Playing on the Right Side of the Brain


I've just read a fascinating book by Betty Edwards, called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In it, she suggests various techniques to help artists access their right brain hemispheres, so they can draw what they see rather than what they know. I must be honest, the book did absolutely nothing for my artistic abilities (stick men are about the best I can manage!). But it did make me think about why so many musicians are left brained, an issue that comes up time and again in the course of my work.

The left brain deals primarily with logic and analysis, while the right brain is concerned with emotion, feeling and creativity. I realise this divide is scientifically simplistic (and I hope those of you with a greater anatomical knowledge than mine will forgive my simplifications), but it is a convenient way of considering what makes a musician rounded and balanced. Like all music teachers, I'm sure, I often wonder how one person can be so instinctively creative while another appears to be uncreative?

I don't mean that in a derogatory way. There is no right or wrong in the context of being left or right brained, it's just two different ways of thinking. One isn't better than the other, just as being right-handed isn't better than being left-handed. What's important is that you recognize your natural preference. If it's strongly verbal (left brained) rather than visual (right brained) you need to be open to new ways of thinking, and consciously approach creative activities like playing the piano with your right brain.

To determine whether you're left brained or right brained, look carefully at the picture above. Do you see the dancer turning clockwise, or anti-clockwise? If clockwise you are more inclined towards the right side of the brain, if anti-clockwise the left side. (Most people will in fact see the dancer turning anti-clockwise, though if you focus carefully it is possible to change the direction in which she's turning.) If you're not convinced, you may prefer a questionnaire such as this one from the Art Institute of Vancouver.

Until the twentieth century, relatively little was known about the human brain. But in the 1950s and early 1960s, the neurobiologist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry carried out a series of experiments which suggested the two halves of the brain might have individual consciousness. He wrote that each hemisphere is "a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning and emoting. Both may be conscious simultaneously in different mental experiences that run along in parallel."

The left brain is linear, and typically works in sequential order. It excels at speaking, reading, writing and arithmetic (suggesting that our education system is biased towards the development of the left brain). The right brain, however, isn't verbal. It processes information quite differently to the left brain, that is to say quickly and non-sequentially. It determines spatial relationships and excels at interpreting visual and perceptual information, which is as important to a musician as the ability to read and count.

The right brain does not concern itself with patterns and prescribed rules. On the contrary, it flourishes when confronted with complex or ambiguous ideas. So as we develop our musical thinking, it's important that we learn to let our right brains speak freely. Ideally, of course, we want to undertake everything we do with our whole brain. After all, music stimulates interconnected brain areas, all of which listen intently to the different aspects of a piece of music including its melody, rhythm and harmony.

The Whole Brain

Research carried out in the 1990s by Dr. Lawrence Parsons, of the University of Texas, showed that music is distributed throughout the entire brain rather than localized in a single region. And because music is so stimulating, and requires such a wide range of abilities, it helps to improve our cognitive function and mental abilities. Parsons showed that it is similar to language, both in structure and the way in which we perceive it, which may in part explain the link between musical activity and exam grades.

I've written before about the many different elements that contribute to a constructive practice routine, and the need for creativity and variety. If you're learning to play a musical instrument, it's essential that you mix left brain work (technique and notation, for example) with imaginative, perceptual right brain work. But many learners struggle to play expressively, and I often hear well-prepared performances, both in lessons and at music festivals, which lack a basic sense of engagement and involvement.

To play the piano well, we must understand the various elements of music theory, recognize patterns in the movements of our fingersand be familiar with the physical landscape of the notes of the keyboard. But we must also develop finger dexterity and independence, and be able to produce the enormous range of colours required to create an almost infinite variety of emotional expressions. Only then can we express ourselves fully through the piano, and infuse our technique with artistry and musicality.

It's important to awaken the right brain hemisphere as soon possible. That's even possible with scales, which are always a useful way of warming up the fingers. The left brain considerations are easy enough: are we using the best fingering, playing rhythmically and so on? But what about the sensory, right brain side of the scale? When you play the first note, listen to the sound. As you continue, see if you can play energetically, dreamily, solemnly or whimsically? Now you're accessing right brain thinking.

Experience has taught me that similes and metaphors are a great way of helping learners (of all ages) to develop their right brains. Comparisons spark their imaginations, and help them to play with greater musical insight.  The trick of connecting with what you already know can be traced as far back as 1886, and Mrs. Curwin's famous piano tutor. (If you can find a copy, it contains many hidden gems which are still useful today.) Your imagination is the only limit to the form similes and metaphors can take.

Movement is a good one to begin with, as it offers so many possibilities and is easy to perceive. The same is true of emotional metaphors, particularly apt in this instance as the perception of music as an expression of feeling is crucial to the development of the right brain. I also like to use metaphors connected to light, shade and language, emphasizing certain notes in a musical phrase as we do particular words in a sentence. And then there are places, textures, tastes, shapes, colours and smells, the list goes on!

If we don't communicate when we play, either with ourselves or with others, why play at all? A piece of music is like a story, a story without words. Our job is to converse through the endless sounds of our instrument. Just think of the excitement that a gifted orator can arouse, when they speak with intensity, sincerity and conviction. By making full use of the right side of our brains we can connect with our listeners in the same way, whether we're playing Handel in the Strand or a Beethoven sonata.

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