Violin Practice and Your Brain, with Rebecca Roesler ASTA 2023

August 21, 2023, 2:41 PM · A violin student named Hannah was learning shifting, and she was very discouraged. She felt like she just couldn't do it. Not having a private teacher, she went to her school orchestra teacher, and they practiced doing some slides with one finger. Things started to feel easier. In fact, suddenly she felt like she could do shifts.

What changed? Here's what Hannah told her teacher: "You taught me easier ways to play, and I think I was using the hard way."

That's a quote that stuck with Rebecca Roesler, who now teaches at Brigham Young University in Idaho. Roesler shared this story with colleagues at the American String Teachers Association Conference last spring in Orlando, Fla., in a lecture called "This is your Brain on Practice."

Rebecca Roesler and the brain
Rebecca Roesler's lecture "This is Your Brain on Practice" at the 2023 ASTA Conference.

Why would a student be "using the hard way"?

"I am convinced that every student can be successful, regardless of their challenges, background or access to private lessons, as long as the task is designed for their success," Roesler said. "If it's too hard, it's too hard! Don't lose sight of who all of this is for." In order to embrace their own learning, a student must feel like what they are doing is not too hard to do, and like they are an important part of their own learning process.

So why would something feel "too hard" for a student? The science of the brain can help explain. The brain has great capacity - but it also has limitations. Piling on too many tasks at once can result in frustration.

A teacher can start by thinking about the fundamental skills a student needs to develop, in order to play the violin, for example: holding the violin, holding the bow, hearing notes, rhythm, note-reading, finger patterns and dexterity.

In each step along the way, the student must develop "habit strength to the point of automaticity, before layering additional tasks," Roesler said.

What does that mean?

First of all, despite the fact that we humans *think* we are good at "multi-tasking," in reality, we can only truly pay attention to one thing at a time. Roesler showed us several selective attention videos in which focusing on one detail causes most people to miss call kinds of other things that are going on in the environment.

The thing that allows us to "layer tasks" - that illusion of multi-tasking - is called "automaticity." Automaticity is achieved by practicing and repeating a specific behavior so many times that it becomes "automatic." The learned behavior literally requires fewer brain cells, and thus requires less attention.

"Automaticity is how we manage our world," Roesler said. For example, a toddler must expend a great deal of attention to walk across the room, but over time walking becomes a strong habit, to the point of "automaticity." With automaticity, it becomes possible to walk, while also focusing on and doing other things.

The only problem with "automaticity" is that if a task is an automated habit, it is harder to bring it back into consciousness. For example, if holding the violin has become a habit, practiced to the point of automaticity, then it is hard for a student to change how he or she holds the violin.

"Students have to have habits in order to do what they do," Roesler said, "but they also need to have the ability to change those habits."

So in developing a student's habit strength: first the student must be able to remember and correctly execute the skill, then the student must be able to maintain that skill while doing another task.

Knowing this, then it's possible to understand why students can wind up with a bad set-up on the violin, or can have trouble moving on to more advanced work. Roesler offered three explanations:

  1. One skill was not automated enough before they moved on to another skill
  2. The student didn't learn to do the skill on their own
  3. It was not practiced enough to develop habit strength.

But before getting to judgmental, remember this: teachers are up against some serious challenges, when it comes to teaching a bowed stringed instrument. First of all, the movements required for playing are not "every-day" movements that feel familiar. Students have to learn to hold things in a way that they don't routinely hold other things (like a spoon, a shovel, a doorknob) and they have to develop specialized muscle sets that generally are not developed in any other activities besides playing. Playing also is not symmetrical - it requires that the right and left hands do entirely different tasks. Thus, it requires "bi-manual independence" - each hand doing its own thing.

It is hard to focus on all that at once - and as illustrated above, you can't focus on all of it at the same time.

However, knowing both the challenges of the task and the limitations of the brain can help teachers design do-able exercises and goals for students, both beginners and those needing remediation.

Roesler recommended some helpful guidelines to help teachers set up a do-able plan.

First, come up with an intelligent sequence for learning skills, and monitor each task vigilantly, giving immediate feedback to the student. The correct motions and habits must be reinforced with correct repetition.

When practicing, a student will have more success with not just repetition, but with correct repetition. (This advice reminds me of the old saying: Practice doesn't make perfect, practice only makes permanent... Perfect practice makes perfect!)

Tasks have to be broken down into do-able units - if it's "too hard," chances are it needs to be broken down into something more doable.

"Don't forget to experiment," she said. "Exploration is one of the ways we learn, through trial and error." Allow students to have this, so the task can become their own.

And in all this building of physical skills, don't forget to attend to the sound, to allow the student that external focus that comes from hearing and shaping the sound they are producing.

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August 21, 2023 at 08:34 PM · This is very much how I think of building skills like music performance.

I wonder if there is some research around the best form of remediation. There's tales out there of students just working on open strings for a whole year to get them on track. My question would be in such a hypothetical, does the student need to remediate without other complications at the same time (just open strings) or can the student bring up the lagging work in remediation while practicing everything else as normal (open string work besides all the other regular practice)?

August 22, 2023 at 01:46 PM · Only Perfect practice makes PERFECT!

I use the analogy of creating neural-superhighways. These are the links between all the synapses involved in a specific set of motions. Repeated enough the body insulates this pathway making the movements automatic.

I few years ago I had a bicycling accident where I got a "Forward displaced facture of C2 and C3 cervical vertebra. I've had to relearn how to hold the violin now that I cannot turn my head more than a few degrees because C0, 1 & 2 are now fused as a single unit. (screws, wires, clips and rods...)

I still have moments when my body wants to go to the old route. I'm still building/adjusting the old neural-superhighway to my new normal. Fortunately I only play for myself, wife and cats.

A friend (and Bass musician) is studying to get her MS in neuroscience and I mentioned my "neural-superhighway" to her and she validated my idea with a host of technical words that I did not memorize.

Summary: Only Perfect practice makes PERFECT! removing those mistakes is extremely difficult. Students, parents and teachers need to understand this simple fact.

August 22, 2023 at 03:03 PM · George - after a career in neuroscience I can assure you that the concept of a neural superhighway is pure, evidence-free speculation, sadly indulged in by a lot of researchers and commentators who should know better. It's just a pseudo-scientific way of describing a well-practised habit.

August 23, 2023 at 01:27 PM · George- I don't really use this website much more or go on line at all. I happen to see your post by chance and have C1 instability. I am not fused and going the regenerative route. I am a former performer That hopes to go back to it. It is difficult to play with this condition and I have never met any one with it that was specifically a violinist. But like anything else persistence is key.. When changing a habit I tell my students that they have to carve space in their brain for it and that it takes 9 months to develop muscle memory. Best of luck in your healing journey and it was nice to Hear from someone that plays the violin has a similar condition to mine.

August 24, 2023 at 05:23 AM · I try to practice as much as my attention span would allow me. If I feel like I could go longer then I practice longer.

August 24, 2023 at 03:18 PM · Elana, et al.,

I had a cervical spine fusion that brought C0, C1, and C2 together with screws, wires, clips, and rods. my upper cervical spine is now fused into one unit that is rigid. I did not have the choice of a "regenerative route". All the surgeons who saw my post accident x-rays said that my fracture was the worst they have seen of a person who survived the fracture. My neck was so unstable that fusion was the only way to survive long term.

My changes were using a Flesch-Flat chinrest and holding the chinrest with my jaw on the forward (right of the tailpiece). I had to adjust my SR to tilt the violin forward. I cannot turn my head to look over the violin. Now my shoulders are square to the music stand with the violin only slightly forward and I can only see the violin with my peripheral vision.

Of course that changes the angles of my right arm in bowing.

I'm not sure of a specific amount of time to create what I call a "Neural Superhighway" or "muscle memory" that allows the automatic alignment of all the joints, muscles, nerves and brain regions to play a specific note with a specific finger in specific location.

In my re-learning process I only know that it is a slow and often frustrating process. Each day is a bit easier than the previous day.

Fortunate for me I only play for myself my wife and our cat. I still coach a few adult late starters who, like me, want to play for their own enjoyment and satisfaction.

August 26, 2023 at 04:59 AM · Third Try ~ {#7} re Rebecca Roesler's 'This is your Brain on Practise' ~

If God wants my knowledge and ideas on here re Rebecca Roesler's very important article on her ASTA National Conference in Orlando, in March of 2023, and much work on my part yet erased due wretched iPad juice leaving not able to Post to continue, this will be Here All of this August 25th, 26th and 27th 2023 Weekend!!! Veteran Violinist Master Teacher, Carrier of the Heifetz-Milstein Violin & Mentoring Legacy, Elisabeth Matesky ~

I had 6 paragraphs when iPad suddenly quit & no time to post then later return to Edit. Drat! Things Happen ~ I Will be Back!! Best Wishes and compliments to Brigham Young University String Faculty member, Rebecca Roesler!! I was honoured, Rebecca, to premiere the Bradshaw Violin Concerto dedicated to myself & late father, Ralph Matesky, former ASTA National President; ASTA's 1978 Distinguished Service Award Winner; & internationally truly acclaimed 'Father of the Youth Orchestra Movement' in the US & later Europe + 'silent author' of "El Sistema" due Poppa's immense generosity sharing his published Ralph Matesky 'How to Play /Learn a String Instrument' Series which Dudamel Mentor, Dr Abreu, in Curacas in Venezuela, had much help from via Venezuelan Lady Minister of Music & Culture, flying to Mexico City, in 1975, to see/hear my Poppa conducting one of his acclaimed Youth Orchestras On Tour in Mexico, in Les Palace des Belles Artes in Mexico City, also conducting the World Premier of Madam Amalia Hernandez, Foundress of The famed Ballet Folklorico, commissioning of Dad's Work for Orchestra & The Dance with Lady Minister of Music & Culture there to plead for Poppa's Music Education Help in starting a new Orchestral Programme in Curacas for the poorest of the poor children and 'twas so successful they used the name in Portuguese & then Spanish, 'El Sistema' with his permission, yet Dr. Abreu was acknowledged as the Author of 'El Sistema', and when we met on December 2, 2012, here in Chicago, following Gustavo Dudamel conducting his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, then renamed afterward to the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, to be signed under an exclusive Recording Contract to Epic Deutsche Grammaphon, {name escaped me for a moment} Dr. Abreu invited me to Guest Artist Teach & Play in Curacas and I gladly accepted ~ Most Sadly, Dr. Abreu passed just 1.5 years after our lovely meeting here backstage after I was in Spanish on Venezuelan TV Orchestra Hall in Chicago, interviewed ...

The Brain - Mind - Body via Music Connection is something I know a bit about and hopefully I can return to offer thoughts set down in the past 2 hours now lost.Your own Phrase in the opening stages of your Article, 'It's too hard' and your own, "If it's too hard; it Is Too Hard", resounded in my own inner ear veteran teaching/recording concert touring Memory and I hope to return to add some to my view w/my Private 3.5 yr Epic Icon Violinist Mentor, Nathan Milstein's Mentoring me Interventions!

Warm musical wishes to Rebecca Roesler, from Chicago ~

~ ~ Elisabeth Matesky ~ ~

Daughter of ASTA's Ralph Matesky

Fwd ~ dmg {#7}

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