Saturday, 25 July 2009

Right Brain, Left Brain and Making Music

Lyle Sanford, on his Music Therapy blog was kind enough to reference my post on practicing. He had been musing on right-brain and left-brain approaches to music. That seems to be a good topic to explore a bit.

The left side of the brain is associated with concentration and rational thinking. The right side of the brain is connected more with openness to experience and more intuitive ways of doing things. As Lyle correctly pointed out, the kind of practice technique I described in Practicing a difficult passage effectively is entirely left-brain in its approach. You have a task you have set yourself and you use your analytic skills to achieve it.

But there is a distinction to be made between playing your instrument and playing music. Unless and until you have sufficient control over the instrument that you can stop devoting all your effort and concentration to it, you can't play music - all you can play are the notes. It is instantly obvious to the listener when somebody is so consumed by the the technical issues of controlling the instrument that they have no thoughts for phrasing and musicality. Even somebody wholly uneducated in music will sense that there is "something missing" in such a performance even though they can't express what that something is. In contrast, even in a beginner, if they are playing a sufficiently easy piece, it is easy to tell whether they have "got it" and are thinking musically.

This isn't limited to classical music. I enjoyed watching X Factor last autumn on ITV. Both I (with an extensive musical education) and my partner (with no formal education in music beyond class music lessons at school) both picked out Alexandra Burke and JLS as the two front runners from early on in the series. They both had sufficient mastery of themselves that they could just get on with singing the music. This is something distinct from mere talent. Almost all the singers had lots of talent, but none of the others quite managed to achieve that presence that comes from being able to leave all your troubles behind and put everything into the performance. We wondered as the series went on whether anybody else would be able to make that step up, but nobody else did.

In my articles on playing the Eroica, I described some left-brain sorts of things that you do, to decide beforehand how you will approach a passage, in terms of dynamics, fingering or phrasing. But that is merely scratching the surface. Once you have sufficient control over the instrument, you can stop thinking in a left-brain sort of way and just leave yourself open to what is going on around you. So you instinctively know that a particular phrase has to be played just so, and that it is obvious for reasons you don't quite understand that the top of a crescendo must be exactly there.

So, how do you get into right-brain mode? Unfortunately, that is a very left-brain way of expressing the problem, which is a bit self-defeating!

First of all, you have to stop worrying. That means you need to know what you are doing well enough that you don't have cause to worry.

Then you have to listen. You need to do that anyway, so that you make sure you play together with the other players. But I am talking here of a deeper immersion in the music. You stop thinking about the particular way the first oboe has phrased something and you let the music wash around you. You become part of the music intimately attuned to everything else going on. Your left brain is still active - after all you do still have to blow down the instrument and make the necessary noises, but it is no longer in sole control. You have stopped merely playing the instrument and have started playing the music.

On a lesser level, this sort of thing is routine among most professional and the better amateur musicians. The most intense experiences however are rare, and give rise to a kind of euphoria which can leave you walking on air for days afterwards. In my own experience, a particular combination of circumstances is necessary. First of all the group I'm part of is of a quality such that I'm not distracted by other people's technical shortcomings. Second, the group as a whole needs to be sufficiently on top of the music that uncertainty doesn't get transmitted around. A top-notch and inspiring conductor is a big help, though not an absolute necessity. And finally everything just has to gell on the night, in a way which means that everyone gets a boost from everyone else's confidence, so that the whole group ends up playing a bit better than they realised they could. When this happens, there is nothing quite like being in the middle of an orchestra playing some thoroughly romantic piece of music and being completely surrounded by this great wash of sound, knowing you are contributing your own bit to it!

If you know your instrument sufficiently well, to some degree you can get on with playing the music in just about any concert, and the heightened concentration and awareness that comes from having to perform rather than merely rehearse brings enjoyment to music making. It is an act of sharing - with the audience and with your fellow players.

I've played hundreds of concerts in my time, at all levels of music below the professional, and I've had this kind of intense experience probably less than a dozen times. I hope that the audience shared it to some extent. Almost every concert brings a faint echo of the intense experience - enough for me to want to play the next concert and see if it will come next time!


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Very happy to have been a spark for this post! Very helpful and lots to think about. One detail I'd pull out for now is:

    >>Even somebody wholly uneducated in music will sense that there is "something missing" in such a performance even though they can't express what that something is.<<

    Can't agree with you more on this. Whatever it is that connects an audience member with a performance is not just technique, and it's very difficult to talk about. As a therapist my aim is always to get some sort of musical "traction" with a client, and better technique is rarely the answer. It's usually being somehow more gestural or having a more felt rhythm that suits the client's (audience's) mood. Or as you put it, "phrasing and musicality". The audience's right brain is just as important as the performer's.

    Thanks also for the link.

  3. Jonathan - Thanks very much for clicking over and leaving that very informative comment. I hope you do write a post on the F versus the Bb side. Seems to me they have a different nature that I've never appreciated before.

    Your giving me the lay of the land on mouthpieces was very helpful. A flute is pretty much a flute, and a clarinet a clarinet, but as far as I can tell a "horn" is a euphemism for whatever combination of hardware some individual uses for playing horn music ;-)

    You're very fortunate to have found the horn at 14. More than other instruments it seems more a way of life than simply an instrument to play. Growing up with one is surely a plus.

    If you're ever at a loss for something to post on, I'm guessing your unpacking what you mean by "musicality" would be a great read.

    Thanks for your time.

  4. great article. I'm more of a right-brain player, obesessed with communication of the musicalideas and 'shaping' phrases etc.Even begineers can be told that 'banging it out'is not on. Perfectionism - that;s waht many of us siffer from.

  5. I had been thinking about this as I did a workshop in art on left brain / right brain - it definitely is different. If you use your left hand I can really tune in to what something looks like - as long as no-one speaks to me and brings back my logical left brain !! I currently play trumpet (right hand playing) but would like to maybe change to french horn (is that left handed) so in fact there must be a difference in brain use there ! Maybe I will improve my playing !!

  6. as far as I know perfectionism would be a left brain idea ... tuning in to the music and letting it go a bit would be more the right brain/left hand ...