By Macy Byars
Nebraska News Service 

How musicians can use psychology for effective practice


November 10, 2022

Practicing music is not everyone’s forte, but psychology may help.

A study published in June suggests that musicians practice more effectively when given information about the psychology of practice.

UNL professor Robert Woody, who has a doctorate in music education, conducted the study with 100 undergraduate music students to see if using cognitive psychology skills in their practice made it more efficient.

“It’s hard work, and so I do like to teach people how to make practice more tolerable and how to make it more efficient so that they don’t have to do it for a long time,” Woody said. “Nothing is more motivating than actually getting better at something.”

Practice is integral to a musician’s workflow, so Woody set out to find a more efficient way for them to do so.

The study began with a 650-word prompt about three cognitive skills: goal setting, motor production and self-monitoring. These skills were designed to help musicians plan for their practice, execute actions that produce sound and compare their plans with their execution.

Woody gave half of his subjects the prompt, and the other half received nothing. Then students wrote down their thoughts before, during and after their practice.

The definition of effective practice was left up to the students. If they accomplished their own goals and walked away satisfied, they reported their practice as effective.

Once the data was analyzed, Woody found that practice could be more effective if students focused on the cognitive skills that played into skill acquisition.

Of the students given the cognitive skill prompt, 91.8% positively appraised their practice effectiveness. In the control group, only 64.7% of students reported effective practice.

Nearly half of the students with the prompt who reported effective practice used the word “definitely” in their responses (“definitely improved, was definitely effective”). Those in the control group often described their practice as “decently” or “somewhat” effective.

Woody said he expected there to be an improvement in effectiveness when students were given the prompt, but he was surprised the correlation was so strong.

“My directing them to the cognition that underlies what they’re doing prompted them to use the strategies that they’re aware of,” Woody said.

Though music psychology applies to all musicians, practice strategies are not one size fits all.

David von Kampen, a lecturer at UNL who has a doctorate in musical arts, said conscious practice is essential for the members of his ensemble: the Jazz Singers.

“I think it’s really important to be mentally engaged and set goals for yourself,” von Kampen said. “I think the proof of this, at least for my students, is do they come to rehearsal knowing their stuff.”

Von Kampen recommends his singers practice in front of a piano, listen to the other singers’ parts and imitate other singers. He said these techniques encourage successful practice, but he doesn’t police how the students learn their music.

“The proof is in the results, rather than me monitoring their daily practice routines,” von Kampen said.

Emily Rose of Abingdon, Virginia, a second-year doctoral student studying clarinet performance, said she imagines the color of a piece of music when faced with a technically demanding section.

“That helps me kind of recenter back to what I actually want out of that section versus what I’m achieving without thinking about those things,” Rose said.

Rose has developed the cognitive skills described in Woody’s study through her years as a trained musician.

Rose visualizing a color is goal-imaging. Pressing her clarinet keys is motor production. Self-monitoring is Rose’s ability to hear and analyze the connection between her goal and execution.

The three cognitive skills laid out in the study were originally developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericcson. Woody studied music psychology with Ericcson at Florida State University.

Woody rephrased the terms used in Ericcson’s 1993 study on practice to make them more accessible and meaningful for those outside of the psychology circle.

“All of that sounds too scientific for musicians,” Woody said. “They just think that the key to success with music is to ‘feel it’ or ‘be the music’ or to ‘let the music speak through you’… It sounds good, but what’s really going on there?”

Woody said applying psychology to the arts can enhance understanding of what’s behind them without compromising entertainment value.

“The magic of music, I think, is in the human beings making the music and perceiving the music,” Woody said. “The more we’ve learned about human beings through psychology, I think the more I’m amazed by the magic.”


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