Friday 1 June 2012


Whew!  May and June are crazy months for me.  As the end of the school approaches, it’s time to focus on finishing up my piano classes for the summer.  Last weekend saw my year-end piano recital, and this week I teach my last classes and lessons, except for those students who have exams at the end of June.  In addition, these months are the time when I have to look after my least favourite part of music teaching:  the shameless self-promotion, trying to fill my new classes for the fall.  My musical theatre group’s summer show opens in two weeks (unbelievably soon!), and I am scrambling to memorize lines and master dance steps.  And on top of all that, it’s time for me to start preparing for the summer university course that I teach, “Elements of Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology”.  I’ve been lining up guest lecturers, comparing textbooks, and starting to review my notes and presentations. 

All of this is by way of explanation for the recent dearth of posts here on my blog.  I have a post that’s been two-thirds finished for weeks now, and I really will get around to those last few paragraphs soon.  And since I’m in the process of reviewing all of neuroanatomy, you can expect posts this summer discussing specific areas of the brain, how they work, and their role in music-making.

In the meantime, I wanted to point out this excellent blog post by Jonah Lehrer (whose fascinating new book “Imagine” is one of several that I am halfway through reading).  His post describes a new research paper looking at what parts of the brain are active when we are deciding whether or not a task is worth the effort we are expending.  I won’t describe the research in any detail, because Lehrer does such a good job, but it turns out that there are specific parts of the brain (left striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex) that receive more dopamine in people who are more willing to persist with a difficult job, and different parts of the brain (the insula) that receive more dopamine in people who give up easily.

This observation struck a chord with me because I’ve been busy researching about the topic of “Motivation and the Brain” for a talk I will be giving to the B.C. Music for Young Children teachers in the fall.  The question of how to motivate students and encourage them to practice well and regularly is a never-ending one for most music teachers.  My experience as a teacher and a parent has been that the hardest challenge that students need to overcome is their own desire to just go and do something easier.  Practicing music is hard work, and the immediate rewards may be small, so it’s hard for students to stick with it, every practice session.  But it’s harder for some than for others.  Even between my own two children, the difference in “stick-to-it-iveness” is astonishing, and directly related to their different levels of success at playing the piano.  What I find remarkable is that we can now relate this aspect of personality to levels of neurotransmitters in specific parts of the brain.

The more important issue, to my mind, is whether there’s anything we can do to encourage the growth of persistence as a personality trait.  Can we learn to have higher levels of dopamine in the appropriate structures in the brain?  Perhaps if we can wheedle kids into practicing enough, they will learn to see the connection between the work and the reward; the neurons in the reward pathway will become rewired to reinforce those parts of the brain making the decision about whether practicing is worth the effort.  Certainly children can become more willing to work hard over time, but it’s difficult to know how much of that is learned and how much is simply brain development with age.  My nine-year-old is much more focused and hard-working about her piano practice than she was several years ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because of anything I’ve done to encourage her; she’s simply older than she was.

It’s something to ponder, and I’ll definitely have more to say here about motivation before I’m ready to give my talk in the fall.