Easy Brain Hacks to Upgrade Your Piano Playing

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Do you ever feel stuck in your piano playing? You feel as if you put in the practice time but just aren’t making the progress you’d like.

Or maybe you do feel like you’re making huge strides in your playing but want to take things to the next level.

As a lifelong pianist, I’m always looking for that slight edge to take my skills to the next level. And I’m ecstatic to present you with a few easy brain hacks to upgrade your piano playing!

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Background on Brain Hacks to Upgrade Your Piano Playing

I’ve written a bit about my academic background in other posts but will mention it again for readers new to the blog. My first degree was in music, but I have since obtained a doctorate in nursing practice.

This means that I LOVE to research and pass along credible information to my readers, especially as it pertains to the science of playing the piano. In other words, I am constantly looking for the crossroads between art and science.

And because there’s an absurd amount of inaccurate information out there, my goal is always to cut through the crap to present you with only the truly useful stuff.

The Book

With all that being said, I recently stumbled across a fantastic book written by a development molecular biologist named John Medina. His mission in writing the book is to bring forth simplified research findings of how the brain works to the general public.

The book is called Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. And although the book is not written specifically for pianists, I feel it is both relevant and crucial information to anyone interested in upgrading their piano skills.

The Research

For me, one of the very first things that struck a chord about the book is Medina’s equal attention to quality. All research he presents must first be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This means that it must pass an extremely rigorous process to make sure the information is scientifically accurate.

Medina then requires the research to be repeated, meaning it wasn’t simply some type of fluke. He then takes it further by boiling the research down to information that anyone can understand.

As someone who has read countless peer-reviewed articles, believe me when I say that researchers don’t write for clarity! Deciphering this type of writing is an art in itself. And so, I appreciate Medina’s mission to present high-level research to anyone in plain English with a side of humor.

The Brain

This sounds crazy, but despite massive research advances over the past century or so, we still understand little about the brain’s inner workings.

To put it into perspective, Medina makes this comment, “In truth, if we ever fully understood how the human brain knew how to pick up a glass of water, it would represent a major achievement.”

Take a minute to process that statement. We still don’t even understand the fundamental task of how the brain takes us from thirst to drinking. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?

And if we don’t understand something as simple as picking up a glass, we are lightyears from a solid understanding of something as complex as playing the piano.

Although I don’t promise a complete understanding of the complex interplay between cognition, memory, muscle, and emotion that occurs when playing piano, my goal is to present a few of my aha moments from the book.

And as the title suggests, my goal is to present brain hacks to upgrade your piano playing. But keep in mind that Medina’s brain rules apply to life in general.

So take this gift of knowledge and apply it liberally, both at and away from the keyboard. And if you’re thirsting for more, make sure you pick up the book for yourself. I promise that it’s both exciting and informative, and you will come away with tips to improve your life and relationships.

And so, without further ado, let’s dig into brain hacks to upgrade your piano playing!

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Brain Hacks to Improve Your Piano Playing: Exercise is Key

I promise to come back around to the piano in a minute but first, let me take you on a detour with my alter ego in the healthcare field. My career in healthcare started in the nursing home. And to this day, my practice continues to be based in this setting.

What this means for you is that I have extensive experience working with a population heavily impacted by cognitive decline. So much so that up until a few years ago, I never realized the significant bias I had developed by my work in the nursing home.

You may be asking yourself what cognitive decline has to do with playing the piano. My response to you would be that it has everything to do with it. Playing the piano begins and ends with cognition.

And by understanding the factors that impact healthy cognition, you can understand how to become a better pianist.

My Anecdotal Evidence

Until a few years ago, my only frame of reference for people older than 80 had been exceptionally frail people who seemed to show a steady pattern of physical and mental decline.

And so, imagine my surprise when I began my outpatient clinical rotation and was suddenly introduced to a whole new world of older patients. These were patients well into their 80s and 90s who continued to lead full and vibrant lives. They were driving, working, and even functioning as (gasp!) organists for large congregations.

I distinctly remember almost falling off my chair when one particularly delightful 90 something-year-old told me that he continued to mow his own 1+ acre lawn. With a push mower.

Mind. Blown.

This was the moment when my curiosity around the distinctly different outcomes in aging was first sparked. It left me questioning whether there are distinct actions people can either take or avoid to preserve cognition over time.

And although countless factors ultimately contribute to cognitive function over time, something deep inside whispered that this 90-something push mowing his lawn was on to something.

The Research

It turns out that my hunch was correct. According to Medina, “A lifetime of exercise can result in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance, compared with those who are sedentary.”

And he goes on to describe research-proven time and again that points to an improvement in areas including long-term memory, attention, problem-solving, and even fluid intelligence in people who consistently exercise.

If you’re thinking those skills are suspiciously similar to those needed for playing piano, then you too are on to something!

You may be asking yourself what this means if you haven’t exercised regularly up to this point in your life. Hang on because I’ve got some great news for you!

As a whole, research supports the idea that even if you haven’t been a regular exerciser in your life, it’s never too late to start. And bumps in cognition come with even relatively mild exercise regimens.

Exercise has proven to preserve cognition over time, and there is also research to support its effectiveness in treating anxiety and depression.

I’m not sure about you, but this might be one of my favorite brain hacks to improve your piano playing!

Brain Hacks to Improve Your Piano Playing: Make it Exciting!

Would it surprise you to learn that our brain ignores boring things? And yet, how much attention do we give to making our learning experiences, including piano practice, interesting?

Zero.

Up until recently, I’ve had a very dull approach to practice. My practice sessions start with a scale warm-up or two, move on to some technical practice, and finish with one or two repertoire pieces.

Repetition has historically been at the core of what I do in the practice room. And I suspect many (if not most!) pianists have been conditioned to take the same humdrum approach to their practice.

It does leave you wondering whether all this boring practice does anything to advance your skills.

The Research

The short answer is no. According to Medina, “The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – and retained.” In other words, “Better attention always equals better learning.”

Not only does improved attention translate to better retention, but our attention spans have a very short expiration date. As a general rule of thumb, sustained attention is only maintained for about 10 minutes before our mind starts wandering.

Given that my practice sessions typically last around 30 minutes, how much am I actually retaining? Most importantly, how can I improve retention to make the most of my practice time?

Improve Retention With Short Practice Segments

My first thought comes straight from Medina’s lecture model as described in the book. Given our short attention span, chunk material into 10-minute sections.

Spend the first minute on a broad concept and the next nine looping in details related to the larger one. Once the 10 minutes are up, start with another broad concept.

For example, spend 10 minutes on a very specific task, such as improving rhythm in section A rather than attempting to improve all aspects of an entire piece over that same time frame. And once the 10 minutes are up, move on to the next clear-cut practice task.

Incorporate Emotion Into Practice

Any time you can incorporate emotion into learning, retention will be enhanced. To demonstrate this phenomenon, think back to a song that holds special meaning for you.

I’m willing to bet that every time you hear that song, you’re flooded with a very specific emotion. Whether it’s your wedding song or a break-up anthem, you probably go right back to a distinct time in your life whenever you hear it.

My suggestion for you is to attach emotion to your playing. Hone in on a unique feeling with every section. And get creative with this. Don’t limit yourself to happy, sad, or mad.

Try incorporating euphoria, despair, and angst into your playing. Maybe spend time differentiating between just how different you can make “boredom” and “apathy” sound.

Find the Meaning

Our brains love patterns. And any time you can make a connection between new and previously learned information, retention becomes both more accessible and potent.

My previous post lists a couple of resources for creating meaning in playing the piano. One involves creating a visual map of a piece, and the other consists of brushing up on music theory. Both are fantastic ways to transform tiny figures on a page into a compelling musical performance.

Check out the post here.

Other Thoughts on Brain Hacks to Improve Your Piano Playing

It’s difficult to articulate all the valuable information contained within this one book. But if there’s one thing to take away, it would be that our brains are designed to solve problems by exploring.

In the (admittedly somewhat morbid) words of my favorite Downton character, Violet Crawley, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve, first one and then the next and then the next until at last, we die.”

Our brains have been helping us navigate complex problems for centuries. We learn by doing. And by exploring.

So I would encourage you to keep trying. Keep searching for ways to improve. Look for unconventional ways to improve your piano practice. Experiment. Play what you love. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to be creative.

If you’re a classical pianist, try jazz. Or improvisation. You could even try your hand at composition.

And get some sleep! Medina has an entire chapter devoted to the massive impact sleep has on learning.

Most importantly, you can conveniently get your copy of Brain Rules by clicking the picture below.

It’s Your Turn

I hope you have found a few brain hacks to upgrade your piano playing after reading this post! If you’re looking for more inspiration and piano playing resources, make sure to check out my previous posts:

And that’s it for this week. As always, I wish you all the best in the practice room and beyond!

Image via Canva

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