Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Your Brain on Improv

In this installment of the ever-popular TED talks, Dr. Charles Limb, a head and neck surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, offers a glimpse into the creative brain. Dr. Limb, a musician in his own right, was inspired by the astounding creativity of improvising musicians to devise a series of experiments to test which areas of the brain were active during improvisation versus the playing of a memorized pieces of music. Using an fMRI machine, Dr. Limb and his colleague Allen Braun studied the brain activity of jazz musicians (published here) as well as that of freestyle rap artists.

​The basic methodology of the experiment was simple: each musician played or rapped a memorized test piece, then improvised on the same piece. In the case of the jazz musicians, a plastic keyboard was used in the fMRI machine so that the musicians could play along with a pre-recorded jazz trio. In part of the experiment, the pianists “traded fours” (wherein one musician improvises for four bars, then the other, and so on) with Dr. Limb in a musical conversation. In the case of the rap artists, a pre-written rap was memorized and performed, and then the artists freestyled over the same beat pattern.

​The results of the study are fascinating, and hold intriguing implications for music performance in all genres. The researchers found that during improvised performances, the lateral prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain associated with self-monitoring and self-assessment – deactivated, while the medial prefrontal cortex – associated with autobiographical information and self-expression – became more active. It appeared that the intense creativity involved in musical improvisation required a certain dis-inhibition, a willingness to make mistakes, in order for the self-expressive regions of the brain to shine through. This deactivation of the lateral prefrontal cortex occurred only during improvisation. Additionally, during the “trading fours” portion of the experiment, the researchers observed activation of the Broca’s area, associated with language. Similar effects were observed with the rap artists, although these results were not explored in as much detail (likely due to time constraints, although Dr. Limb’s endearing performance of the rap test piece is worth the time it cuts out of the presentation!).

​As a classical singer, and one who both performs and teaches classical music, I've found myself thinking quite a bit about questions raised by this talk. Chief among them is this: If it is the act of improvising – of creating music anew, on the spot – that truly seems to de-activate the monitoring, judging areas of the brain and activate the self-expressive, autobiographical, communicative areas, what are we whose stock and trade rests on the impeccable memorization and delivery of standard repertoire to do? Granted, Dr. Limb was not suggesting that this is the only “correct” way to make music; however, the prospect of freeing up self-expression by quieting self-monitoring is a deeply compelling one for any musician. Interestingly, Dr. Limb at one point uses the words “memorized” and “over-learned” in quick succession, almost interchangeably. I would appreciate more clarification on this point; does he feel that by the time a piece is memorized, it is by definition “over-learned”? Or did he specifically ask his subjects to practice the prepared test pieces to the point of utter monotony? Regardless, the issue remains that once a piece is memorized to the standard that is usually demanded in classical music performance, there can seem to be very little room for spontaneity. True, musicians are often asked in masterclasses and lessons to sing or play “as if you were making it up,” or “as if it had just occurred to you,” but can the same kind of communication and creativity that is present in improvisation truly be brought to bear on a memorized piece of music?

​Are there lessons to be learned here for music educators? I certainly believe so. It is worth thinking about ways in which we can introduce (or re-introduce; how many times have we all heard a child spontaneously making up songs?) a kind of improvisation into music learning and performance. I’m not suggesting that all classical singers must suddenly learn to scat-sing, although it would be a good exercise, and probably an intimidating one for many of us! However, I do believe that as teachers, we can empower and allow space for our students to be spontaneous in their own musical interpretations, even in standard classical repertoire. Looking back on my own teaching, I’m certain that there have been many instances in which I have (hopefully gently) suggested to a student that he or she might want to push a tempo here or stretch a note there, coaching and repeating the phrase until I heard what I was listening for. Although I meant well, is it possible that what I was really doing was forcing my own musical ideas about the piece onto my student? If my student, of their own volition in the moment, chose to stretch a cadence for expressive reasons, might the part of their brain associated with communication and expressiveness been active? And if I, with the best of intentions, “corrected” them, might that part have succumbed to the assessing and judging lateral prefrontal cortex?

​In one of the more memorable masterclasses I’ve sung in, I was working on a Bach aria with bar after impossible bar of coloratura, and was asked by the clinician (the inimitable Benjamin Butterfield) to “sing it like it’s jazz.” Even as a part of my brain dismissed the idea as “silly,” another part seemed to engage; suddenly those dizzying patterns of notes seemed playful, the phrasing shaped itself, and the rigidity of my performance dissolved into flexible, joyful ease. It’s a feeling I can remember but find hard to recapture. I'd love to know what parts of my brain were active in that moment, but even more I'd love to reliably find ways to encourage my students toward the same sort of expressive freedom. Dr. Limb's research may offer us some ideas in that direction.

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