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  • Norm Adams

This is Your Brain on Music, Well My Brain anyway....


The past few months have been pretty darn full. I’ve been making music in all of my usual ways with the addition of a few new experiences that have forced me do some thinking. I’ve found that I need to think about how different kinds of music making use different skills and indeed different thought processes, (or lack thereof).

So, usually I make free improvised music and I play in an orchestra, but this past month I performed a concerto with the orchestra, and performed in an unusual (for suddenlyLISTEN) sL show, both of which really got me to thinking.

Now keep in mind that I’m not a brain expert. (Far from it, I don’t even play one on television), I’m just interested, and have time to write today.

In my career I’m used to playing two opposite kinds of music:

  • Free improvised music where we open our mind and ears to accept all inputs, and then consciously and unconsciously make decisions, actions and reactions based only on the listening. Pretty nice! I think of this a accessing organic music making tools, or right brained thinking (a theory (I’ve just read on the internet, so it must be true) that has been debunked in the past few years, but what the heck, you know what I’m talking about…..).

  • In orchestral music we play at least one different concert a week, so we’re learning a lot of notes very quickly. This requires us to read music really well, and absorb things just enough to perform to a high level, with a minimum of mistakes, whilst following directions of the conductor and other orchestral leaders. I always think of this as left brained playing or more rational music making.

So I’ve learned to be pretty good at switching brains between those two. It used to take me several days to remember how to be an improviser, but I’m much better at it after 15 or so years of making the switch.

This may be getting the better of me however. An example: In the fall I was playing in an SNS concert, and needed to line up in a very intricate passage with a harpsichord. I cranked up my best listening, and when I did, all my improviser instincts kicked in too, subconsciously causing me to listen for opportunities to contribute to the music. I caught myself after a very short note, in a loudish passage. No one else noticed, but I was going to start playing. It was sort of scary actually…My best listening is contained in my improviser brain I guess.

A few of weeks ago I played the G major Concerto by Luigi Boccherini. I practiced the piece off and on for over a year, so that by the time I got to the 2 days of rehearsal with Symphony Nova Scotia, I knew it pretty well. At first I found myself approaching the piece from my classical left-brain, but as an extra challenge, I decided to also improvise the cadenzas found in each movement. I wanted to do those in a not purely classical language, to honour my improviser side, but in the process, was forced to switch brains several times in the course of a 15-minute piece! Harder than I expected….


At first in the first rehearsal with orchestra, I did the switches successfully; but soon I found myself becoming consciously aware of my brain functions (that’s too much thinking!), so I decided to simplify things, to minimize the possibility of crashing and burning (in front of my loved ones, and all the other assembled folks…). So, I just played like an improviser. My body knew the piece well enough that I just let it be, and let the music come out in a much less mathematical way: a much more right brain way. The music flowed in my head like an improvisation. It was so freeing to have the music coming from a creative place, one that I associate with positive music making, free of the mistakes and judgments of the rational music maker.

And interesting because I had to consciously make that decision.

Several days later I played Hourglass, a suddenlyLISTEN show that combined improvisation, score reading, and following conduction hand signals. Once again I was challenged to use both sides of my brain, doing what was expected of me, whilst playing in a freer way.  Sometimes I did better thanks to Boccherini, and sometimes, I just did what my instincts told me, because I could!

Do other people think of these things? Are performers like me the only ones forced to confront the way their brain functions, to succeed on a day to day basis? (Athletes I guess: a different kind of performer). Or maybe it’s just me….

The Dalai Lama would tell us it’s always good to be conscious, and I’d say it’s pretty interesting too. What are your experiences with performance and your thought processes? Do you have to think about it? Do you try to avoid thinking about it? Let me know!

Apr 11, 2014 at 17:29

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