Psychology and Brass Playing

The Eighth Position’s Co-Editor and Griffith University PhD candidate Jamie Kennedy investigates how exploring the field of psychology can help us to improve as teachers and performers.

If there is something I know with some degree of certainty, it’s that other people know more than me. The minute I open my mouth is the same minute in which I betray almost all of my ignorant and half-baked ideas.

I can tell you that nothing has done more to make me feel like an outspoken five-year-old who should go back to the little people’s table than studying psychology. Unfortunate for me, then, that understanding psychological concepts is actually one of the single most useful tools for a musician and teacher to have, next to a European passport and heaps of cash.

How has it been useful to me? Let me count the ways. It has helped me deal with performance anxiety; it has changed the way I approach taking control of my practice technique; I use it constantly to try and maintain good levels of positive motivation in my students. Hell, I even use it to boost my own motivation when it starts to slip. So, for something so useful, why does it also make me feel like the village idiot at the same time? Is it all of the big words? Partly.

The answer lies in what psychology is. Psychology is a branch of scientific study that concerns itself with the knowledge (-ology) of the mind (psyche). Ah yes, the mind. Here is a big problem – what the hell is that, exactly?

The mind can be lots of things. It involves the brain, but it is more than the brain. It involves what we feel, see and think, but it is more than that too. It involves who we think we are and why we think we do things. It is at the very heart of… subjectivity. A science that studies subjectivity? All those constantly changing and fluctuating thoughts that make up our subjective impressions of the world? The very idea makes my head swim.

Subjective perceptions meme

Despite this, it is the fact that it deals with human understanding and perception (among other things) that has made it so useful to me. When I see a student freaking out or getting depressed about an exam, using the psychological concepts I’ve encountered about motivation I can identify the unhelpful ways they might be thinking about success and failure and try to help them build more useful beliefs about their playing; for example that playing well in an exam isn’t down to luck or some innate ability to play the trombone, but directly related to the work they do beforehand and the mental approach they take in the exam. Playing, and learning to play (and who isn’t still learning to play?), is predominately mental – understanding what to physically do with an instrument, learning how to pay attention or what to listen to.

We now come to the problem of the big words. Ever since it became a discipline over a century ago, psychology has so desperately wanted to be a science. It has two halves like a science – theories and practical studies. It uses sciency-wiency words that make you head for the dictionary, like meta-cognition, correlation, and empiricism. It also divides itself up, like a science, into sub-topics, such as development, perception, cognition (thinking processes), neuroscience (the brain), or – my least favourite – personality.

But nothing makes a newly formed science feel like the most naked of naked emperors than claiming something so subjective as the mind for its turf.

So, to fortify themselves against attack from their more objective cousins, like cosmology or biological chemistry, psychologists try to act as much like them as they can. They use the most obscure language possible, and only publish their work in exclusive and expensive journals, with enigmatic names like Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, or The European Journal of Cognitive Psychology. This assessment may sound slightly one-sided, and in fairness it isn’t the whole story, BUT… the fact remains that for the majority of music performers and teachers, most psychological research is about as accessible as Furtwängler’s left hand.

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