Adopting a positive mindset helps to prime you for learning, writes musician and performance psychology expert Christine Carter


The following is an extract from a larger feature on Practice Techniques in The Strad's December 2012 issue. Click here to subscribe and login. Alternatively, download on desktop computer or through The Strad App.


Before we even touch our instruments, our mindset affects how much we are going to learn in the ensuing practice session. We often think that we will be happy once we accomplish a given task. However, research in the burgeoning field of positive psychology is showing the opposite order of events: happiness seems to be an important precursor to success. In his 2010 book The Happiness Advantage, psychologist Shawn Achor explains:

'Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centres of our brains to higher levels. They help us organise new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.'

He cites some tangible examples of the power of this effect:

'Doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 per cent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 per cent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers.'

Given the significance of this research, it is important to address how we are feeling before we enter the practice room. The various stressors associated with being a performer – perfectionism, deadlines and competition to name a few – can easily put a damper on mood. And if we take this less-than-ideal state of mind for granted, we are hampering our learning without even realising it. It is easy to skip over this step. We certainly have enough to do in our busy lives. But taking a few moments to enter a positive headspace before practising will deliver rewards far greater than the minute time investment.


This article was published as part of a larger feature on Practice Techniques in The Strad's December 2012 issue. Click here to subscribe and login. Alternatively, download on desktop computer or through The Strad App.