Advancements in brain imaging have allowed us to see what’s happening in the brain during performance. Neuroscience has shown that optimal performance is about having the correct balance and coordination between brain regions involved in doing the task at hand. The ACN leverages the latest EEG neuroimaging techniques to better understand how our perception, cognition, and actions are coordinated to achieve optimal performance levels. With practice, the brain is wired to associate disparate pieces of information and organize them into cohesive patterns which expedite our decisions. In essence, optimal performance occurs when the brain regions have been shaped through prior experience. For example, research shows that, in string players, the right primary motor cortex has more representation in the area that controls finger movements. This is because they have to use the left hand to depress the fingerboard. Similarly, it was found that early age piano training increases finger-tapping performance, which could be why most professional pianists started when they were very young.
This is known as brain plasticity and it takes time and effort for these changes to occur. It is important to break down complex skills like piano playing into to a series of logical subskills, and take steps to learn each one individually. Often, however, we’ve seen teachers give their students advanced pieces before they have mastered the necessary skills to learn them. This is known as “jumped forward,” meaning that their brain has not yet wired itself for playing the difficult pieces, but they skip ahead anyway. Often, it is because novice students have a desire to play the more difficult pieces before they are ready. Unfortunately, after month of practice, they still are not able to perform the piece at the optimal level. This is evident be the obvious amount of mistakes they make while playing it (leaving out notes, stumbling through the piece, etc.). After enough time has gone by they grow tired of the piece and are no longer motivated to work on it. Their perception at this point is that the piece is too hard. The teacher has grown weary at this point, and teacher suspects the problem has to do with poor practice habits. The end result is being taken off of the piece, only to “try it again” with another difficult piece, with sub-optimal results.
Everything we do when training is influenced by our attention. Many regions in the brain are involved in focusing our attention on things that matter, while tuning out conflicting or irrelevant information. Our desire or motivation to do the task at hand is what sustains our attention, leading to strong improvement in task performance. Thus, optimal performance has a lot to do with sustained attention on the features of the task that matter while ignoring things that simply don’t matter. This includes our thoughts (cognition). If you are performing a complex instrument like a violin, it does little good to think about a ham sandwich! In fact, thinking at all will likely interfere with the performance since the motor commands are mostly recalled unconsciously. Like a stack of balancing rocks, optimal performance requires patience, focus, and a deep stillness of the mind.
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