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PRACTICE TIPS #35: Makes You Think . . .  Brent Hugh
 Sep 24, 2000 13:44 PDT 
PRACTICE TIPS is an occasional email newsletter with practical
piano practice tips and ideas, by Brent Hugh

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PRACTICE TIPS #35: Makes You Think . . .

I came across an interesting article today in my email archives. The=20
article has to do with learning--why do we remember some things better than=

This rang a bell with me--what better way to describe a "practice session"=
at the piano than as a "learning session"? What we are learning when we=20
practice a piece of music at the piano is a complex interrelated sequence=20
of movements, sounds, and (musical) symbols. It is a quite different kind=
of learning from the kind we mean when we say "I'm going to study for my=20
history test tonight". But still--practicing *is* learning, and it is well=
to keep this simple fact in mind.

Here is the main conclusion of the article (a much longer excerpt from the=
article is quoted at the end of the message):

    What makes your brain more likely to [remember] one item over
    another? . . .

    The studies provided some hints. . . . [M]ore complex cognition
    increases the chances of memory.

This gives some very concrete ideas that can be used in practicing to help=
you learn you music faster and better:

*   Look for chords, patterns, motives, repeated rhythms, phrase groupings,=
repeated sections, variations of previous motives or phrases in your=20
music. Try to understand the overall plan or "form" of your piece. Try to=
pick apart and understand everything about it you are able, from the simple=
to the complex.

*   You must find patterns that are meaningful *to you*. It might make=20
perfect sense to me to think of a certain chord as "German Augmented=20
6th". But this might be gibberish to you (gibberish, last I checked,=20
doesn't fall under the categoary of "complex cognition"). It might make=20
more sense for you to think of the chord as "black key-black key-white=20
key-white key", a pattern that makes good sense to you.

    Relate everything "new" to things that are "old" in as many different=20
ways as possible. Consciously try to think of comparisons such as
        The motions I use in this section are like piece X I learned before
        This has the same mood as X
        This has the same tempo as X
        This has a similar rhythmic pattern to X
        This has the same form as X

    Do NOT Learn your music in just one way, which you then repeat in=20
practice session after practice session. This seems so easy, because the=20
brain can become more and more comatose with each succeeding practice=20
session. On the contrary, consciously plan to learn your music in dozens=20
of different ways--from dozens of different "angles". Learn it in small=20
sections, medium sections, and large sections; left hand alone and right=20
hand alone; play it with different rhythms; at different tempos; with=20
different groupings (finger groupings vs. rhythmic groupings, for=20
instance); be able to play underlying chord progressions; be able to play=20
your sections in different orders (reverse order or random order); learn to=
start easily, by memory, at many different places in the music; and so on.

Happy Practicing!


------------Longer article excerpts--------------------------------

Scientists discover brain's remembering mechanism

Copyright =A9 1998 Nando.net
Copyright =A9 1998 The Associated Press

*Mechanics of memory studies

WASHINGTON (August 20, 1998 4:30 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) -- Why=
is it you can't remember where you put your car keys but you can't forget=20
the theme song to the "Brady Bunch"? Scientists have taken a big step=20
toward solving the mystery, literally peering inside the human brain at the=
split second it creates a memory.

In a unique pair of studies, scientists at Harvard and Stanford=20
universities used sophisticated imaging techniques to watch people's neural=
activity and, for the first time, show which parts of the brain determine=20
whether a specific experience will be remembered for forgotten.

The findings "mark a significant step forward," said memory expert Michael=
D. Rugg of Britain's University of St. Andrews, who critiqued the studies=20
in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

. . .

Scientists have long suspected that how well people remember depends on=20
differences in how their experiences are "encoded" into the brain at the=20
time they occur. Studies of people with brain damage have suggested various=
brain regions were involved, but it wasn't clear if damage to those regions=
meant people couldn't make new memories, retrieve old ones or store=20
memories over time.

New, high-powered "magnetic resonance imaging," or MRI, machines work fast=
enough that scientists can measure split-second neural activity as a=20
person's brain processes an experience.

At Harvard, neuroscientist Anthony Wagner put healthy volunteers into these=
"functional MRI" machines and rapidly flashed one word every two seconds=20
onto a screen inside. At first, the volunteers merely noted whether words=20
were in upper- or lower-case letters. With additional words, they were told=
to decide if each was concrete, like "chair" or "book," or abstract, like=20
"love" or "democracy."

That's because psychologists already knew that analyzing the meaning of a=20
word helps people remember it.

In Stanford's study, Brewer showed volunteers color photographs of indoor=20
and outdoor scenes rather than words.

Neither set of volunteers had been told this was a memory test. But after=20
the MRI scans, they were asked which words or pictures they remembered=20
well, remembered vaguely or didn't remember. The scientists compared those=
memories to the brain scans.

The longer that two brain regions -- the prefrontal lobes and the=20
parahippocampal cortex -- both lit up on the MRI scans, the better people=20
remembered the items. Words or pictures that caused weak activity in the=20
two regions were forgotten.

What makes your brain more likely to react to one item over another?=20
"That's the million-dollar question," Wagner said.

The studies provided some hints. Wagner's volunteers showed more neural=20
activity and better memory during the "concrete-abstract" word test than=20
for other words, providing biological evidence that more complex cognition=
increases the chances of memory.

And personal experiences probably play a role. Perhaps Brewer flashes a=20
photo of Zion National Park: Someone who just visited there may react more=
than someone who says, 'Oh, a desert scene.'

Most people think of memory problems as "failing to retrieve an event,"=20
Brewer explained.

Instead, think of "what went on when you put those car keys down that=20
distracted your attention from where you're putting them," he said. "But=20
you're thinking of that stupid piece of trivia, you're attending to it" --=
so the trivia of, say, a TV show becomes a memory.


------------End article excerpts---------------------------------------

PRACTICE TIPS is by pianist, teacher, composer, and internet nerd
Brent Hugh. Brent knows about practicing mostly because he *does*
it, and in fact is toddling off to do some of it just about now . . .

Please remember that this tip is but a small spot near the tip of the
elephant's tail--it's not even close to the whole elephant that is
"how everyone in the whole world should practice the piano".

Practice Tips Archives (updated about once a month):


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++++++++++++ Brent Hugh / bhu-@griffon.mwsc.edu ++++++++++++++
+ Missouri Western St College Dept of Music, St. Joseph, MO +
+         Piano Home Page: http://www.mwsc.edu/~bhugh         +
+ Internet Piano Concert: http://www.mwsc.edu/~bhugh/recit   +
++++ Classical Piano MP3s: http://www.mp3.com/brent_d_hugh ++++
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