Practice that Pays Off


Tricia Grey, MM

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Brain
Lao Tzu

In the previous article I discussed the need for physical repetition and focused, deliberate practice as a way of developing myelin in order to excel at a specific skill. This chapter will focus on the power of the brain and mental rehearsal to transform us from where we are to where we would like to be.

Quantum physics and brain neuroplasticity have become hot topics in recent years. The idea that you can change your brain and change your life through mental rehearsal and meditation is a powerful one. Let’s see how that can work for you as a singer.

Brain neuroplasticity refers to physical changes in the neural pathways and synapses of the brain due to changes in behavior, environment and thought processes. Mental rehearsal and meditation have been shown in studies to create the same kind of changes in the brain that actual physical repetitions create. Great athletes and musicians know the power of combining mental and physical practice.

By mentally seeing yourself performing the perfect golf swing, for example, you cause nerve cells to fire in the brain in exactly the same way they do when you physically perform the act. Mental rehearsal is a powerful adjunct to physical practice in growing and changing brain circuits.

Because humans have a developed frontal lobe, we have the capacity to not only adapt and change, but to think ahead, to analyze and predict potential outcomes, to make choices based on our analysis, and to modify our behavior accordingly. Some of these capacities develop as humans mature; this is why some kids don’t seem to have the ability to make good choices; their brains are still developing this capability.

Our brains become “hardwired” by repeated thoughts and actions, for good or for bad. This is called habit. Changing hardwired negative habits is not an easy process. It requires energy, will, and determination. But we can do it- we can break negative habits, learn new skills and new ways of thinking, and ultimately evolve into completely different human beings. We can literally change the neural connections in the brain to produce new and desired behaviors. Let’s see how we can accomplish this:

We have the ability to focus our awareness and attention on anything we choose. What we don’t often realize is that the thoughts we choose to focus on can serve us or not serve us. We often stay stuck in thought patterns created out of past experiences that we may not even be aware of. These patterns may be the very thing that is keeping us from reaching our goals.

Any time we place our full attention on something, brain circuits repeatedly fire and the connection between them becomes stronger. What we focus on and think about repeatedly is literally what we become neurologically; giving repeated attention to something shapes our brain physically!

Neuroscience tells us that we can affect our brain by the thoughts we choose to think. What we are choosing to think is a mental “rehearsal”, which if repeated often enough, becomes a well-entrenched habit.

What do you think you spend most of your time thinking about, and thus rehearsing? Whatever that mental image is, you ultimately become! Standing in front of your mirror with a hairbrush for a mic pretending to be Beyonce isn’t actually crazy or silly- it’s neuroscience at work! Do it often enough and combine it with the hard work outlined in the article above, and you actually can change the hardwiring in your brain so that you become what you dream about.

On the other hand, you could choose to focus on the future with anxiety and worry, making something that hasn’t even happened yet seem very real to you. And guess what? If you focus that way often enough, it probably will happen! Our brains are very, very powerful.   In my opinion, this makes a good case for being very selective about anything you choose to focus on, including graphic entertainment and toxic people. Better to avoid, I say! But you make your own decision on that one.

The Bhagavad-Gita says “We must deliver ourselves with the help of our minds…for one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for the one who has failed to do so, the mind will remain the greatest enemy”.

Here’s how neuroplasticity works: every thought we think produces a biochemical reaction in your brain. The brain then sends signals to the body that tell the body to feel a reaction correlated to the thought you were just thinking. When you think uplifting and positive thoughts, the brain creates dopamine, a “feel good” neurotransmitter. When you think negative thoughts, the brain produces neuropeptides that cause the body to have negative physical reactions, such as rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, feeling flushed if you are angry, or cold if you are fearful, sweating with anxiety, etc. All these reactions are created by the limbic system as a response to thoughts.  The state of the body is then re-evaluated by the brain; which then creates further thoughts that create more chemical reactions, creating a continuous loop or cycle. This is what happens with uncontrollable stage fright, for example, which can seem to come out of nowhere, and affects many well-known performers.

However, here is some good news: A negative cycle can usually be reset at night when you sleep, unless you get up the next morning and start the process again! Take time in the morning to look for positive things, even little ones, and focus on just about anything that makes you feel better. One good thought leads to another, just like the negative ones do.

Thoughts, if unchecked, become habits of thought, which lead to repeated actions which define our character and ultimately who we are. Conscious thoughts, if repeated often enough, become unconscious habit. I’m sure you have had the experience of “spacing out” as you drive to your home, and not really knowing how you got there. That happens because the route, which may have taken conscious attention the first few weeks you drove it, has now, through repetition, become unconscious.

There is a concept in neuroscience called Hebbian Learning, which essentially states “nerve cells that fire together wire together”. This means groups of neurons that are repeatedly stimulated build strong connections between one another. This can occur with mentally rehearsing a skill or action or with physically practicing the skill or action. Mental rehearsal has been shown to develop and strengthen circuits in the brain as effectively as physical rehearsal. When neurons activate at the same time as a response to a thought or a physical action the neurons become associated with one another and the connections become even stronger. A new neural pathway is set and deepened with increased practice – the more practice you accumulate, the more ingrained or grooved the pathways become.  For good, or for bad.

The opposite is also true. If those pathways aren’t consistently and habitually reinforced and repeated the connection becomes weaker until it disappears entirely. That is the meaning of the phrase “use it or lose it”. The great tenor Pavarotti said “If I don’t vocalize daily (he meant scales and hard work, not just singing songs) I will notice a difference in my voice in two days. In three days, my audience will know”. And that is a guy who was at the peak of vocal mastery, who performed constantly and was adored my millions. He still had to do scales and vocalization on a daily basis to stay on top of his game.

The key to making and strengthening new neural connections is focused attention and repetition. If you are paying attention and completely focused on a task the brain starts to map a new neural pathway that eventually becomes a habit. If, however, you don’t pay complete attention to the task at hand brain synapses fire randomly and no long lasting synaptic connection is made. The stronger your concentration on a task, the stronger the signals that are sent to the neurons in the brain become, and the stronger the resulting neuro-pathway will become. If you can repeatedly think or practice a new skill with focused concentration, not allowing the mind to wander, the brain makes stronger synaptic connections. By constantly practicing a skill with focused attention you are creating not only muscle memory, but a new and stronger neuro-pathway in the brain. The more often and more consistently you repeat this process the stronger both muscle memory and synaptic pathways become.

The truth is that is takes many repetitions over time (which requires consistent effort) to make neurological and behavioral changes. It takes little effort to think or behave in the same old ways, but a great deal of consistent effort to create change. The motto that I use is “ Consistent focused repetition over time creates good habits. Good habits lead to successful lives.”

Unfortunately, change is hard-won, in most cases. Because of reinforced brain neuro-pathways created over many years, it is very easy and even comfortable for us to default to pre-established physical, thought, or feeling patterns, even when they no longer serve us. Patterns you picked up from your family of origin will continue to run you for your entire adult life, unless you become aware of them. Most people who are not aware of this phenomenon will spend most of the day unconsciously reacting, thinking, and feeling based on past experiences or deeply buried memories hardwired into the brain, which have other experiences associated with them, making them even more powerful. Unconscious and deeply entrenched habits, whether physical or mental, require a great deal of conscious focus and attention to correct.

We may often find ourselves reacting automatically and negatively to unexpected stimuli and wondering later “Where did that come from????” We react unconsciously to certain thoughts, events, or stimuli from the environment that can, if we are not being conscious and aware, initiate a deeply programmed set of responses, behaviors, and actions that are automatic and unconscious. We are not acting consciously, but unconsciously, in ways that feel natural because they have been rehearsed for a lifetime. For example, many people, when tired and overwhelmed often crave comfort foods that were around in their childhood. An alcoholic has to be careful of becoming too angry, hungry, lonely or tired because these experiences may set off a craving that they are seeking to avoid. A person who grows up in an abusive environment will have certain life-long reactions to environmental stimuli. The challenge of being a parent is that your children often provoke reactions like irritation or anger that have far more to do with your own childhood than anything they are doing. Becoming conscious is painful, but absolutely necessary, in all our dealings with fellow humans.

This applies to us as musicians and singers in multitudinous ways including stage fright, interaction with band mates and other challenging people, the physical skills involved in learning to sing well, and our own ingrained attitudes about our selves as performers and singers. Our reactions and feelings are generated by the experiences of a lifetime, combined with our current conscious and unconscious thoughts. So how do we address unconscious behaviors and reactions and replace them with more productive ones?

One very effective method of addressing negative behaviors we would like to change is with mental rehearsal, sometimes called visualization. With mental rehearsal you are consciously directing the brain to create and deepen synapses that will ultimately become unconscious habit.

A good way to begin a mental rehearsal is by writing. You need to be in a place that is quiet and where you will be uninterrupted. Think for a moment about what your long-term goal is. For example “I want to become a recording artist”. Write that goal down, along with all the things that you see yourself doing as a recording artist, such as traveling the world, performing with world-class musicians, feeling fulfilled as a creative person. Write it all down. That is your long-term goal. Include the feelings. How does it make you feel to have accomplished all this?

Next, focus on a more short-term goal that will make your long-term goal more possible. For example, getting a gig at a local venue that may lead to bigger things. Write down the specifics of this goal. All the details, such as what songs are played, who is in the band with you, what you will wear, and how you deliver each song. See it in your mind’s eye as you write. Include the feelings. How excited are you to get up on that stage and perform?

Next, focus on an even shorter-term goal specific to your skill as a singer. For example, nailing the high note in a song that is giving you challenges. Write down exactly what needs to happen for that high note to be great, based on your studies in this book and with your voice teacher. See yourself doing exactly those things as you write. Include the feeling. What does it feel like in your body to effortlessly sing that high note?

Next, read what you have just written, out loud, using present tense. For example: “I am a successful recording artist, traveling the world and performing with world-class musicians. I feel amazingly fulfilled and happy that I have achieved this life long goal. I feel confident, successful, and grateful” Now, repeat the same process for steps 2 and 3, using your own words.

Now close your eyes and visualize each step, starting backwards with step 3. See yourself hitting that high note easily and effortlessly every time. Now see yourself performing at a local gig, with the audience on their feet, clapping for you. Finally see yourself touring the world as a successful performing artist, getting to do what you love every day of your life. Feel the happy feelings that go along with each step. Then, release and let your visualizations go. Take a deep breath and go on about your day, making sure that you are also taking at least three action steps daily that will move your career forward.    

Repeat this every day. It will change your brain, and when your brain changes, your life changes. When you write down and then focus on what you want to become, visualizing it specifically while feeling good feelings about it, things change. It is then that “the universe conspires on your behalf”.

Deliberate, deep and focused physical practice creates physical changes in myelin. Deliberate, deep, and focused mental practice creates changes in neurology. The combination of mental and physical rehearsal physically changes the brain and body, creating new and better habits. It isn’t easy, but it does work on a physical, definable, and measurable level.

Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

With mental rehearsal, we think our new behaviors. With physical rehearsal we do our new behaviors. And with repetition of both mental and physical rehearsal we will become a new person, and we will actually be our new behavior. It will now be automatic and natural, a part of who we are.