Monthly Archives: March 2012

2012 Music Educators National Conference

I’m at the Music Educators National Conference in St. Louis, presented by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME). I’m presenting some ongoing research of mine as a poster session. The contents of my research poster are below.

Special thanks to my UNL colleague Dr. Eric Richards, who composed the melodies used in the study.

Is Science Useful in Explaining the Arts?

I recently read a blog post called “Creativity explained…Eureka!” by Kurt Knecht. Kurt is a fantastic composer, organist, and scholar whom I know because he’s a recent graduate of our doctoral program in the UNL School of Music. In his post, Kurt reacts to a radio interview he heard with Jonah Lehrer, who’s making the rounds promoting his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. You should read Kurt’s entire post, but I think it’s fair to say that he is not impressed with Lehrer’s position on the matter. I’m also basing this on a tweet of Kurt’s from last week, in which he said “People who attempt to explain creativity seem to be the least creative.” As someone who has, well, attempted to explain creativity (in fact, a number of times here on this blog), I was thrust into some serious soul searching by that tweet!

When Kurt put up his post about creativity, he tweeted at me to ask for my thoughts about it. I didn’t hear the interview with Lehrer that Kurt listened to, and haven’t read the book Imagine (though I intend to very soon). So I can’t yet speak to Lehrer’s position specifically. But I will take up the cause of defending the value of research in the social and behavioral sciences in trying to explain creativity. What’s more, I think it can be fruitful to consider broader phenomena that are found across disciplines. Creativity in music may not be exactly the same as creativity in the visual arts, but I think there’s insight to be gained by sorting through the similarities and differences. By way of full disclosure, I’m somewhat committed to such interdisciplinary pursuits…I’m the guy who offers a summer class at UNL called “Music and Sports: Performance and Perception,” in which we consider topics like talent, practice, group dynamics, performance anxiety, and, yes, creativity.

Social and behavioral science research does not seek to advance “one size fits all” explanations for complex human phenomena. Rather, the work involves looking for trends and associations and effects that hold true much of the time. Even if a theory cannot explain 40% of all cases—say, those for whom a bath doesn’t work! (see Kurt’s post)—it doesn’t make the theory worthless to the other 60%. Any researchers worth their salt are careful not to overgeneralize or oversimplify their studies’ findings. They are, of course, free to propose theories and offer possible interpretations of their data.

Research results are best seen as one source of evidence to support a theory. And not all evidence is convincing to everyone who hears it. Perhaps one problem comes in the way that the evidence is presented. Usually when we hear about research results, it is not from the researchers themselves, but from other media members. These folks may not always handle the information accurately. Sometimes they paraphrase the research to make it more accessible to the general public which isn’t interested in wading through academic jargon. Other times, writers and broadcasters turn to research simply to bolster their own position on an issue by throwing around the authoritative phrase “Research shows….” As a result, research is often mishandled and its findings applied too broadly. One of the worst music examples of this came in the 90s with the so-called “Mozart effect.” The original study found that college undergrads (not music majors) did better on a spatial reasoning task after listening to a 10 minute Mozart piano piece, as compared to spending the same amount of time sitting in silence or listening to a relaxation tape. Yet the results in this very specific context somehow morphed into a “music makes you smarter” movement that was embraced by far too many in the field of music education.

Kurt’s post also includes a quote from his friend (and my colleague at UNL) Guy Trainin, who is a fine researcher in his own right, and an expert on reading acquisition and literacy learning. On the topic of creativity, Dr. Trainin said, “I think I might be able to measure it, but it is so discipline specific that I’m not sure it would be transferable in any way to another subject.” As this perspective suggests, I think we must be cautious in applying research results to areas outside our expertise. But I’d also contend that anyone seeking greater understanding of a topic like creativity can gain much by considering what well-conducted scientific research has found. I’m sure Dr. Trainin’s own teaching practices and operations at the reading center he co-founded are largely informed by the insights of research. And I dare say that some of the effective strategies used in reading instruction also work in music instruction. The strategies may not work with all learners, but when we’re dealing with something as complex as the human mind, it makes sense to me to start with what research says works with most.

Taking Stock Before Taking the Stage

Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.

When great musicians are on stage, I am amazed by how naturally the music seems to flow from them. There’s great energy in what they’re doing, but it seems to happen without much obvious exertion. The performers communicate through their music, and it moves my thoughts and emotions as I watch and listen. It would seem that in the ideal performance situation, this process happens almost organically, naturally driven by the musicians’ inner passion, and free of contrivance and strain.

In an ideal world, all musicians would perform with the goal of heartfelt expression that deeply moves audiences. Unfortunately, this may not be the norm in most of our concert halls. Some musicians are so preoccupied with the work involved in giving a public performance that they lose sight of their expressive goals. They would love to take the stage with clear minds and more fully channel the emotion they wish to communicate. But this can be an elusive endeavor. To make matters worse, sometimes the only emotion a musician brings to a performance is fear, as stage fright takes hold.

Because of the ideas described above, some may come to believe that performance success depends on shutting off the intellect. It can be an appealing prospect: quit thinking and planning and analyzing, and just trust that your love for music will guide you to an expressive performance, right? Perhaps not. Research in the psychology of music suggests otherwise. Our thinking may be our most powerful resource toward fulfilling performances. It is our thinking—specifically our beliefs and attitudes—that guides our motivation patterns in our musical activities. It is mindful and deliberate practice that most efficiently builds performance skills. And there is great value in our mind’s capacity for reflection, that is, our ability to monitor our musical behaviors and even change the way we think.

Let me start with an example of how beliefs and attitudes can affect the way musicians approach performance. Some psychologists who study motivation have suggested that there are two broad orientations that people can have when pursuing something like music: ego-involved and task-involved. If I have an ego-involved goal orientation, I’m primarily concerned about how I am judged through my musicianship. Performances are opportunities to garner favorable recognition…or to lose it. If I have a task-involved goal orientation, I’m thinking about the musical activity itself. Thought processes center on producing a performance that measures up to a self-set standard.

In a 2005 study of the goal orientations of collegiate instrumental musicians, beliefs about musical talent emerged as an important underlying factor (Smith, 2005). Those who thought of musical talent as an inborn stable trait (“either you got it or you don’t”) were more likely to take an ego-involved approach to performance. They thought about how they would compare to other musicians and expressed concern about looking bad. This came in contrast to those who believed musical ability is acquired through effort and practice; these musicians were more likely to embrace new challenges and to do so out of personal interest. Further, task oriented musicians tended to take more varied and in-depth strategies in their practicing.

I think there’s much to be gained by examining our motivations as performers, perhaps even using the ego- and task-involved goal designations. Past research suggests that musicians driven by ego goals—without much task involvement—are more likely to experience negative feelings in their music making. Their orientation may actually hinder the effectiveness of their practicing and make them more susceptible to stage fright. I know I’ve gone into performances primarily concerned about how my musicianship would be judged by others. Instead of focusing on my expressive aims, I’m worried about wrong notes. Performance is no longer an opportunity to enjoy, but an ordeal to endure.

Just being aware of our thought processes heading into a performance can be beneficial. In another study with college music majors, two researchers asked their participants to complete “diary” before 15 performances during a school year (Sadler & Miller, 2010). For each entry, always done within an hour before performing, they described their thoughts and feelings heading into their performance. Over the course of the 15 performances, there was a significant decrease in performance anxiety reported by the music students. And note, these musicians were not directed to use any particular strategy to combat stage fright; they simply took note of what they were thinking and feeling. It would seem that even some basic self-awareness can have a therapeutic effect.

So it’s not the avoidance of thinking that facilitates a gratifying performance experience. More likely, the key is being able to direct your thoughts to the right things. For years, psychologists have treated anxieties of many kinds through cognitive restructuring. In this approach, people struggling with anxiety learn to change their thinking, primarily through self-talk. But it does not entail reciting undue praise to yourself in a shallow “power of positive thinking” way. Rather, self-talk is used to monitor and reshape thought patterns, in order to replace irrational negative thoughts with more realistic and task-centered ones. The approach has been effective with musicians, including very recently in a study by two performance psychologists (Hoffman & Hanrahan, 2012). They provided three workshops in which musicians were guided in examining their thought processes related to performance anxiety. They identified the negative thinking that they commonly engage in, and learned how to replace dysfunctional “all or nothing” thought patterns with more constructive ones. Even with this relatively modest intervention—just three hour-long sessions offered over a three week period—the musicians experienced a significant drop in perceived anxiety while performing, as well as a significant increase in the quality of their performances, as determined by independent musical judges.

Ultimately your musical performances will be judged by how expressive or feelingful they are. And you can’t “play it with feeling” if all you feel is dread! We cannot simply shut off our minds just prior to taking the stage. I suppose for some of the greatest musicians, their skills are so practiced, so polished, and so deeply rooted that they can deliver a stirring performance with their thoughts wandering to others things. But most of us are not there yet. We have to think about something as we prepare to present our music to an audience. There can be some serious drawbacks of stepping on stage while thinking about the performance—what’s riding on it, what could go wrong, and other potentially threatening aspects. A better alternative would be to focus your thoughts on your music making, and that in its plainest context. I would suggest that fundamentally, music is about the sharing of expression with others, done because it’s a meaningful, enriching, and even essential part of being human.

Hoffman, S. L., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2012). Mental skills for musicians: Managing music performance anxiety and enhancing performance. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 1(1), 17-28.

Sadler, M. E., & Miller, C. J. (2010). Performance anxiety: A longitudinal study of the roles of personality and experience in musicians. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(3), 280-287.

Smith, B. P. (2005). Goal orientation, implicit theory of ability, and collegiate instrumental music practice. Psychology of Music, 33(1), 36-57.

Image source: Photos taken by Liz Love of