What Having a Stroke Can Teach Us About Our Brain (and Performing Better)

You may remember the article on Centering, where I wrote about left-brain and right-brain processing differences, and how these differences can dictate success and failure in high-pressure situations.

Watching a video about neuroanatomy and hemispheric lateralization is not most folks’ idea of a good time. However, I recently came across a video on brain anatomy/function which is rather emotional, and worth watching.

What makes this video so special?

The speaker is a Harvard neuroanatomist who had a stroke – and was aware enough to experience first-hand the inner workings of her brain and mind.

Click the video below to watch a 19-minute presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the New York Times bestseller My Stroke of Insight.

Take-home points

There are two important points in this talk that are of particular relevance to musicians and performance.

One is the idea that left brain processes information serially, while the right brain processes information in parallel. Playing your instrument requires the activation of many different muscles in very precise, highly complex, coordinated movement. What happens when you try to control everything, force things, and manually override the natural automaticity of complex muscle movements that you cemented into place in the practice room?

We “choke.” Things feel unnatural, stiff, tight, and inevitably, we make more mistakes. Someone once called this phenomenon “paralysis by analysis.”

The second important point concerns that voice inside our heard. The one that tells us not to make a memory slip, not to let that high note crack, or asks us why we always screw up that particular passage.

This voice can be an asset in the practice room, as it keeps track of what needs to be worked on and how we can improve. In performance settings however, it causes all sorts of chaos, because it becomes critic, coach, and our worst enemy all in one. It just won’t shut up and let us do our thing.

Speaking of voices not shutting up, let me end things here and let the video do its own talking…

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


2 Responses

  1. “The second important point concerns that voice inside our heard. The one that tells us not to make a memory slip, not to let that high note crack, or asks us why we always screw up that particular passage.

    This voice can be an asset in the practice room” : I tend to disagree.

    If you know a bit of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), you realize that this voice is anything but an asset : the words it uses are negative. The brain not knowing the negative form just hears “make a memory slip, let that high note crack, screw up this passage”. Not very productive…

    We must be very attentive of the word we use EVEN IN THE PRACTICE room, so as not to develop counter-productive reflexes :
    don’t rush => stay zen here, take it easy
    don’t forget => remember*
    don’t let that high note crack => do this and this so that it sounds nice
    don’t screw up this passage => work this passage so that it sounds ok
    Did you see how talking positive forces us to find and concentrate not on the problem but the solution ? Isn’t it great ?!

    * : I wanted to had “reread Dr. Noa Kageyama’s article on memorizing scores and apply it” when I failed to find it again… Finally I found it : do you know why it was so hard to get to it ? The title is not “improve your memorization” (positive) but “eliminate memory slips” (negative).
    I noticed that I have great difficulty to reconnect the content of an article to the title if this latter is negative (as in “Avoid the kiss of death” : I read it yesterday, know it was of great importance, but can’t remember what it was)

    1. Hi Leo,

      Excellent points! I suppose I could have been clearer here…my intention was to say that the voice inside our head is an asset in the practice room, so long as we use it to say the right things to ourselves as you outlined nicely in your comment. In the midst of a performance, generally speaking, the voice is not quite as much of an asset, whether it speaks to us in positive terms or negative terms.

      Regarding the title of the memory post, when I tested titles, people were more likely to click on the negative title than the positive one. Interesting, no?

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