By Dave Belcher
Have you ever been driving in your car or walking down the street and you realized you couldn’t remember what happened over the last minute or two because you were so lost in thought? And yet you didn’t crash your car, you didn’t run into your neighbors on the street . . . instead, habit took over. The same thing happens with so many other daily activities, like opening a door, or walking, or breathing: we don’t have to think about doing these things; we just do them. (And in some cases trying to focus on how we’re performing the actions, like breathing, can be difficult to do consciously. We’ll get to that below.) That doesn’t mean, however, that our brains aren’t processing the information needed to do those actions, only that we’re not conscious of that process. It’s like we’re on autopilot.
The longer we do certain actions over and over and on a regular basis, our brains begin to create powerful neural pathways that transmit information about those actions across nerve cells until, eventually, the repeated actions become automatic. This is the process for how habits are formed. What is happening in this process is that our brains essentially create shortcuts for the data associated with that particular action so that we come to remember almost unconsciously (passively) that for certain triggers if we do certain actions there are certain (perceived) rewards. Both good and bad habits are formed in this same way. What that means is: when you see that bag of chips (or crisps if you’re in the UK) your brain sends information about how it feels to indulge in the crispy, salty goodness of eating that chip. The same works for healthy habits as well, and your brain will just as much remind you (unconsciously!) of the rewards of eating the broccoli and carrots if that’s the habit you’ve built up. And this is the same process at work when we’re learning music as well.
Habits in Learning Music
When we first begin learning a musical instrument we’re developing specific skills that our brains either have never learned before or have learned in different ways. Some of this involves developing specific muscles to perform that task or skill. For instance, when we play the guitar we’re using muscles and tendons and ligaments in the hands (and associated muscles in the arms, shoulders, back, etc.) that we don’t use all that often in our everyday activities and so it’s necessary to build up those muscles so that they have the proteins and strength necessary to move efficiently. And for this reason you may have heard the phrase “muscle memory” when discussing habits in learning music or in developing skills in other areas, like playing sports. However, I’m avoiding that term here as really the process of “muscle memory” has less to do with the muscles and much more to do with the process in the brain we just talked about. Your muscles are certainly involved, as what is happening is that the nerve endings in your muscles, joints, tips of fingers, etc., send information to your cerebellum where information is both stored and converted into neural pathways, which in turn send information back to your muscles, tips, joints to perform the action stored in that neural pathway. (In truth this whole thing is quite complex and also usually involves visual stimulation and feedback, white matter connecting brain stems, gray matter, and, from more recent research, striatal fast-spiking interneurons, which are the master controller cell of habit forming, etc., but the point is we shouldn’t think so much about “muscles” here.)
To create new habits in our musical practice (as much as in the way we eat or all kinds of other aspects of our lives) we have to create new neural pathways, redirecting that neural data to a different destination. Unlearning bad habits and replacing them with new, better ones utilizes the same process. Luckily our brains are wonderful organs and they are changing all the time, but it will still take both time and indeed a bit of “rewiring,” if you will. So how do we break longstanding and deeply entrenched bad habits and replace them with good habits?
Breaking Bad Habits
One way neurologists have discovered bad habits can be broken and replaced with good habits is through the process of what is called mindfulness. Essentially mindfulness is a process whereby we repeat a bad habit consciously and reflect on our experience of the action and how it makes us feel (a process we usually don’t engage in as we are performing the action unconsciously). Repeating the habit consciously and reflecting on how we feel when we do it then gives our brains the opportunity to replace it with a good habit, to create a new neural pathway.
And actually there is precedent for this practice of mindfulness in the classical guitar technique literature. Uruguayan guitarist Eduardo Fernandez in his technical book, Technique, Mechanism, Learning: An Investigation into Becoming a Guitarist (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 2001), talks about using what he calls “negative learning” to replace bad habits with good ones:
Negative learning is a very efficient means of focusing-in on an undesired reflex we wish to replace with a more efficient one. In this case, the usual movement is carried out, noting carefully the neuromotor feeling accompanying it. Brought thus into kinaesthetic perception, this reflex can simply be substituted, by immediately carrying out the desired movement through summoning up a new neuromotor feeling. (12)
Whether we use the term “mindfulness,” “negative learning,” or something else, the process is the same: we must first bring the bad habit to consciousness, to become very aware of it and how it feels, before we can begin to replace it with a better habit. Nonetheless, this is not exactly a simple process. I mentioned above that sometimes focusing our conscious attention on a longstanding habit, like breathing, can make it very difficult to control. Has your teacher ever asked you to play a section of music you have memorized and you simply couldn’t figure out how to play from the spot you’ve been asked to start and instead you had to start back from the beginning of a section or even the beginning of the whole piece, essentially so your “muscle memory” (=habit) could take over? Just like trying to focus and control our breathing, bringing an old habit to consciousness is not quite as easy as it sounds.
This is why it is so important to practice with attention and awareness. We must be very perceptive of what we’re doing while we’re practicing or the tendency to “go on autopilot” will take over and, worse, we won’t even realize it’s happening. What this autopilot tendency does is deepen and strengthen that habit’s neural pathway, which can make the process of “unlearning” it more difficult. We have to clear our minds so we can focus (and, speaking of breathing, controlling your breathing, especially the practice of diaphragmatic breathing, can be an excellent way to clear your mind and gain focus). Whatever practice you use to help you focus more, it is essential to this process of bringing habits to consciousness that you’re able to be very attentive to your fine motor movements and how you feel when performing those actions with awareness. (For more on how to gain and maintain focus, I encourage you to listen to Simon’s podcast interview with Dr. Noa Kageyama from The Bulletproof Musician.)
Finally, we must then take the next step and replace the old, bad habit with a better one. Because the process of building up a habit requires repeated action over a period of time, this will not be an instant fix; you must be patient with the process. The key here is to go slowly so you can focus on making the new action accurately so that you are making quality repetitions (you have likely heard both Simon and me use that phrase many times before!). What we don’t want is to end up replacing the bad habit with another bad habit. So be very diligent to make quality repetitions: again, you must do this with awareness, attention, focus.
Bad habits are deeply entrenched and in some sense physically etched into our brains and our skill memory systems. But our brains are quite remarkable and we can indeed break bad habits and replace them with good habits. Being more aware in every respect during our practice, including being deliberately conscious of our bad habits, is really the key and will go along way to building up better habits and leaving those old, bad habits to one side.
And here’s a great reminder for those working on rehabilitating techniques (breaking deeply entrenched “bad” habits) or even building up techniques from scratch: the great Julian Bream was 39 years old when he completely rehabilitated his left-hand technique, more than twenty years into his career.
Judson Brewer, The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smart Phones to Love–Why We Get Hooked & How We Can Break Bad Habits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
Eduardo Fernandez, Technique, Mechanism, Learning: An Investigation into Becoming a Guitarist (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 2001).
Ainslie Johnstone, “The Amazing Phenomenon of Muscle Memory: The Changes in the Brain That Allow You to Learn New Skills,” Medium (Oxford University), December 14, 2017.
Kara Manke, “One Powerful Cell Makes or Breaks Your Habits,” DukeToday, September 6, 2017 (https://today.duke.edu/2017/09/one-powerful-cell-makes-or-breaks-your-habits).