“Alive Inside” film review

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. 2014 film by Michael Rossato-Bennett.

At a recent family gathering, a cousin told me about a film she had watched the night before. She dared me to view it and not cry. Since it seemed to fit in with the research I’ve been doing lately on music and the brain, I thought it would be a good addition to the bibliography. It’s hard to make me cry. Challenge accepted.

About five minutes into Alive Inside, I was weeping. A stone would be moved by watching this.

You can watch the trailer on YouTube with this link.

Alive Inside is a documentary about social worker Dan Cohen’s determination to help the elderly with music therapy. In the film, we watch as Cohen talks to Alzheimer’s patients, most of whom remember nothing about their childhoods or are in catatonic states. These are people who have literally forgotten who they are.

Cohen, who is the founder of the non-profit Music and Memory, works with elder care centers across the country. He seeks grants to buy iPods and headphones. After conducting interviews with patients, he creates a playlist of music specific to that individual. In the film, we see elders “come alive” before our eyes as they listen to the music. Memories miraculously reappear. Words, language, singing are spontaneous. The body moves, even dances, walkers flung to the side of the room.

We don’t need science to tell us that music touches our minds and bodies on a very deep level, but research on the brain continues to confirm it. In the film we learn that “when we are young, music records itself in our motions and emotions. Luckily, those are the last parts of the brain touched by Alzheimers.” Music somehow reconnects the physical and emotional parts of the brain, releasing memory. Elders with dementia can feel increasingly isolated, but music makes them “flow” again. Music provides a link to “living in concert with each other and our own selves.”

The film Alive Inside challenges us to look at the way we treat older adults in our culture. Hiding elders away in nursing homes and filling their bodies with pharmaceuticals may not be the best choice. Dan Cohen and filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett suggest that an inexpensive iPod may be life-changing.

A link to the movie’s website is here. Have your tissues ready.

[For more information on music and the brain, check out my blog posts Brain Imaging on Musicians, Essential for Being Human, The Musician’s Brain, and How We Learn.]

Priorities: There’s an Exception to Every Rule

Priorities: There’s an Exception to Every Rule

In a previous post (Motivation: Parenting and Practicing), I wrote, “If we have to choose between baseball practice and a piano lesson, piano is always going to win.” While it’s true that my husband and I place a high value on the musical education of our children, we do break our own rules every once in awhile.



Here’s the situation: our son (age 10) is playing baseball in the district’s recreation league. Somehow, despite our complete lack of any sports knowledge, he has become an excellent pitcher this year. He team is undefeated in their division and Son is the starting pitcher. We raced back from camp on Friday just in time for him to lead his team to a win in the first game of the playoffs. Then, amazingly, they won the second game and I’m sitting here waiting to find out what time the championship game will be on Thursday. The trouble is, Thursday is his lesson day; there’s a good chance the game and the lesson will be at the same time.

But I’m going to break my own rule. I’m going to see if we can move his lesson to earlier in the day. If not, I suppose we’ll have to skip the lesson this week. Music is a clear priority in our house, but I’m not heartless. This is one time when we have to make an exception to the rule “music over sports.” As a parent I have to constantly re-assess the boundaries I create for my kids. When they don’t make sense, it’s time to change them, or at least in this case, bend them a little bit.

In my own defense, I did write that I would choose a piano lesson over a baseball practice. I didn’t say anything about a once-in-a-lifetime championship game with an undefeated local team full of excited boys. Sometimes my Tiger Mother roar is more of a purr.

Go Orange Raptors!


Update: The game was moved to 8pm so we were able to keep our regular lesson time AND have a family dinner before the baseball game. There was a moment in the game when Son had thrown four balls and walked a batter. He was starting to get nervous and perhaps a bit rattled. Then I saw him close his eyes and take a deep breath, just like he does before he plays in a recital. Three strike-outs later, the inning was over. I like to believe that his music training is helpful to him in these high-stress situations. The Raptors won the championship and received big red trophies.

baseball team with trophies

BW baseball (minors) champions


The Musician’s Brain

The Musician’s Brain

Science is confirming the “Mozart Effect” through new advances in brain imaging.

When I was a music student (not so very long ago!) nobody knew much about the effect of music on the brain. When The Mozart Effect by Don Campbell was first published in 1997, its thesis was revolutionary. Music could heal the body and make you smarter! I remember buying the book when it first came out in hardcover and sharing it with anyone who would listen. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Campbell when he gave a lecture at the University of Colorado when I was in graduate school. Although some of the “music as medicine” parts seem a bit voodoo to me now, I still find it an inspiring book. In fact, I still have the copy that he autographed that day in Boulder. He wrote, “For Marlene- Blessings in Sound, Don Campbell.” It is a blessing, a benediction, a prayer that I carry with me now.

musician's brain

The Mozart Effect

The Mozart Effect‘s greatest achievement may be that it touched off decades of research about music’s effect on the human body. Now, with advances in brain imagery and new understandings about how the brain works, it seems like there’s a new study being published every week linking music and mind.

A recent one that I find interesting is “The Musician’s Brain” from the Journal of Neurobiological Sciences (2012.) In a nutshell, researcher Wichian Sittiprapaporn has made three discoveries:

  1. Listening to music engages multiple brain regions.
  2. The brains of musicians are significantly larger than non-musicians.
  3. Musicians hear and respond to music differently than non-musicians.

Because of the plasticity of the brains of young children, this study would indicate that early music education gives clear advantages in language, mathematics, memory, motor skills, and spatial abilities.

There is, of course, much work to be done in the fields of cognitive science and music psychology. Don Campbell set the wheels in motion. Now it’s up to the fancy brain imaging machines to confirm what we’ve known all along.


How We Learn – applications for musicians

I just finished reading How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, 2014.

From a musician’s perspective, it has obvious applications for practice.How We Learn

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I totally geek out on brain science. It really blows my mind (ha!) reading about the new research on our grey matter. I am savoring Benedict Carey’s book and carefully sifting through it to find wisdoms for the practice room. Let’s begin with a quote from the book:

“If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one. And it performs best when its quirks are exploited.”

In my work with music students, I have found that the best practice techniques are the ones that are unusual or humorous. For more on this topic, please check out my posts “Articulation Game,” “Rhythm Silliness,” and “Practicing Upside Down.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book begins with a discussion of how we learn at the neurological level. As scientific study of the brain is aided by new methods, our understanding of memory is deepened. Author Benedict Carey delves into new research on how the brain makes and stores memories. It appears that there are two sides to memory: storage and retrieval. While the brain has plenty of room to store all of our memories, not all of them can be retrieved. In order to retain information, the retrieval system must be strong. It is strengthened and made faster with use.

Some of the research on how the brain learns confirms what we already know, but some is truly new and revolutionary.

Research on Learning May Change How We Practice

  1. Practicing in frequent, short sessions is better than a single long practice. It’s more productive to have three 20 minute practice sessions than a single one hour practice. Similarly, music practice should happen everyday. Your teacher will notice if you do all of your practicing the night before the lesson because your retention of the information will be low.
  2. Memories are encoded with snippets from our environment. It will come as not surprise that we can recall things best in the same place we learned them. If I had a nickel for every time a student has said, “But I played the music so much better when I was practicing at home,” I’d be rich. In the teacher’s studio or recital hall, the conditions are different than the practice room. Musicians should either try to create situations similar to the performance while in the practice room (dress shoes, imagining the stage, etc.) or vary the practice environment (different locations, different times of day) to take advantage of the “context effect.”
  3. Repeating something a set number of times does not make you learn it. The number of repetitions is not important. You must practice correctly and deliberately. (See my blog posts on “Hearing vs. Listening,” “Research on Effective Practice Skills,” and “Concentration Exercises.”)
  4. Testing is good for learning. Yes, you read that right. I know that there is a huge backlash against “teaching to the test,” but the testing Benedict Carey purports in this book isn’t a high-stakes national standards test. Long range studies show that frequent testing can help retain skills (p. 93). For musicians, I would like to argue that performances are “tests.” Maybe we can even think of weekly lessons as “retrieval practice.” You can create additional opportunities for performance. More ideas on finding performance opportunities can be found in the blog posts “Motivation: Parenting and Practicing” and “Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective.” Flash cards are a proven strategy for improving memory. I have a great “Scale Game” that uses flash cards and a neat game to learn scales quickly.
  5. Take a break. The mind continues to work on problems after you have stopped actively thinking about them. Sometimes a creative solution to a problem will come to you in a flash of inspiration. However, “people don’t benefit from an incubation break unless they have reached an impasse.” (p. 128) So when you’ve worked really hard on a difficult piece of music and you’re feeling frustrated, go for a bike ride, take a nap, or do some math problems. The distraction might be what you need to get unstuck.
  6. Set goals. There are many reasons to set goals – I will talk about some of those reasons in a future blog post – but for learning, goal setting is important because it focuses the mind on the problem. This book describes the goal-oriented mind as having “tuned perception.” We are better able to zero in on the solution, and block out the unimportant information, when the goal has been set and we allow for “percolation.” If your goal for the week is to fix technical problems in a sonata, you may pay extra attention to the scale in the same key as the sonata or spend more time on a technical exercise related to the same difficulties.
  7. Vary your practice. Several studies have shown that motor skills are enhanced by practicing an activity many different ways. Not only will the skill be learned better but it will be able to be transferred to similar situations. It’s important also to make sure you practice different kind of exercises – scales, etudes, theory, improvisation – not just a single repertoire piece. “The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.” (p. 164) My blog posts “Woodshedding: Grouping Game” and “Rhythm Spinner” offer some suggestions to help you vary your practice.
  8. Get plenty of sleep. We’ve only begun to understand how important sleep is to learning and future research will undoubtedly uncover more insights on the different stages of sleep, but scientists know that rest is important. Benedict Carey says, “I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.” (p. 212) Naps are showing promise in memory consolidation and integration. Just as eating a balanced diet will keep your body healthy, getting ample sleep is good for your brain.

What does research say about memorization?

How We Learn also looks at research on memorization. Granted, the scientists who create these experiments are asking subjects to memorize words, but I think that it is equally applicable to memorizing music. Psychologist Arthur Gates has spent his career trying to discover a good rule for the most efficient way to memorize. He asked the question how much time should be spent studying and how much time should be spent reciting? He found that the best ratio was 1/3 time studying and 2/3 time reciting. [Arthur I. Gates Repetition as a Factor in Memorizing (New York: The Science Press, 1917).] So, if you are trying to memorize a piece of music, play it with the music once and then twice trying to remember it without looking at the music. I’ll have more to say about this and the three types of memory in a future blog post.

It will take me time to integrate all of the information in How We Learn, but I find it seeping into my teaching already. At lessons this afternoon, I suggested that a student vary her practice routine in advance of a big performance.

A seed is planted. I’m curious how it will grow.

Mental Practice

Mental practice can be as effective as physical practice in music.

That sounds crazy, right?! You wouldn’t train for a marathon by sitting on your couch and thinking about running 26.2 miles. It seems counterintuitive that we can practice music without making a sound or even having an instrument in our hands. But practicing away from the instrument can be as effective or maybe even more effective than practicing with the instrument.

mental practiceIt’s not always practical to play an instrument. You can’t whip out a trumpet on an airplane; your boss might not appreciate the sound of an oboe during a break at work. However, it’s not difficult to find a quiet spot to look at sheet music. If you get in the habit of carrying music with you, like a novel, you can find excellent opportunities for mental practice throughout the day. Perhaps you have a doctor’s appointment that will interfere with your normal practice time or maybe a nasty chest cold is inhibiting your ability to work on the vocal solo you need for an audition. Mental practice will help you make progress toward your musical goals.

There are four major areas where mental practicing is superior to physical practicing.

1. Tapping Rhythms. The most obvious thing to practice away from the instrument is rhythm. I like to tap the rhythm on my leg as I watch the music. Some people like to clap, snap fingers, or say a nonsense syllable like “ta.” For added difficulty, try tapping the beat with one hand and the rhythm with the other. (Remember, the beat is the constant pulse of the music whereas the rhythm is how the beat is divided.) Maybe you like to count out loud. That works too. Or you can tap your toe to the beat and clap the rhythm. Continue changing it up by using simple rhythm instruments like a hand drum or castanets. Adding the metronome is always a good idea. (For more ideas on how to use the metronome, see an upcoming blog post.) The way you tap the rhythms is limited only by your imagination. Remember, the more fun you have, the better you will learn the material.

2. Sizzling Articulations. For wind players: Reinforce proper articulations by practicing them away from the instrument. Make a loud hissing sound by blowing air through your tongue and teeth, like a snake. You will be able to use your tongue to articulate the notes and the hissing sound will create resistance similar to your instrument. However, by focusing on just the skill of articulating (not tone or fingerings), you will be better able to catch and fix mistakes. For string players: mimic holding the bow in your right hand and practice the changes of direction.

3. Ghost Hands. Sit comfortably with music in front of you. Place your hands on your knees or in your lap. Now imagine that your arms are moving into playing position. In your mind, feel the instrument under your fingers. Now begin to hear the piece in your mind. Imagine your fingers moving, playing the piece flawlessly. Remember, you aren’t actually moving your fingers nor are you singing the music, but the image should be strong enough that you can hear it in your mind and your fingers “feel” the movements.

mental practice

piano fingers

4. Visualizing the Performance. One to two weeks before a recital, competition, or audition, try to imagine what the performance day will be like. Think about all the minor details, such as what you will be wearing and what the room might look like. Imagine yourself looking confident and calm as you walk onstage. Try to anticipate anything goofy that might happen. Plan for the worst and you’ll be surprised at how smoothly the performance actually went. I have found that the unexpected events can really throw things out of whack, but if you’re ready for anything, nothing will make you lose your cool. Imagine a judge writing with a squeaky pencil and a deep scowl on her face. Think about how you might feel if you get lost on the way (and then add some extra time to your travel plans.) Breathe deeply while you visualize and reassure yourself with positive self-talk. Don’t dwell on the negative, however. Spend most of your time visualizing a perfect performance and a deep sense of satisfaction.

In all of the above exercises, make the images as vivid as possible. Add as many details you can – the way it feels, the sounds, colors, maybe even the smells. It may take a little practice to hear the music loudly in your head. Start with small passages if you find your mind wanders. (For more help on focusing the mind, see my bog article on Concentration Exercises.)

Athletes believe in mental practice. So do surgeons. If you don’t believe me, read the articles “Mental Practice for Musicians,” “Mental Practice Makes Perfect,” and “The Benefits of Mental Practice.” I also recommend the book The Inner Game of Music

Concentration Exercises for Musicians

Concentration Exercises for Musicians

The prevailing wisdom for many years was that our minds could handle about seven things at once. This was supported by research in 1956 that showed people could remember up to seven numbers, a telephone number being the classic example of seven digits we can commit to memory. George A. Miller’s paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” was widely accepted. I learned about “Miller’s Law” in Psychology 101.

More recent research is showing that the number of things we can keep in working memory may be a lot lower. Perhaps FOUR.  The Magical Mystery Four: How Is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? So, if we can only remember four things at once, we can’t let extraneous thoughts distract us in the practice room.

Musicians have to remember many things at once. Consider that instrumentalists have to control their bodies, monitor the sound, interpret rhythms, translate written pitch to finger combinations, decode other symbols in the music, plan for phrases, and many more complicated processes. As we gain mastery, we are able to shift some of these processes into an automatic reflex, freeing up mental space for adding levels of difficulty. There is very little room in the mind of a musician for externalities like thinking about what we’re going to eat for dinner or being bothered by something that happened earlier in the day.

Monkey Brainconcentration games help "monkey brain"

Monkey brain is when your mind is constantly jumping from one thought to the next, like chattering monkeys in the trees. It is the enemy of good practice and musical performance. We know that the brains of musicians are lighting up like fireworks when performing music (see my blog post titled “Brain Imaging on Musicians.“) It takes a lot of mental power to play an instrument. If the brain is thinking about irrelevant details, there is not enough mental capacity for the music.

Monkey Brain is an epidemic. As a music teacher, I work with my students to help them focus on the music. The mind must be quiet and empty before we can fill it with music.

Try these concentration exercises to chase away the monkey brain:

  • Breathe through your toes. Place your feet firmly on the ground. Imagine roots are growing through the soles of your feet. Imagine that your toes have little nostrils on them and when you take a deep breath, visualize the oxygen coming in through your toes. This is a great way to feel grounded. The image is silly, but that’s OK. We remember things that are ridiculous and by smiling you are releasing dopamine, the feel-good chemical!  (Addicted to Smiling: Can the Simple Act of Smiling Bring Pleasure?)
  • Focus the eyes. Pick something small upon which to rest your eyes. You might look at one measure of music, the title of the method book, the barrel of the flute, the brand decal in the center of the piano, your hands in your lap, etc. Begin to draw all your awareness to that place. Breathe. Focus until the image becomes very clear and things in the background begin to recede. Your focal point should now be the brightest and clearest thing in your field of vision. After 30-60 seconds focusing and breathing, close your eyes. When you slowly reopen them, you will find your mind is sharp and ready for learning.
  • Crossing the midline. Because music is a full-brain activity, it’s important that the hemispheres are communicating with one another. (*See below for a discussion of the corpus callosum in musicians.) At my kids’ school, the teachers use “Brain Gym” exercises to help the children get ready for learning every morning. Researchers are not convinced Brain Gym has any measurable benefits in the academic classroom but I have found that doing one or two of the crossing the midline activities is helpful for redirecting an unfocused mind in music lessons. Here are two activities for crossing the midline and improving concentration:
    • Stand with your ams in “goalpost” or “cactus” position (elbows straight out from the shoulders, hands and fingers pointing up.) Lift the right knee and reach over to touch it with the left elbow. Repeat with the left elbow and right knee. This exercise looks a lot like the ones we do at the gym. Make sure the elbow and knee make contact in the center of the body. Repeat several times.
    • Stretch your arms straight out, cross right under left and flip the palms. Now interlace the fingers and draw the hands down and toward your body. This is hard to describe but this short video will give you the idea.


      With your fingers interlaced, wiggle your right hand thumb. Choose another digit like the left hand ring finger or right pinky. It’s harder than it might seem. This is a good exercise to try with teen and adult students who might feel silly standing up and touching their elbows to knees like the first activity.

  • Yoga balance poses. Use these exercises to bring balance, physically and mentally, into your practice. There are many good balance poses in yoga. Here are two that my flute students seem to enjoy:
    • Tree. Stand with knees slightly bent. Check that the ears are over the shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over ankles. Find a place to rest your gaze on the floor a few feet ahead of you. Shift your weight onto the right food, being mindful that the weight is evenly distributed through the whole foot. Place your left foot in a comfortable spot on your right leg (either above the knee or below but not on the knee.) Rotate your left leg so the knee is pointing to the left and gently press your standing leg into the left foot. When you feel balanced, raise your arms. If you’re feeling playful, you can make your branches grow tall in the sun or sway in a gentle breeze. Take a deep breath and release on an exhale. Repeat with the other side.

      from yoga: tree pose

      tree pose

    • Airplane. Begin standing as for “tree pose” described above. Shift the weight into the left foot and hinge forward at the hips. Keep your eyes focused on a spot on the floor to help with balance. Extend the right leg straight out behind you, foot flexed. Bring the arms out to the sides in a “T.” Keep the neck and spine in a comfortable alignment. Hold for as long as comfortable, taking deep breaths. On an exhale, pivot back to standing and repeat with the other side.

      yoga pose for concentration

      airplane yoga pose

Parents, if you notice your child is having difficulty paying attention to the music or if he explodes in conversation after each exercise, you can help by suggesting these activities. Do the exercises with your child and you’ll both get the benefit. Remember, the tricks that work today may not be the ones that work tomorrow so try out all the ideas and see which ones are best for your child.

Our minds are filled with all kind of thoughts. As musicians, we have to be extra vigilant about making sure our minds are focused on the challenging tasks of playing a musical instrument. A little mental hygiene in the practice room will help also. I always silence my phone when practicing and say to myself “I am practicing now. This is the most important thing I can be doing at this moment. Everything else will wait until I am finished.” When a distracting thought comes, I imagine that it is being surrounded by a bubble and floating away. For persistent thoughts, I keep a note pad handy. Once I write something down, I no longer have to carry it in my mind.

When you notice that your mind is wandering, take a moment to try some of the exercises listed above. I’d like to hear about which ones work for you. For more ideas about how yoga can improve your music practice, check out the book Musician’s Yoga by Mia Olson


*The underlying science – that performing an activity that simultaneously engages both cerebral hemispheres can improve cognition – does appear to be true. The best studied example of this is musicians who began training during early childhood. Neurons on either side of the cortex send axons across the midline, which then make synapses with neurons on the other side. The axons are covered in a white substance called myelin, which acts as an insulator, protecting the electrical communication between neurons from leakage, and increasing the speed at which the signal can travel down the axon. This collection of axons between the midline is called the corpus callosum, and research has shown that the corpus callosum is larger in early-trained musicians compared to late-trained musicians and nonmusicians, especially if the training began before the age of 7.

The hypothesis is that because musical training involves the coordination of multiple modalities – i.e. taking visual and auditory input (reading and listening to music, respectively) and coordinating it with motor output (playing the instrument) – the connections between these brain areas become stronger and more tightly connected, resulting in better sensorimotor integration. And indeed, early-trained musicians have better spatial and verbal memory, attention, mathematics skills, and perform better on other tasks involving the integration of multiple sensory and motor inputs…. encouraging your students to learn an instrument could go a long way in improving their cognitive functions.” (from NeuWrite West — Ask a Neuroscientist.)