Scientists are discovering more and more about how the human brain works, and if you’re a musician that ever-increasing knowledge can be put to good use. Using vocalists for our little case study, in this blog, we’ll focus on ways musicians can use the power of repetition to reach the next level in their development.
Proof At Last
At this point, entire libraries could be filled with books on neuroscience alone, while techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has enabled us to study the brain in real time. “A lot of things that reputable teachers and vocal coaches have already been showcasing in practice are now finally explained and proven,” says Alfons Verreijt, a vocal coach who’s been implementing new insights into his day-to-day practice. As a singer or musician, this kind of knowledge can be used to improve your technique and approach, and do it in a way that gives you results in return for minimum effort.
Learning Your Whole Life Long
Back in the day, it was believed that the brain stopped developing after adolescence. Today, we know better. Your brain basically reorganises and renews itself throughout your entire life, creating and dismantling nerve cell connections, and even producing new brain cells altogether. The brain is a dynamic whole that not only changes on a daily basis, but operates as efficiently as possible in order to make the most of any available energy. This is especially important when it comes to multitasking. Remember learning how to shift gears during your first driving lessons? Shifting gears requires many actions at the same: using one hand to move the gear shift and the other hand to hold the steering wheel, plus one foot to engage the clutch and the other foot to push down the throttle, all while keeping your eyes on the road to scan for traffic. The whole process demands coordination and practice, but once you’ve got the hang of it, shifting gears is a fully automatic process that you don’t even have to think about.
If your brain was being monitored by an fMRI scanner while you perform a sequence of actions that you’ve never done before, certain parts would light up. The more you repeat that sequence, the smaller that ‘active’ part of your brain gets. Here, repetition creates new connections within the brain until eventually you only need a little bit of brainpower to perform the sequence of actions. At that point, it’s basically second nature. Singing and playing a musical instrument both require multiple actions at the same time, so the more you practise, the more automatic it becomes, allowing you to focus more on the details as well as important things such as communication with fellow band members or interaction with the audience.
So much for the more theoretical side of things, it’s time to look at real life. Based on the info above, it’s safe to say that learning new skills is easier when you’re learning them within the proper context. Learning things out-of-context, so in an isolated way, is much less effective. “Sadly, a lot of singers and musicians are forced to do exercises that are out of context,” Alfons notes. “Take practising scales. While this does help increase vocal awareness in a way, the exercises typically take on a life of their own. The brain is much better off with exercises that simulate real life, in other words, singing actual songs.” Alfons uses singing vowels as an example. “Traditionally speaking, vocal exercises for vowels are focussed on separate vowels, which is called vocalising. This is practised before students sing entire parts. The problem is that your brain sees vocalising and singing entire parts as separate sequences of actions. Bringing that together requires a lot of extra time and practice.” That’s why Alfons advises doing things differently. “Just start singing songs right away and, if a certain vowel sounds off, simply factor in the context and figure out why it doesn’t sound like it should. The problem might well be nothing more than the consonant or vowel that comes right before the iffy vowel. This way, you isolate the problem without dropping out of context.” Singing or playing actual songs is also more fun than hammering exercises. “Which not only motivates you to keep at it, but creates a pleasant ‘working environment’ for the brain – a win-win situation.
It’s not uncommon for singers and instrumentalists to get stuck at a tricky part when learning songs by heart. After they run aground, most have a tendency to go for a long run-up or even start again from the beginning. “But that isn’t the most practical way to go about it,” says Alfons. “Your brain learns through repetition, so if you keep repeating the same mistake, you’ll simply keep getting stuck. What you want to do instead is change something about the way you sing or play that tricky part. It’s like Einstein said: “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” Alfons’s advice? “Sing or play the entire song and listen back to it to identify any problematic parts before analysing them. For singers, the reason why that one note sounds off might have to do with breath support, the positioning of the throat, the inhale, the way the notes are strung together, etcetera. See where the problem lies and then try again. As soon as it’s going well, work on any problematic bits within context by starting a couple of bars before them. Once you feel like you’ve made progress, you can work your way through the song from the start again.”
Alfons strongly recommends recording yourself when you rehearse. “This way, it’s much easier to analyse your performance and identify things that could be improved. In addition, research has shown that listening to recordings of your exercises activates the same parts of your brain that fire up during the actual practice. In other words, working with recordings is a much less fatiguing way to rehearse.”
Recordings also help reprogram your brain, which is something that happens to every singer following an extensive studio session. Vocal recordings are sometimes cut up into pieces and strung together again word for word or phrase by phrase until the perfect take has been pieced together – a take you couldn’t possibly have just sung that way. That said, if you were to listen to the recording over and over again a fair few times, you probably would be able to sing it perfectly in one go. That’s because the recording contains a lot of important audible information in terms of the pitch, timing and timbre. That info activates your brain as if you were actually singing, factoring in inaudible information about breath support, muscle control, compression and so on. Basically, all of the elements that helped form the sound are switched on again. This is called active listening, and it’s what allows professional singers to deliver killer performances after they’ve just cut a new album. Every singer who spends a lot of time in the studio will know that’s where you learn best.
The frontal cortex, the youngest part of the human brain evolutionarily speaking, is home to a special area of brain cells called mirror neurons, which help us imitate and predict behaviour. In a way, these brain cells make contact with the behaviour of others, or your own behaviour when you listen back to one of your recordings. They are also directly linked to the parts of the brain that take care of motor functions and emotions, even though the emotional part is located much deeper inside the brain and normally can’t communicate very well with the frontal cortex. When you listen back to yourself, your mirror neurons will reconstruct your behaviour based on the recorded sound. What’s great about this is that it also works when you’re actively listening to someone else. “It’s something I use during my lessons,” says Alfons. “I use it to feel what someone is doing with their voice, but it can also be used to figure out the secrets to any well-known singer’s technique. It immediately bases your learning process on the physical side of things, so the motor functions, allowing you to try and imitate their singing without thinking about it first.”
A Helping Hand
Singers are sometimes confronted with a note they just can’t get right. To help them out, Alfons has come up with a little trick. “What I’ll do is have the student sing the song and record it, including the false note. Then, I’ll correct that note using software and have the student listen to the recording so they can hear themselves sing the pitch-corrected note. By simply listening, the false note gets ‘overwritten’ since the inaudible information in the corrected note doesn’t just cover what’s being sung, but how it’s sung. Listening to the polished-up take a number of times can enable the student to sing that troublesome note in the right pitch.”
Frequently Made Mistakes
When it comes to learning to make music, what’s one of the most common mistakes? “Practising things you’ve already mastered,” Alfons says. “This goes for individual musicians as well as bands. It’s a big waste of time and energy to sing and play things you’re already familiar with. It’s much more effective to always ask yourself what you could do better and work on whatever the answer might be.” Another common mistake is doing things you don’t enjoy. “Like rehearsing parts you don’t like, or parts that are still just way too difficult for you. Neither is effective since your brain has already labelled it as a nuisance. Making music should be something you love and enjoy, always. Learning new things is easier when you’re having fun, so don’t hesitate to throw out those pesky scale exercises.”
Every ad agency knows that repetition works, which is why TV ads typically repeat the same thing over and over. But you can also use the power of repetition to your advantage when you rehearse: if a certain part is going well, repeat it a handful of times. If it’s not going well, stop to think about it. Analyse your mistakes, change your approach and then try again. If you notice you’ve picked up a bad habit along the way, instead of focusing on what you’re doing wrong, think about what you want to change. Once you’ve figured that out you’re free to get back to it. If you simply keep focusing on what you don’t want to do, you’re likely to keep making the same mistakes. As Alfons illustrates it: “A friend of mine once went paragliding and was jokingly told not to land in the tree that sat in the middle of the large, otherwise open field he was to land in. Of course, he then proceeded to land exactly on the treetop and had to be freed from his awkward position. Our subconscious isn’t bothered with value judgments. It doesn’t know words like ‘not’ and ‘don’t’, so if you ask someone not to think about a pink elephant, that’s exactly what they’re going to think about. What I’m trying to say is, focus on what you actually want to do or achieve, both in and outside of music.”