Nyckelharpa injury

I recently found myself with an injury from nyckelharpa practice in which I felt severe stabbing pain under my left shoulder blade. It hurt so much I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t find a comfortable position for reading or using the computer either. And playing nyckelharpa made it noticeably worse. I could still walk and play tennis. A doctor visit was useless, they shrugged and prescribed a muscle relaxer, but I have gotten good relief from a chiropractor over the course of about 8 visits. He found some ribs were displaced and the area under my shoulder blade very tight. He relaxed and manipulated my neck and upper spine and ribs and the area under my shoulder blade. I have also used ice and heat (my hot tub) and naproxen and done a lot of gentle stretching.

I needed to find a better solution for playing nyckelharpa at home. We had had wonderful chairs at the Eric Sahlström Institute that had gotten me through a year of playing many hours a day. Here’s a photo of our classroom there with the chairs:

Music classroom for our 2014-2015 year.

Music classroom for our 2014-2015 year.


But after I got home to the USA I had not been able to find a comfortable sitting position. So I had been practicing standing up, with some intervals perched on the arm of an armchair, or on a stool.

It is called a harpcello chair on the website.

It is called a harpcello chair on the website.


I was able to find a chair online at that was similar to the chairs at the Eric Sahlström Institute. It was more money than I wanted to spend, but after I developed the problems described above I went ahead and bought one and it is doing what I needed. It has great adjustability and wonderful lumbar support. The people at the small company in Canada were very helpful. I Skyped with ‘Sal’ and he showed me how to assemble and adjust the chair before he packed it up to FedEx it to me.

I have since taken an additional step, which is to learn and practice the Alexander technique. From their website they describe it this way:

“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended.

An Alexander Technique teacher helps you to identify and lose the harmful habits you have built up over a lifetime of stress and learn to move more freely.”

I found a private teacher in Kensington, MD and have had about 8 weeks of instruction. I think it is really helping, and also find it helpful when walking, moving, dancing, and living.

All the reading I have done about change has suggested that multiple changes are important when trying to create a new habit. So I have made a number of changes and am finding a better way.

Project: Scientific Studies About Practicing Music, part 2

My training as a scientist prompted me to wonder how optimised musical practice improves the motors skills needed for expert music performance. I read about the mechanism of learning in the brain. There has been significant progress in recent years in understanding learning and memory, finding that myelin is highly important for learning motor skills such as those needed by musicians to produce music.

Motor skills (such as those used by musicians) are created by chains of nerve fibers carrying an electrical impulse to the muscles needed to make the music. For many years the focus of neurobiologists was on the nerve cells, the axons and the synapses that join the cells (Figure 3). Myelin is an electrically insulating material composed of 40% water, and dry mass including variable percentages of lipids (70-85%) and protein (15-30%), that wraps around the nerve fibers (Figures 3 and 4, below). For many years myelin was thought to be less important than the nerve cells themselves, but the myelin wrapping makes the signal stronger and faster and prevents the electrical impulses from leaking out. Recent studies into the molecular biology of the neuromuscular system have shown that myelin is much more important than originally thought.


Figure 3. Structure of a typical neuron.

Learning new motor skills alters the structure of the brain’s white matter, made up of oligodendrocytes (OLs), and the oligodendrocyte cells produce myelin that lays down layers around the specific circuits that are engaged during motor learning. Each layer adds skill and speed. Practicing an instrument adds new layers of myelin around the correct neural circuits (Bengtsson, Nagy, Skare, Forsman, Forssberg, & Ullen, 2005). The phrase “muscle memory” is talking about these circuits. Neural traffic at 2 mph can accelerate to 200 mph with more myelin wrapping around the nerve fiber. This understanding of the science of myelin and its role in learning is relatively new, dating from around 2006.


Figure 4. This is an electron micrograph of a cross section of a nerve fiber through the axon, showing the layers of myelin wrapped around (Hubel).









It has been known for many years that most oligodendrocytes develop in the first weeks of life in mammals. It is a recent finding that oligodendrocyte formation and myelination continues throughout adulthood in the healthy adult brain. Recent experiments created genetically engineered mice in which their ability to form new oligodendrocytes could be removed during adulthood by administration of a drug, so the timing could be controlled. It was found that when mice did not have the ability to form new oligodendrocytes, they failed to learn an effective strategy in a complex task (running wheel with uneven bars). If the mice had learned the skill before losing their ability to make new oligodendrocytes, they performed normally, showing that new oligodendrocytes are not needed for information retrieval, but for learning new motor behavior (McKenzie, et al., 2014).

Additional observations about myelin: Einstein’s brain had an average number of neurons, but more glial cells, which produce and support myelin. It is only recently that that observation has made sense. Myelin deficiencies are linked to disorders such as autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Multiple sclerosis is a demyelinating disease. Age matters, myelin grows more in children. There is a net gain of myelin until the age of 50 when the balance tips towards loss. Throughout life 5 percent of oligodendrocytes remain immature and ready to answer the call, but it takes more time and sweat to build the circuitry in older adults. George Bartzokis, professor of neurology at UCLA, takes DHA fatty acids to stimulate his own myelin growth. Also, myelin wraps, but doesn’t unwrap. This is why habits are hard to break; they can only be replaced by new habits.

Now that we know that we need to encourage the growth of layers of myelin around neural circuits needed to produce music, how do we encourage our brains to develop in this way? The myelination response is a flexible and responsive system, and gives us the potential to earn skill where we need it. The key finding is that myelin responds to what you do. It is important to fire the correct circuits by repetition, but also by struggle. The strategy is to analyze and work over something you want to learn — to stumble and stop, figure it out, and then repeat correctly. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities, to target the struggle. This is called “deliberate practice” or “deep practice” (Coyle, 2009).

Concluding remarks

I have synthesized this into a strategy with the following elements:

  1. My practices are divided into segments as suggested by Mia Marin: body warm-up, technical exercises, new tune material, and review tune material.
  2. I have adopted Markus Svensson’s suggested technical warm-up exercises that use 5-note scales on each string, first slowly (I use a ‘tonstarter’ approach to make the best possible sound), then doubling the speed with slurred notes, then separate bow strokes, repeating until it is very rapid.
  3. I use a “deep practice” strategy on new tunes in which I make sure to observe errors and stop and correct and work over them. I create small exercises to target specific technical skills as needed for the tunes I am working on. I avoid repeating something incorrectly, and repeat correctly.
  4. I also push on the speed and play at the edge of what I can do, to find the weak places and focus on those.
  5. I use an interleaved strategy in which I work on a series of tunes, with more infrequent blocks of extensive practice on a single tune. I record myself and listen, both for the feedback it provides, and to practice a performance situation where my focus is not on noting my mistakes (the recorder will hear those!).
  6. I use a practice notebook to record information about practice goals and strategies, as well as observations and notes. I take note of improvements, to build confidence.


Bengtsson, S. L., Nagy, Z., Skare, S., Forsman, L., Forssberg, H., & Ullen, F. (2005). Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nature Neuroscience , 8 (9), 1148-1150.

Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code. New York, New York, USA: Random House, Inc.

Duke, R. A., Simmons, A. L., & Cash, C. D. (2009). It’s not how much; it’s how — Characteristics of practice behavior and retention of performance skills. Journal of Research in Music Education , 56 (4), 310-321.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1992). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review , 100 (3), 363-406.

Hambrick, D. Z., Altmann, E. M., Oswald, F. L., Meinze, E. J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2014). Accounting for expert performance; The devil is in the details. Intelligence , 45, 112-114.

Hambrick, D. Z., Oswald, F. L., Altmann, E. M., Meinz, E. J., Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2014). Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence , 45, 34-45.

Hubel, D. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2015, from Web Page about David Hubel’s book, Eye, Brain, and Vision:

Kagayama, N. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2015, from Bulletproof musician:

Kagayama, N. (2015). Retrieved January 15, 2015, from Bulletproof musician:

Long, P., & Corfas, G. (2014). To learn is to myelinate. Science , 346 (6207), 298-299.

McKenzie, I. A., Oyahon, D., Li, H., Paes de Faria, J., Emery, B., Tohyama, K., et al. (2014). Motor skill learning requires active central myelination. Science , 346 (6207), 318-322.

Project: Scientific Studies About Practicing Music

Each music student at the ESI does a project during the year-long course. It is expected to take about 30 hours, for example 3 hours a week for about 10 weeks between January and March. The choice of topics is up to the student; many do a profile of a folk musician, or tunes from a particular region. We produce a written paper of 5-8 pages, give a 20 minute talk, and play 4-5 tunes solo for the class and teacher.

This is the first of two blog posts concerning what I learned while researching this project.

Introduction and Aim

I am devoting these 9 months in the 2014-2015 school year to the intensive study of Swedish folk music at the Eric Sahlström Institute (ESI), and this activity includes a lot of individual practice. I was interested in understanding how to maximize the effectiveness of this musical practice time, and began investigating scientific studies that addressed this issue. Although most studies concerned classical music, I applied these strategies to my folk music practice. I will here describe the studies I found most compelling, and outline the strategy I have synthesized as a result.

Methods, Results, and Discussions

First Study:

Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist who spent his career trying to understand how people become expert performers in sports or music. In 1992 Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer published a study stating that anyone can master a complex skill with at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Ericsson defined deliberate practice as “engagement in highly structured activities that are created specifically to improve performance in a domain through immediate feedback, that require a high level of concentration, and that are not inherently enjoyable.” In the original study, the researchers analyzed the self-reported practice duration of three groups of age and gender-matched musicians, 1) “the best violin students” nominated by professors at the Music Academy of West Berlin (Hochs-chule der Kuenste) as students who had the potential for careers as international soloists, 2) “good violinists” at the same institution, and 3) music education students in a department with lower admissions standards, the “music teachers”. These groups of musicians were interviewed and asked about their time spent on music practice and other activities. The data were analyzed and the study concluded that elite musicians’ total practice time was much more than the other groups of musicians. The “best” violinists had spent over 10,000 hours of deliberate practice by age 20, about 2,500 h more than “good” violinists, and 5,000 h more than the average for the “teacher” group. Ericsson claimed that these high levels of deliberate practice were not only necessary, but also sufficient for exceptional performance (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1992). This was further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Outliers and often (over)simplified to state that anyone can master a skill with 10,000 hours of practice. This meritocratic idea has become very popular, and fueled the ongoing “nature vs. nurture” debate. However, this study has been criticized because even though there was extensive statistical analysis, the study was based on self-reported data from interviews, which can be unreliable.

Second Study:

A more recent study by a group of psychologists from five universities ((Hambrick, Oswald, Altmann, Meinz, Gobet, & Campitelli, 2014) reanalyzed expertise research on both chess and music. They examined data from 6 chess studies and 8 music studies that asked similar questions about recalled amounts of practice, but these studies also had separate metrics for skill levels so they could look for correlation between practice time and skill level. These analyses found that individual differences in accumulated amount of deliberate practice accounted for only about one-third of the reliable variance in performance levels in chess players and musicians, “leaving the majority of the reliable variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors.” There are many instances of people who did reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, and other people who failed to do so despite copious practice. There is a substantial amount of evidence that while deliberate practice may be necessary, it cannot be claimed to be sufficient. Other factors could be such elements as personality, the age you started, intelligence, or something else entirely, and the authors discuss these in the publication (Hambrick, Altmann, Oswald, Meinze, Gobet, & Campitelli, 2014).

Third Study:
Another compelling and informative study was done by Robert Duke at the University of Texas and published in 2009 in the Journal of Research in Music Education (Duke, Simmons, & Cash, 2009). Seventeen piano students agreed to participate in the study, practicing and then performing a 3-measure passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This passage had some tricky elements, making it too difficult to sight-read, but was not too challenging to master in a single practice session.

Study Method: Students were allowed a two-minute warm-up, then given the sheet music, a metronome and a pencil. Students were allowed a single practice session of any duration, and chose times as short as 8 ½ minutes or long as 57 minutes. Videos and MIDI-keyboard data were collected for all practice sessions and performances for later analysis. They were asked not to practice it overnight and returned the next day for testing. The next day pianists were allowed a 2-minute warm-up but asked not to play the excerpt. They were then told to play the passage 15 times through for the study, pausing briefly between repetitions. A metronome was used initially to establish the target tempo of 120 beats per minute (bpm), but not for all 15 trials. Trials were recorded on videotape for analysis, and MIDI keyboard data were collected. Each trial was scored for correct or near-correct or incorrect performance by multiple judges, and participants were ranked from 1-17 by those judges.

Results:   Three of the 17 participants performed significantly better than the others, with more even tone, fluid execution, musical expression, and rhythmic precision. Practice data from these three high level performers were further analyzed to determine what practice strategies contributed to their better performances. Interestingly, practice time and number of repetitions of the passage did not correlate with better performance. What did correlate were specific elements of the quality and strategies of practice. The best practice strategies included a thoughtful approach, in which they located errors and worked to eliminate them. Sections were repeated incorrectly less often, and played correctly more times. The top performers slowed down at key moments to avoid repeating passages incorrectly. Minimizing the number of incorrect repetitions was key, as the lower-ranking pianists played the passage incorrectly more times. The percentage of correct repetitions out of the total number of repetitions was significantly correlated with better performance. This fits the definition of “deep practice” or “deliberate practice”.

This is something our teachers have told us at the ESI, to be sure not to repeat something incorrectly, but to fix it and then repeat it correctly multiple times.

Another informative suggestion:

Another element of practice that I investigated was the observation that often musicians feel well prepared during practice, but don’t execute as well during performance. This was ascribed to the usual method of practicing with multiple repetitions of a piece during practice until it begins to feel and sound better, a so-called blocked practice strategy, before moving on to another piece. It begins to feel satisfying to see that progress during practice, since the piece becomes better upon repetition in these sessions, but sometimes with this strategy the performance is not as good as the practice sessions. This may be because the blocked practice strategy is different from the situation in performance, which is not done with multiple repetitions. An alternative strategy is random or interleaved practice, such as playing pieces through once and going on to another. This strategy may feel initially less satisfying in the practice room, but with enough repetition leads to better performance (Kagayama, Bulletproof musician, 2015).

Another informative suggestion:

I consulted with Andrea Larson, who took the ESI music course two years ago, and now offers workshops in the USA that feature a focus on practice strategies. I had a Skype session with Andrea to ask about her approach. I will limit the detail I describe in this section and encourage people to take one of Andrea’s workshops. Andrea advocates recording yourself, and making notes in a practice notebook as many musicians do, including our teachers and a website I consulted,

To be continued in the next blog post…

References are also listed in the next blog post…