Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections in our brains which takes place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative and is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.
Most musicians are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice that sits in judgement on a practise session or performance and can damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very useful: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.
From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.
But given the brain’s ability to adapt, we can use its neuroplasticity to break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”. Confronting the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind. It will return, of course, when we are down or lacking in confidence, perhaps due to a career set back, but it’s harmful influence can be deflected by attaching a positive thought to a negative one, or drawing confidence from the positive endorsements of colleagues, peers, teachers and friends. Setting yourself realistic standards and targets is also helpful in creating a positive mindset: aim for excellence (which is achievable) rather than perfection (which is impossible – we are all human, after all). Approach everything you do – practising, performances, tuition – with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences. Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring. Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.
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