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Are You a Scientist?
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Are You a Scientist?

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Are you a scientist? Are you a musician? Or are you both?

Oxford historian Martin Kemp states that many artists "describe their work as experiments—part of a series of efforts designed to explore a common concern or to establish a viewpoint." (1) In the book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin indicates that "artists’ studios and scientists’ laboratories share laboratories share similarities as well, with a large number of projects going at once, in various stages of incompletion." (2)

We may have numerous scores littered about our practice space. Each meticulously marked with notes on how to perform a specific phrase. A scientist may have multiple sets of data and papers, in various states of completion, strewn on her or his desk. And while our work, as Levitin notes, "is ultimately the pursuit of truth," (3) scientists and musicians must, ultimately, solve problems before arriving at the truth.

If we set the pursuit of the truth aside, we often, as do scientists, formulate and test hypotheses. We may not do it knowingly, but we test a particular practice method during the week and anticipate that is will lead to a better performance.

For example, when we practice a particular piece of music and we make a mistake, we may stop and repeat the section where we made our mistake. When we make that decision, we are assuming that our action will lead to a better performance. But, we don't have to rely on an assumption, the hypothesis will be proven when we perform for our instructor or in competition. If we perform well, we have found an anecdotal observation. If we use the same practice regimen for several weeks and consistently perform well, then we may have a correlation.

But, if, when we practice, we stop and repeat a section when we make a mistake and subsequently perform poorly for our instructor or get poor results in competition, we have information that is equally as valuable. If a particular practice regimen does not result in a good performance, we can adjust our regimen. We may, for example, slow the tempo while still repeating sections where we make mistakes. If our performance is still not up to par at our weekly lesson, we may make further adjustments to our regimen. Our hypothesis may be on the right track, but may still be unproven. If we add session or two to our weekly practice routine where we perform the piece in its entirety, pressing on when we make a mistake (just as we would in a regular performance) and we perform well in our lesson, we may be on to something.

If you keep notes during the week, documenting what you did during your practice sessions, you can note what worked an what didn't work. You can prove, or disprove, your hypothesis. Even if you don't keep notes, you do have an idea of what you did during the week. You know that you followed a particular practice routine and you know the result. The value in keeping notes is that you will have valuable data to which you can refer down the road. In addition to keeping notes, document your progress by recording yourself on a weekly basis. A recording provides objective proof of progress, you can immediately, upon review of a recording, note improvements, or failures, and correlate those back to the methods that you used during your practice sessions.

Maintain Objectivity

Scientists rarely wake up and create a scientific advance. Advances in science are the result of years of testing, failed hypotheses, and frustration. We are like scientists in that regard, we may try a particular practice routine and fail miserably. We may go weeks, or months experimenting, continually adjusting our practice regimen, testing alternate hypotheses, and feel as it we are making no progress. It is important to retain a modicum of objectivity throughout the process. Just as the scientist may gather enough data to prove a hypothesis over time, so will we gather enough data to discover a method that will help us, as pipers, improve.

Test, prove or disprove, adjust. The ultimate "pursuit of truth" is based on testing hypothesis until we arrive at proof. Sit in your lab, your practice space, and be the mad scientist that you know you are. The audible result of your performance will let you know if you have proven your hypothesis.

Footnotes

(1) Levitin, Daniel J. (2006-08-03). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (pp. 4-5). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. As Daniel J. Levitin notes in This Is Your Brain on Music, "Artists’ studios and scientists’ laboratories share similarities as well, with a large number of projects going at once." A scientist may have

(2) Levitin, Daniel J. (2006-08-03). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (p. 5). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

(3) Levitin, Daniel J. (2006-08-03). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (p. 5). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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