  Or perhaps after 5 or 6 good days of practice in a week, the last day could be devoted to playing anything the student wants, as a reward for good work. We should try to cultivate the habit of playing music for the sheer joy of it.

And now, my weekly blog post done, I’m heading to the piano.  But first, I’d better set an alarm.


Bloom A, Skutnick-Henley P. (2005)  Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians.  American Music Teacher 54(5):24-28

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990) Flow:  the psychology of optimal experience.  HarperCollins, NY.
Travis F, Harung HS, Lagrosen Y. (2011) Moral development, executive functioning, peak experiences and brain patterns in professional and amateur classical musicians: Interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance. Consciousness and Cognition. 20(4):1256-1264.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hands Together

Not long after I started writing this blog, I received an email from one of my piano moms asking why it is that we always start by learning new songs “hands-separately”.  That is, I usually tell the kids to learn the right hand part and the left hand part separately before they try to play them both at the same time.  This mom is an occupational therapist and, as such, part of her job is to help people learn or relearn movements.  And she knows that there is a whole field of research showing that when we practice only a part of a movement task, or when we practice a movement out of context, it doesn’t always translate to good performance of that movement in the whole task.  What this means for pianists is that playing the right hand by itself is not really the same as playing the right at the same time as the left hand.  So why do we practice hands-separately?  To be honest, I have my students practice like this because that’s the way I learned to play the piano.  Practicing songs hands-separately is standard procedure for pianists, but is it really the best way?

Splitting our attention
There are two different aspects to playing hands-together that make it particularly difficult.  The first is that when we play piano with both hands, the right hand part and the left hand part are competing for our limited attentional resources.  For each hand, we have to figure out what key(s) on the piano to play and what rhythm to play for each note, in addition to details like dynamics and articulation.  There’s only so much attention to go around, so it’s hard to focus on all of that for both hands.  Attention is a key part of learning, so if we split our attention between the two parts, they will be harder to learn than if we practiced just one part at a time.  That is, it might take longer to learn the piece if we only practice hands-together, because we just can’t focus on all the individual details.  If we are learning only one part at a time, there is still lots to focus on, but it’s more manageable than trying to spread our attention among all those different aspects of the music for two separate piano parts.  Once we’ve learned one part on its own, it becomes more automatic, and we don’t have to use as much attention while we’re playing it.  So from this point of view, it absolutely makes sense to learn each hand’s part separately, and then put them together.  And this is clearly why the hands-separate approach is so popular.

Inhibiting the other hand
The second thing going on when playing hands-together is interhemispheric communication.  In general, the left side of the brain controls the right hand, and the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left hand.  However, the two hemispheres talk to each other, and what usually happens is that one hemisphere inhibits the other.  When we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex is active, and it not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand.  And vice versa when we play with our right hand.

 This occurs because humans have a natural tendency for mirror movements:  when one hand moves, the other hand automatically mirrors its movements. This is seen in infants and young children, but as we develop motor control, we learn to stop these mirror movements:  the motor cortex of each side of the brain gives off axons that travel through the corpus callosum (the thick fiber band that connects the two sides of our brains) to inhibit the motor cortex of the other side.  This interhemispheric inhibition is particularly pronounced when we’re only using one hand.  In other words, if we are playing the piano with only one hand, our motor cortex is inhibiting the motor cortex of the opposite side.  So, if we’re practicing only the right hand part of a piano piece, we’re probably learning to inhibit the left hand.  And when we learn the left hand part by itself, we’re probably learning to inhibit the right hand.  Is it any wonder then, that when we go to play the song hands-together, it’s still really difficult?  Perhaps all this hands-separate practice is a little bit counterproductive.

So, hands-separately or hands-together?
The question, from a practical standpoint, is how do we balance these two issues?  Do we learn our songs hands-separately first so we can maximize our attention on each part while we’re learning them, or do we learn them hands-together from the beginning so that we can minimize interhemispheric inhibition?

Research that specificially addresses this issue is surprisingly scarce.  There are a couple of old, old music studies that do look at exactly this question:  Is it better to learn piano pieces hands-separately or hands-together? 

Hands-together practice is more efficient
In a self-study published in 1933, Roberta Brown learned 3 pairs of piano pieces.  In each pair, she learned one piece by starting hands-separately, and one by practicing hands-together.  She found that it was more efficient, and also more enjoyable, to practice using the hands-together method.

Rubin-Rabson’s study from 1939 also concluded that practicing hands-together was more efficient, with one hands-together playthrough of a piece equivalent to practicing the right hand part twice, and then the left hand part twice (rather than equivalent to practicing once with each hand, as you might expect).  This implies that hands-separate practice is inefficient.  However, the subjects in this study were trained musicians, able to learn the pieces to a fully memorized level in two practice sessions.  If the pieces were more difficult to learn, I think that would increase the amount of attention required for playing hands-together.  In that case, the hands-together method might lose some of its advantage.  Also, Rubin-Rabson points out that speed of learning is not the most important goal; clarity and precision of playing are also key, and seem to be improved by practicing hands-separately.

There is one other study that I read that points to an answer to the hands-separately or hands-together question.  It’s a paper authored by Robert Duke and colleagues.  In this study, a number of pianists were given an excerpt to practice, and the researchers looked at what sort of practicing behaviours were used and what led to the best performance.  One of the conclusions was that the best performances came from pianists who played hands-together early on in the practice session.  

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any more recent studies on this issue, and the standard method of learning piano pieces is still the hands-separate method.

Here’s my conclusion from all this morass of information:  I suggest that we encourage students to start playing their pieces with both hands as soon as possible.  If a new piece is difficult, it may be beyond the attentional limits of the student to play it hands-together immediately – this will just lead to frustration.  In that case, the student could play through each hand's individual part (or focus on tricky bits in each hand), and then try again hands-together.  Or perhaps practice just the left hand alone, and then try with both hands.  This approach has the advantage of limiting inhibition between the two sides of the brain, and also stretching the attention capacity of the mind.  The more we try to play hands together, the better we get at paying attention to all those notes at once.  This can only help our hands-together sight-reading abilities.

I think the bottom line is that, although there’s certainly value in hands-separate practicing to focus on details, we don’t really improve at playing hands-together by practicing hands-separately.  This is definitely a different approach than the one I was taught with, and it’s not really what I’ve been doing with my own students.  But I’ve also noticed that my own children are always eager to play their pieces hands-together before they know them well hands-separately, because it’s more satisfying to hear both parts at once.  And we could argue that satisfaction in playing is really what it’s all about.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


Brown RA. (1933). The relation between two methods of learning piano music. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 16:435-441.

Duke RA, Simmons AL, Cash CD. It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills. Journal of Research in Music Education. 2009;56(4):310-321.

Hiraga CY, Garry MI, Carson RG, Summers JJ. (2009) Dual-task interference: attentional and neurophysiological influences. Behav. Brain Res. 205(1):10-18.

Rubin-Rabson G. (1939)  Studies in the psychology of memorizing piano music.  I.  A comparison of the unilateral and the coordinated approaches. Journal of Educational Psychology. 30(5):321-345.

Vercauteren K, Pleysier T, Van Belle L, Swinnen SP, Wenderoth N. (2008). Unimanual muscle activation increases interhemispheric inhibition from the active to the resting hemisphere. Neurosci. Lett. 445(3):209-213.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Imagining music

I’m walking the kids to the bus-stop when my 9-year-old, Sophia, inquires, “You know how you can hear songs in your head?” 

“Uh-huh.”  (The song on endless loop in my head at that moment is, annoyingly, the children’s song Do you know the muffin man?)

“Well, can you hear two notes at once in your head?”

I pause to imagine a perfect fifth, which, true to my early 80’s musical training, always sounds like the opening notes of the Chariots of Fire theme. “Yep, I can hear two notes at once.  Or more.  I can hear a major triad.  Or a minor triad.”

The kids both look as if they’re listening to something I can’t hear, and, nodding, they confirm that they too can hear triads in their minds.  Sophia still looks puzzled, though.  She cocks her head to the side and asks, “We can’t sing two notes at once, so why can we hear two notes at once?”

As with many questions the kids ask me, I’ve never thought about that before.  What the kids and I are discussing (and doing) is a form of auditory imagery.  I’ve blogged before about involuntary musical imagery, or earworms, but what we’re talking about here is voluntary musical imagery, or what many musicians call audiation, the purposeful mental reconstruction of musical sounds.  The ability to audiate is an important skill for musicians.  If we can hear a song in our heads, we can use this representation to help us learn how to play it.  If we don’t know how a song “goes” then it’s much harder to tell if we’re playing incorrect notes.  Audiation is especially useful during sight-reading.

But what about the two-notes-at-once question?  Our vocal cords are not able to produce more than one note at a time, but that doesn’t mean our brains can’t represent two (or more) notes at once.  In fact, research has shown that when we hear music in our minds, the parts of the brain that are activated are very similar to those activated when we hear music. 

It’s tricky to study audiation because there is no systematic way to prove that it is actually occuring – it’s all in the person’s mind, after all.  A classic type of study was conducted by Kraemer and colleagues in 2005.  They put subjects into an fMRI scanner and played them excerpts of familiar and unfamiliar songs.  This activated the primary auditory cortex and auditory association cortex of the listeners.  To induce audiation, the songs were then replayed with silent gaps replacing short sections of music.  In the familiar songs, the silent gaps led to activation of these auditory areas.  The participants confirmed that during the gaps in familiar songs, they could hear a continuation of the music in their mind.  The researchers concluded that the activation in the auditory areas of cortex was the source of the audiated songs.

Because we can hear two notes at once, we can also imagine two notes at once, using our versatile auditory association cortex.


Kraemer DJM, Macrae CN, Green AE, Kelley WM. (2005) Musical imagery: sound of silence activates auditory cortex. Nature 434(7030):158.