Practice pays off

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.

As 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.

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 Beyoncé 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.

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.”

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.

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”.

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 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. Due to 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.

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. 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.

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 three. 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”.

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.

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