Psychology and Brass Playing 2: Why Did I Just Split That Note?

Jamie KennedyJamie Kennedy explains how psychological theories can help us work on our playing and teaching.

In the first article in this series (can you have a series of two?), we saw that Psychology is a branch of scientific knowledge, and, like the other branches, is roughly divided into investigations and theories. We’ve already looked at an investigation that suggests some effective ways to go about memorising something. As I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, that leaves theory to be the subject of this article.

I can’t promise this will be painless – you may have to stare at a table for a few minutes. But it will hopefully be useful to you. I want to introduce you to Attribution Theory, a motivation theory that attempts to classify and explain how people attribute causes to something, such as an event, an action, a success or failure. “I didn’t pass my exam because I didn’t study enough” is one attribution of a cause. “I didn’t pass my exam because the teacher didn’t like me and the questions were unfair” is another kind of attribution for the same event.

This will be of interest to anyone who teaches, but personally I’ve found it immensely useful for myself and my own playing too, as it can help me to look at my own mental approach and question why things might be going wrong or how to make things better.

Before we go any further, we really should talk more about theories. Theories in Psychology are not quite the same as theories in Physics. They are developed in the same way – you observe what’s going on and come up with a general rule or pattern that describes it. However, they don’t really represent “reality” in quite the same way.

Take the example of the old introvert/extrovert personality theory. Personally, I find that some of the things I do might be described as introverted, and some of the things I do might be described as extroverted. Classify me whichever way you like, but I’m never just one or the other. Trying to use this theory to describe “reality” is not particularly useful, especially with a blunt tool like introvert/extrovert.

And here is that main point – the value of psychological theories lies in their usefulness. They are explanatory tools, and you can’t use just one tool for every job. We have to use our judgement to work out if a particular tool can be useful in any given situation.

So armed with that knowledge, let’s look at Attribution Theory, which is, as I said before, about how people assign or attribute causes to things. Now the majority of this research was done on people’s perceptions of success or failure. This doesn’t just apply to students and exams – this tool can be useful well beyond into anything that might be described as resulting in either a success, failure, or something in between. How about playing a solo in a competition, or preparing a student for an AMEB exam, or playing the chorale in Brahms 1, or playing something in a lesson?

Let’s face it – as brass players, every time we produce a single note, we have an opportunity to judge it as having succeeded, failed, or something in between. It’s part of being alive and conscious that we always try to understand our environment, so we make a connected judgement about what caused that success or failure

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