Category Archives: psychology

The urge returns

No appetite

Some readers will know that I started this blog quite soon after my father died in June 2008. I had been using Twitter to keep friends informed about the progress first of his health, and then of our funeral plans, and after a while I felt the need to start a proper blog.

I think every bereavement is different and each person is affected by it differently. In my case, my energy for playing music was greatly reduced; it simply felt like emotionally the wrong activity. I dropped out of a number of concerts, reduced the number of amateur orchestras I was playing in, abandoned some violin lessons I had been having, and took a break from my usual amount of playing.

The feeling when I tried to play was that the playing was trying to use the same mental and emotional resources which were being used on adjusting after the bereavement. So the energy wasn’t really there, and any energy that was there was needed for that.

As the months passed, I gradually felt able to do more playing, but its nature was basically to agree to play in something, then do the minimum practice required to play adequately. Nothing that involved pushing myself to practise hard.

A dream

Just over a week ago, something happened. I had a dream, in which a number of us were at some kind of party at the house of my violin teacher (who I also know through orchestra). Maybe it was an after-concert party or something. In the dream, it got to about 5 am (it was a good party!) and the teacher said “Tim, do you fancy a violin lesson? … I could do one at 8 o’clock today if you like”. I said that the idea of having one soon sounded quite good, but that I really thought it was time for me to think about going home and getting some sleep rather than staying up even longer in order to have a lesson.

Next day, back in the real world, it got to about 9:30 pm and I felt a strong urge to practise my violin. Well not exactly an urge—more a hunger or a need. A need which had probably been brewing for a while, but which I’d not really been aware of until it came out in the dream.

Hungry again

So I got my violin out. For about an hour, I practised some Sevcik exercises then a Rode study, quite intensely. Then I got out the Bach Chaconne—which I’d worked on before my father died but not played since—and played through it to see how much of it I still knew. (Answer: I still know most of it, but it’s not as fluent and there are places where I now stumble which were fine before.)

Yesterday and today, I again had the desire to practise, and did about 1½ hours each time. And last Tuesday, playing for a Messiah concert, I found myself talking to one of my fellow players about what aspects of technique I’d like to work on if I book a lesson or two.

Is the energy beginning to return? Maybe. It’s about 18 months since I last felt this way, so I think it may well be a good sign. Will I book a lesson? Maybe. I’ve already got as far as texting the teacher to ask what she charges these days.

Unconscious musical memory

There’s a weekly programme on BBC Radio 3 called Discovering Music. It involves a studio, an orchestra, an audience, a presenter, and a piece of music. The presenter talks in depth about the piece and how it works, illustrated with extracts played by the orchestra. Finally, after the talk is finished, there is a full performance of the piece discussed.

Today, the programme startled me with a phenomenon which seems to happen quite regularly, so I thought I’d blog about it. It’s about time I wrote something about music.

I spent the afternoon upstairs, NOT listening to any music but preferring silence and space. When it came to teatime, I went downstairs, where the radio was on, playing what I thought was some quite unfamiliar music. I didn’t pay any attention to the music, since I still wanted quiet. By the time I got to the radio, ready to turn it off, the music had changed to speech. I wasn’t listening to that either, but a “tune”—well, a snatch of Violin 2 orchestral part of something—was going through my head. Some symphony I’d played in years ago. Maybe ten years, maybe more.

Then I heard the word “Prokofiev”, and thought “Oh! Well I think this tune in my head IS Prokofiev! I wonder . . . ” and started listening to the radio instead of turning it off. After about half a minute, the radio presenter stopped talking so the orchestra could play their next extract. What they then played was almost exactly what had been in my head: the same tune, but from a different part of the movement. What was in my head was in fact part of Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, and it they happened to be discussing it on Discovering Music.

The point is that I didn’t think I knew what the tune in my head was, if you’d said “Sing a bit of Prokofiev 5!” I wouldn’t have had a chance, and if you’d said “Sing another part of the music that’s just been playing!” I wouldn’t have been able to do that either—but nevertheless, the right tune presented itself.

The next extract they played was from the last movement. That hadn’t been in my head, but my instant reaction to it was “Oh, good grief, I remember how fiendishly difficult that was!”, together with a vague feeling that I needed to go and practise that passage some more.

A few other fragmented memories of the piece surfaced: handwritten music on large, rather yellow paper; inaccurately-spaced leger lines, so that notes which at first sight appeared to go up or down actually went down or up; and a bizarre situation at one point where a correctly written pair of notes actually moved in the opposite direction to the way they looked. There were a few bars’ rest between them, and I can’t remember the precise notes, but it was similar to this: play a B sharp, then after the rest, start again on a C flat, which looks higher but is actually a semitone lower. Or it might have been a B-double-flat going up to an A sharp. Something along those lines.

I find this happens quite a lot: maybe I’m talking to someone, a composer’s name or a piece of music is mentioned, and shortly afterwards I realise that music by that composer, or an extract from the piece mentioned, is going through my head. Often if you asked me to consciously remember how the piece goes, or to think of a tune by that composer, I wouldn’t be able to. Or if you asked me what a particular piece of music was, I wouldn’t know. But it seems there is a part of my brain which does know, and gently presents it to me almost without my noticing.

A related phenomenon happens when I’ve been rehearsing a particular piece at orchestra, then find that what’s going through my head isn’t what I was rehearsing, but tunes from another work by the same composer.

I’m quite tired at the moment and don’t have the energy to start getting all analytical about this, or even all editorial about it, so I’ll just present it to you as it is. I’d be really interested, though, to hear whether other people have similar experiences of “uncoonsiously remembering” things which you thought you didn’t know, or unexpectedly remembering little details about a piece of music. So if you’ve read this far, feel free to comment! 😉

A cold and a concert

The cold

I’ve had a cold all week. It started to come on on Monday, and got steadily worse, reaching its peak on Friday or Saturday.

Normally this wouldn’t matter too much, but on this occasion one of the orchestras I play in was having a concert, playing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

And normally, if I was too unwell to play in a concert, it would be possible to ring or text some of my violin-playing contacts, and find someone willing to substitute for me in the concert. Two problems with that, though:

  • I’d contacted most of them already, asking if they were willing to assist in the orchestra as extra players: so I already knew that most of them weren’t free, and any who were were already playing.
  • On this occasion, I was the leader–or if you’re American, the concertmaster (a much grander term!))

In fact, finding the extra players we already needed had proved a very difficult task, because of there being too many other concerts on at the same time. Everyone was already playing somewhere.

“But surely,” I hear you say, “it’s just a cold. Why does that matter?”

Well, think about it. For a start, coughing and sneezing are not particularly quiet activities. Then there’s the matter of the runny nose and of only having two hands, both of which are fully occupied playing the instrument. How do you blow your nose? And then there’s the mental requirement of a concert: sustained concentration so as to keep your place when counting rests, stay alert to what’s happening around you in the orchestra, and avoid falling into various musical traps (such as entries which don’t occur quite where you’d instinctively expect). And if you’re leading, you’ve also got to use your body language to communicate information to the rest of the first violins, or to the whole string section. A fuddled brain is not helpful, whether it’s caused by a fever or by medication.

And the cold stopped me doing the practice which I really needed to in the week before the concert, as well . . .

So it seemed that

  • I was probably not fit to play
  • I had no alternative but to play

and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

I don’t usually take anything to keep the fever down for a cold unless it’s high enough to make me start feeling particularly ill; research [1] suggests that its purpose is to help the immune system to fight the virus, and that recovery is quicker if the fever (within reason) is allowed to do its job. On the other hand, this was a concert . . .

So on Thursday morning I phoned the local chemist’s for advice on what I could take to enable me not to cough, sneeze or (sorry) drip for a three-hour stretch, and I got some Sudafed tablets (60 mg of pseudoephedrine hydrochloride).

On Friday I tried them out, together with Nurofen (ibuprofen) for the fever, and it looked as though I had a fighting chance of making it through the concert physically. As for the mental aspects, I wasn’t so sure. If I had enough concentration for the reahearsal, would I have any left for the concert? Would I absorb any information from the rehearsal anyway? And what about the passages which I’d planned to practise during the week but hadn’t, because of being ill? Would I have my wits about me enough to make up for that?

The rehearsal

The day had the usual pattern for the orchestras I play in: three-hour rehearsal in the afternoon, concert in the evening.

In the event, things went better than I feared. I was still a bit fuddled, but the Nurofen did a good job of keeping my temperature down enough for my brain to be reasonably functional. But it was also a state in which I clearly couldn’t concentrate very hard.

In fact, though, it can be an advantage not to concentrate too hard in the dress rehesarsal. One skill, learnt over time, is that of managing the amount of mental energy you use, so as to have enough left for the concert. I always maintain that during the rehearsal you should concentrate enough to notice your mistakes, but not enough to avoid making any. People laugh at this. But I’m serious. As you make mistakes in the rehearsal, you accumulate a mental list of things which could go wrong; as a result, you’re prepared to watch out for them during the concert and give them special attention so they don’t go wrong. Whereas if you play stunningly in the rehearsal, you neither know where the pitfalls are, nor have enough concentration and energy left to avoid them. I think this is the truth behind the popular saying that a “good” rehearsal means a bad concert and a “bad” rehearsal means a good concert.

Anyway, I played during the rehearsal with the concentration I’d got–which wasn’t much. I was relieved to discover that that the passages I’d been worried about, and hadn’t been able to practise during the week, had nevertheless improved. They’d been going through my head all week; I have a theory that when this happens it’s a sign that some unconscious “internal practice” is going on. I don’t know whether this theory has been tested by any research.

I was also relieved, instantly, to find myself automatically doing the necessary body language for entries, accents and so on, despite my lack of concentration. In fact it was even happening when I felt quite disconnected from my surroundings and from the rehearsal. I think this means that as far as the brain is concerned, it’s just another set of learnt techniques like those of playing notes on an instrument. Once you’ve learnt and practised them they become automatic, just as notes which have been learnt become automatic.

The concert

After the rehearsal the medication started to wear off and I began feeling decidedly grotty again. I waited a while, timing my next dose to take effect properly before the beginning of the concert and not wear off before the end. I started the concert with rather less concentration available than I really wanted, and concerned that maybe I’d overdone the rehearsal. Would I be able to sustain my concentration through the concert?

What you do in this situation is to ration the concentration. The more you’ve practised the music, the easier it is to do this, since more of the playing happens automatically. (This had been one reason I was worried during the week about not being able to practise). The idea is to conserve energy as you can. You play the straightforward passages in “automatic mode”, and “wake up” for the problem ones. And you know where the problem ones are: you found them in the afternoon, by not trying too hard. While you’re playing the straightforward stuff, you can be reminding yourself “The entry near the bottom of the page happens in a tricky place, so it’s really important to count the rest just before it” or whatever.

And you mustn’t waste energy on anything other than playing the music. Mentally, it’s a matter of quietly keeping your place in the music, keeping an eye on your playing, and being prepared for the next bit. If you start thinking about train times home, or worrying about the difficult bit that’s coming up–as opposed to just reminding yourself what you need to do to play it–then you’re wasting energy. It’s not a matter of “concentrating hard”–that uses energy too–but of gently bringing your attention back where it should be. And when there are points where you can relax, it’s important to use them to relax.

By the way, I think physical and mental relaxation while playing are often quite distinct things. Some passages require no mental effort at all to play, but are physically quite demanding. Here, your mind can relax but your body has to put in the effort. On the other hand, “rests” in the musical sense can be anything but restful mentally. Clearly you have to count them accurately, and you can’t relax from that activity until you’ve started playing again. (And there are pitfalls. Some rests can be very stressful to count. I’ll write more about that in another post; for now I’ll just say that it can be made less stressful if you’ve got practical techniques for it.)

What should while you’re counting a rest is that your body relaxes as completely as possible, while your mind counts the rest. But what can happen is that if the rest is a tricky one, the mental effort of counting makes you tense up physically in sympathy with it. So maybe learning to relax your body and mind separately from each other is another skill of musical performance which one learns.

The concert went pretty well. My memory of it is mostly of being in a rather stupefied state, of using all these energy-saving techniques to get through it, and of some rather unfortunate intonation from one of the extras in the brass section during the Dies Irae section of the final movement. But as the brass player wasn’t one I’d invited, that wasn’t my fault.

Anyway the audience reacted positively, the concert went as well as it could, and I was surprised afterwards when an audience member commented “You led really well”–from my point of view I’d mostly been trying to make sure I survived to the end with no disasters, really. It was an educational experience. But next time I lead a concert I’d prefer to do it without having a cold, please.


[1] Maybe one day I’ll get round to looking up the various pieces of research I keep mentioning in my posts and linking to them. Many of them have been mentioned in science news releases at ScienceDaily. For now, you’ll just have to trust that I’m not making them up. [back]

Noise, distraction, and caffeine?

Yesterday this appeared on Twitter. It was posted by a freelance editor and writer who works from home:

Dying JUST DYING to know why writers go to coffee shops to write! Isn’t it noisy & distracting? I really wanna know what the appeal is!

If you’ve read my earlier post Shhhhhh… you’ll know I’m quite sensitive to noise when I’m trying to work. In fact, I think real, total silence can be a wonderful thing…

… or it would be, if it existed. In fact the search for silence is elusive. The avant-garde composer John Cage discovered this when he visited a completely soundproofed room, and could still hear two sounds. He asked why; he was told that one came from his nervous system, and the other from the blood circulation through his ears.

So I think the issue isn’t so much about silence versus noise, as about distracting versus non-distracting sounds. Maybe being a musician makes me more sensitive to sound. I’m not sure. Anyway Sherrie’s Twitter question set me thinking about what the differences might be.

Demands, reactions and associations

What makes sounds distracting, then? I think several kinds of noise make it particularly difficult to work (or, for that matter, to go to sleep, or whatever else you’re doing which requires you to ignore them):

Sounds which make demands

If your phone or doorbell rings, it demands to be answered (regardless of whether you decide its demand is justified). If you cat miaows at you maybe it’s demanding to be fed. If you’re living with somebody frail whose sense of balance is dodgy and you hear an unexpected heavy thud from upstairs, the sound demands you go and check whether they’re OK.

Sounds you automatically react to

By coincidence, many announcement systems in public places use a sound almost exactly like that of our doorbell to signal an announcement. Even though I’m not at home and it can’t possibly be the doorbell, my reflex reaction is to wonder immediately who’s at the door and why. Typically this almost completely breaks my attention on what I was doing. Occasionally, a mobile phone with a ringtone identical to mine will ring: I find myself checking my phone even though I’m certain that it’s set to vibrate and can’t possibly be ringing. Instinct is immediate; thought takes time.

For me, muffled speech works similarly–for example a television in the next room, with the volume low enough for me not to hear the actual words, but high enough for me to hear the bursts of speech. My brain automatically hears that there’s speech going on and tries to listen, even though there’s no hope of making it out.

Sounds with unhelpful emotions attached

This might be the voice of someone you really can’t stand, or the sound of their footsteps going past as you hope they won’t come and talk to you… or the sound of your neighbours squabbling, heard through the wall.

Sounds with strong associations

I play the violin rather a lot. As a result, I find it next to impossible to concentrate if there’s violin music going on in the background. Inevitably I find myself listening to the playing style, imagining the technique of playing it, noticing whether it’s in tune or not, thinking that if I were the player I’d prefer to do different phrasing, wondering how difficult it is to play and how easy the music is to get hold of, listening to hear what bowings and maybe even fingerings the player is doing, trying to identify the composer, remembering the time when I was in an orchestra accompanying that particular concerto… “Background music” is an impossibility if it’s violin music. Music on an instrument which I’ve never attempted to play–maybe that would work. But violin music is a disaster for doing anything else to.

However, there’s another kind of distraction, which I find quite a fascinating one.

Sound and mental channels

Try this simple-sounding exercise. write d en;goenovneojco ddo… Sorry, that should have said: try to speak and write simultaneously. This is something which most of us probably think we have no trouble doing when, for example, we’re writing notes while speaking to someone on the phone. But if you watch someone doing it, you’ll see that actually, they alternate between speaking and writing. You won’t see the pen writing on the page, or the fingers typing on the keyboard, at the same time as the lips are speaking words. It seems that the brain has one channel for creating words, and that if one activity is using it, another one can’t. The gibberish sentence above was the result of me trying to type “Write some words down” at the same time as saying “Speak a sentence”. “Write” came out OK, after three tries, but only because I told my fingers beforehand what the first few letters were which they had to type. And even then, it didn’t come out as “write” until the third attempt.

I think something similar happens with noise. It’s most obvious with speech, of course: if I’m writing words, then hearing other words is typically very distracting. And sometimes I’ve missed chunks of a speech programme on the radio by texting someone to tell them that it’s on: while the language part of my brain is processing the words to go in the text message, it’s not processing the words from the radio. But generally if I send someone a text about some music I’m hearing, that doesn’t make me miss any of the music. But obviously if I’m looking through a violin part to think how to play it, then background music can be extremely unhelpful. (Playing in an orchestra does eventually give one the ability to shut irrelevant music out in that situation, though–for example you can be mentally trying out your difficult passage while another section of the orchestra is rehearsing something else.)

Music, though, is related to language in some ways, and some researchers now believe we probably evolved music as a species before we evolved words. For example it’s thought that the way music communicates emotion is similar to the way tone of voice does, and a startling experiment some years ago demonstrated that people from different countries actually heard musical pitches differently.

Is there such a thing as “background music”? For some people there is, and some swear that they can’t work without music. For others, music is an impossibly compelling distraction which makes work impossible.

For me, the situation tends to be somewhere in between. I remember a particular occasion at university when I was studying (yes, I occasionally did!), and thought it would be helpful and enjoyable to have some music on at the same time. I put on one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Could I work with it on? Not at all! And yet, I sometimes studied quite happily with music on in the background.

What I now know is that different kinds of music are different for me in this respect. I think it’s to do with the way the music is structured, and how similar it is to language. Baroque music, Bach in particular, is next to impossible to work to. It virtually breaks down in to sentences and words and letters. Music from the classical period is rather easier to work to. The nineteenth-century Romantic composers are much easier; with twentieth-century composers it depends on the style; probably the least distracting is the kind of atonal piece which has no discernible rhythm and consists of shifting tone-colours, long crescendos and the like. I think that’s because it’s the kind of music which is least like language, so it’s not using the same channels.

Non-distracting noise

What, then, is non-distracting noise? And why do people go to coffee shops?

I think there are three main aspects to it:

Sounds with relaxed or studious associations

These probably vary from person to person. As I type this, I can hear the comfortingly pleasant whirring of my laptop’s hard drive. For those of us who like working in a quiet place, I think that paradoxically the sounds can be part of what makes it feel quiet; being able to hear the birds outside, for example (as long as they’re behaving themselves, singing nicely and not squawking away).

Sound which shuts out other sounds

A good example of this is the tradition of playing quiet organ music before a church service: it helps people not to notice the distracting noises of people coming in, shifting in their seats, and doing all the things people do before a service.

Less obviously, but importantly:

Sound which doesn’t let you listen to it

I think this is where the coffee shop comes in. If enough people are having conversations around you, it’s hard to accidentally start listening to one of the conversations. You only catch the occasional word, and there’s nothing to latch on to. The situation’s over-complex for the ear, so it’s easier to give up trying to follow anyone’s conversation and just enjoy the pleasant atmosphere while getting on with whatever you’re trying to do.

So maybe that’s why people work in coffee shops. The emotional and attention-demanding noises are left at home, and the congenial, non-distracting noise envelops you so you can work.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Creative cycles

If you read this regularly, or read back a few pages, you’ll know that I’ve recently come back to blogging here after quite a long break, and that there’s been a mini-flurry of posts. You can read them below!


A while ago, an online artist friend wrote in her blog that she’d decided to try to draw something every day, to practise her art skills. I was immediately attracted to the idea of trying to write something every day, maybe for this blog, as a similar useful discipline. But then I hadn’t the energy for it and the idea foundered.

Then I re-read her post the other week, and was encouraged to have a go. My flurry of posts ensued.
I believe in encouraging the encourager, so I mentioned to her that she’d encouraged me to start writing again. Her reply was along the lines: “Well actually… Yes, I really ought to get back to doing that.. I’m not doing it at the moment”.

Another online friend, a clarinettist, had had good intentions of practising every day. She wrote in her blog about feeling discouraged at not managing to do it. (She also wrote very encouragingly about being encouraged by me! Thank you.) And as you know if you’ve read below, my violin practice lapsed over Christmas…

How many of your New Year resolutions took the form “I will [insert idealistic ambition of personal perfection] every day”? Did they succeed?

I very much doubt that they did, but I’m not sure this is a bad thing. Reflecting on my own situatiion and the experiences of my fellow bloggers, I found myself thinking about the idea of creative cycles.

Learning, rest and cycles

I think any creative activity is in fact a learning process. Musical performance is included in this, by the way, because you have to create your particular style of playing. You’re always trying to develop and move forwards…

But learning is hard work for the brain. It doesn’t like concentrating hard on one thing indefinitely; after working at something new, it likes time to assimilate what has been learnt. If you play an instrument, imagine this scenario: one day, you go to a long rehearsal, or you do some intense practice at home. You work hard at it. When you stop, you’re definitely ready for a rest… Next day, when you practise some more, you don’t want to work on the same piece again, so you practise something else. Or you do try to play the same music, but seem to be having an “off day”. Or, more likely than not, you have a day off from playing, but the music you were practising is still going through your head. You find yourself unconsciously whistling tunes from it as you do other things. A few days later, you play the music again. You find it has improved a lot–while you weren’t working on it. Your practice told your brain what was required to play. Afterwards–most likely while you were asleep, if the suggestions of recent research are right–your brain set about “reprogramming” itself to achieve what you’d fed into it.

It does seem that most of the improvement happens between practice periods, not during them. That’s one reason why it’s a bad idea to force yourself to practise the same thing for hours on end, expecting it to become perfect as you practise. When your brain says you need to stop, you need to stop.

I think something similar might apply over longer timescales. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to keep our self-promise to do a particular activity every day–or even every week. Maybe it’s not even desirable that we should. (Or maybe our needs in this respect vary from person to person.) Each activity needs rest periods. A particularly long, intense period of one activity might need to be followed by a particularly long and complete rest from it. This might actually be healthy and not a failure on our part at all; it might be the success of recognising the way of working that enables us to give the best results.

Solo musicians whom I’ve met generally say that they like to learn the notes for a piece, then put it aside for several months before coming back to it. Then they’re ready to work on getting it ready for public performance. Slogging away for ever isn’t necessarily the best approach. In fact I’m pretty sure that for any creative activity it’s entirely the wrong one. (On a smaller timescale: I wrote the bulk of this post a week or so ago. Then I left it, and now that I’ve come back to edit it, the process feels a lot easier than it did then.)

I’m interested in a lot of different things–that’s probably obvious from my blog posts. But with most of them I’m never happy unless I involve myself in them in some depth. I’ll buy a textbook on a subject and study it. I’ll try to find out what the “professional” approach to it is. I’m interested in music, mathematics, computer programming, writing, and so on. Well, I can’t do all of those at once in the sort of depth I want to. Typically I’ll immerse myself in one of them for several months. Then I come to a natural point where it feels like time to do something else. I take a break from the activity I’ve immersed in, and immerse myself in the next one. So each activity happens in cycles, interspersed with the others.

The most important activities never quite go away, though. For example, there’s no time in the last twenty years when I’ve not been playing regularly in at least one orchestra. But there have been times when I was working hard at improving my violin technique, and others when I simply did what was required to prepare for the next concert. Those times haven’t been ones of musical inactivity, though: I’ve had the sense of using and consolidating the technique that was previously worked on. A period of learning followed by a period of consolidation.

So that’s how it seems to work for me. If you’re involved in any creative activity, do you have a similar experience of it going in cycles? I’d love to hear from you.