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Sport helps musicians become better performers

A music student can spend up 7,800 hours alone in the practice room during a 5-year conservatoire course. How do they know that they are using their time wisely and not least keeping their nerves in check? Johannes Lunde Hatfield turned to sports psychology to try to find some answers.

New research

Johannes Lunde Hatfield’s doctoral thesis links sports psychology and music practice. His paper is entitled Determinants of motivation and self-regulation in aspiring musicians.

The thesis is available in its entirety in the Brage archive.

Winning a place at a higher music education institution is no mean feat. Those who are successful have put in an incredible number of hours of hard work. Many of these hours have been spent alone in a practice room grinding away at difficult repertoire and exercises.

A music student can spend up 7,800 hours alone in the practice room during a 5-year conservatoire course. How do they know that they are using their time wisely and not least keeping their nerves in check? Researcher Johannes Lunde Hatfield turned to sports psychology to try to find some answers.

Hatfield, himself a cellist, has studied sports science at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. That is where he came across the tools he is now bringing to the NMH.

“When I discovered sports psychology it struck me that this is exactly what we need in higher music education,” he says, sitting in his tiny office at the NMH. That realisation eventually led him to his research project, Determinants of motivation and self-regulation in aspiring musicians, which he completed in February 2017. The idea was to let music students try out different mental preparation strategies used by athletes.

Few students have clear goals

His research project was split into three parts. First Hatfield conducted a survey of how students at the academy practise.

“I looked at different variables such as the extent to which the students set themselves goals for their practice sessions, whether they believe they can reach these goals, and whether the time they spend away from their instrument – i.e. when they plan their practice sessions – has an impact on that,” Hatfield explains.

“What I found was that few students set themselves clear weekly or daily targets. I also discovered that students who were more conscious of what they were trying to achieve also had a bigger repertoire of different practice strategies and were more conscious of how they practised. Once these students had completed a practice process, they were in a better position to go back and look at what worked and what didn’t,” he explains.

Hatfield was somewhat surprised at his findings and had perhaps thought that the students would have organised the process better. His conclusion was that there is a need to raise awareness.

“In the beginning I thought I’d be learning to remove mental barriers, just go for it and practise a lot. Instead, I discovered that it’s sometimes more important to take breaks every now and then,” says student Espen Nystog Aas.

Acknowledging difficult thoughts

The next step for Hatfield was to conduct a so-called interventional study with a group of six performance students in order to try out different strategies taken from sports psychology.

“The students followed a sports psychology practice programme in which we integrated strategies that research has identified as key to performance preparation. They might involve setting concrete targets, visualising given situations and different concentration exercises,” he says.

Hatfield found that many of the students expect a great deal of themselves and often have distinctly defined goals that they wish to reach, both in terms of which job they want and an internalised ideal of what sound they want to achieve.

“Which in turn begs the question: how do you get there? This may sound like a cliché, but it’s extremely important to adopt strategies for the process and for the different phases on your way to your goal. Much of that work does in fact take place without your instrument,” Hatfield says.

It also transpired that many of the students were concerned with external factors such as what their peers or teachers think about their playing.

“One approach to that can simply be to accept that you have these thoughts and that they’re part of being a performer. Rather than try to dismiss these negative thoughts, you could instead actively try to be conscious of them and “breathe” with the problem. If you try to block them out, it’s easy to end up chasing your own tail and spiral deeper into destructive thoughts,” he contends. The strategies therefore cover both the time spent alone in the practice room and different performance situations.

Communication and motivation

I tredje fase var det nettopp kommunikasjon rundt dette han utforska, og såg nærmare på dei langsiktige effektane av å implemetere systematisk,

In the third phase Hatfield looked at motivation and at the long-term effects on the students of introducing systematic mental training.

“Everyone has a need to feel competent and be responsible for their own actions. We are also dependent on each other and need to feel that we belong,” Hatfield explains.

He believes it is important to create spaces in which we can talk about issues that may be somewhat taboo at an institution such as the NMH.

“At a high-performance institution like this, being good at what you do gives you status, and it’s not always easy to have an open dialogue about weaknesses,” Johannes Hatfield says.

“Practise as much as you can”

Cellist Anina Radotina, now in her fourth year at the NMH, was thrilled to receive the email inviting her to participate in Hatfield’s project.

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“As a music student you’re often told to “practise as much as you can”; that seems to be what it’s all about. But the real question is how to practise,” she explains. Hatfield’s interventional study made her more aware of her own practice process, and she agrees that it is not always easy to openly discuss negatives at the NMH.

“You’re meant to put on this façade to signal that you’re talented, perform concerts and that everything is hunky-dory. But here we’re allowed to talk about all the things we struggle with and that don't go so well. And that was so liberating! It’s probably true that we don't talk about these things much in the canteen. There everyone is usually doing great all of the time!” she laughs.

Clarinettist Espen Nystog Aas, also in his fourth year, greatly appreciates the things he has learnt from Hatfield’s project. Two years on he is still using many of the techniques he learnt on a daily basis.

“One of the most important things I took from it has to do with finding your concentration and the right energy level in the practice room. That can mean either stepping things up a gear or calming down a bit,” he explains.

“In the beginning I thought I’d be learning to remove mental barriers, just go for it and practise a lot. Instead, I discovered that it can often be more important to take breaks every now and then,” he says.

Aas has not given much thought to whether or not it is taboo to discuss your weak points in the canteen or elsewhere.

“It wasn’t exactly therapy, but it was nice to have a space to freely discuss your problems and challenges with someone other than your principal instrument teacher,” Aas says.

Both Aas and Radotina are clear that they would like to see more organised tuition surrounding practice issues.

Will there be changes?

Can we infer from this that something is missing in the system?

“Somewhere in the system we are lacking an organised structure for teaching the students to take a more strategic approach to practice. In comparison, sports students are being followed up on very closely, but music students, too, need that kind of feedback,” Hatfield claims.

So if the need is there and we have the tools, will anything change? Hatfield is not alone in his thinking. Professor Siw Graabræk Nielsen believes that despite their centuries-long traditions, music institutions have a significant learning potential in terms of teaching their students practice and performance techniques.

“Johannes’ project looks at how we can teach the students how to practise so that they can better deal with stress, find their concentration and stay focused,” she concludes.

Students at the academy are currently given an introductory course on practice methods in their first few weeks as well as a course called Performance Preparation aimed at dealing with performance anxiety. Together with Associate Professor Guro Gravem Johansen, Nielsen is working to launch an optional subject this autumn.

“It’s going to be a student-driven development workshop on music practice run by the Centre of Excellence in Music Performance Education (CEMPE) in which the students will be able to choose practice projects that they’d like to work on,” she explains. Despite the shortcomings identified by Hatfield, Nielsen takes the view that the academy is at the forefront when it comes to teaching its students how to practise.

“Teaching the students practice methods is one of three focus areas for CEMPE, and ever since Harald Jørgensen [former principal and renowned music teacher and researcher] published his first studies on music practice, we have been in the vanguard of research into music practice. So we are doing this step by step,” she says.

Virtual Reality and video analysis

So the students following in Aas and Radotina’s footsteps may have reasons to be hopeful. Hatfield continues to conduct research at the academy and will be exploring different creative approaches.

“I’m now starting a new project with the Norwegian Agency for Digital Learning in Higher Education. I’m also continuing my collaboration with the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences with a view to introducing digital tools to make the students more self-aware. The ultimate aim is to create a ‘practice laboratory’ at the academy where we can give both teachers and students more specific feedback on what is the most effective way to practise,” he says.

The project is now in a phase where they are trying out different solutions.

“It can be anything from virtual reality to advanced video analysis tools that allow you to rewind the practice process, look at yourself and gain a more objective picture of what is happening,” explains Hatfield, who has also been working with biomechanists from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences on the project.

It seems that the science of music practice is still in its infancy and that there are fascinating discoveries in the pipeline.

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Last updated: 13. June 2017

New research

Johannes Lunde Hatfield’s doctoral thesis links sports psychology and music practice. His paper is entitled Determinants of motivation and self-regulation in aspiring musicians.

The thesis is available in its entirety in the Brage archive.