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).
I have synthesized this into a strategy with the following elements:
- My practices are divided into segments as suggested by Mia Marin: body warm-up, technical exercises, new tune material, and review tune material.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!).
- 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: http://hubel.med.harvard.edu/book/b5.htm
Kagayama, N. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2015, from Bulletproof musician: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/why-the-progress-in-the-practice-room-seems-to-disappear-overnight/
Kagayama, N. (2015). Retrieved January 15, 2015, from Bulletproof musician: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/why-the-way-we-usually-practice-makes-us-think-were-better-prepared-than-we-really-are/
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.