Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.
As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.
From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.
An example – the piano student who constantly self-criticises her own playing. The student in question is in her mid-teens, a bright, enthusiastic, engaged and confident young person who is not only a sensitive pianist but also a talented violinist and who is developing into an intelligent and expressive musician. Each lesson usually begins with the student playing one of the pieces or studies she is working on for her Grade 8 exam. She plays well, taking note of expression and tempo markings, dynamics, articulation, but almost every slip is met with profuse apologies or restarts, and as the music progresses, the errors increase. Her performance usually ends with her saying “I’m so sorry! That was awful! I played terribly today” – or words to that effect. Despite her teacher’s (me) reassurance that she played well, that there is noticeable improvement, etc., she continues to berate herself for her lack of ability. She recently performed in a school concert, playing with great poise and apparent confidence. Yet no sooner had she replaced her violin in its case, than the negative self-crticism and worrying about the quality of her performance began. Later, at the drinks reception following the concert, many members of staff and friends told her how beautifully she’d played, how much they had enjoyed her performance, but she continued to accentuate the negatives.
Sadly, this circle of negativity is not helping this student. She veers between believing she is a good musician (which she is) and that she is a terrible musician (which she isn’t). Because of the reiteration of negative messages, via her own inner critic and (I suspect) a parent with very high, or unrealistic, expectations, the circle continues, preventing her from becoming the poised and confident musician I believe she can be.
It upsets me to see my wonderful student struggling with so much negativity, much of which is self-generated (I’m no psychologist but I can guess at some of the roots of her issues because I recognise them from my own lack of confidence as a teenage pianist which I carried with me into adulthood). It’s quite clear, to me at least, that her negativity is self-perpetuating and in order for her to move forward the cycle needs to be broken. I am working with her to help her understand how to turn her negative thoughts into positive ones, using some of the techniques below.
Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”
- Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
- Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
- Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
- Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
- If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
- Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
- Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
- Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
- Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
- Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.