“Daaaadddy!! Where’s my wallet???”

“I don’t know…where did you put it?” I replied unhelpfully, as I watched my son wander around the apartment muttering “wallet…wallet…wallet” under his breath.

Have you ever found yourself repeating out loud the name of the thing you’re looking for as you search for it?

Some would suggest that it’s simply a way to make sure we don’t forget what it is that we’re looking for as we engage in our search. But others have wondered if verbalizing thoughts – or in this case an object – could actually affect how our brain perceives and processes details of the world around us.

In other words, is there something about saying the word “wallet” out loud that enhances our ability to scan our surroundings and find the wallet quicker?

It does sounds a little farfetched. And you may also be wondering what this could possibly have to do with music. But don’t worry – we’ll get to both in a moment!

Seek and find

A pair of researchers recruited 26 University of Wisconsin students to complete a seek-and-find exercise. Where they had to find a specific item mixed in amongst a screenful of up to 35 other items (e.g. “Find the trumpet” in the picture below).

From Lupyan G., Swingley D. (2011). Self-directed speech affects visual processing. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(6), 1068-1085.

Half the time, the students were asked to simply find the specified item and click on it. But the other half of the time, students were instructed to say the name of the item out loud before searching for it.

This isn’t an especially difficult task of course, since everything is right there in front of you, and it’s not like the trumpet can be hiding inside the pocket of yesterday’s dirty gym shorts. So the students all did pretty well at finding the items, whether they said the names out loud or not.

But that’s not to say that there weren’t differences. Because their performance was definitely improved when they said the item out loud.

Specifically, they made fewer errors. And they were also able to find the target item a tiny bit faster too.

Hmm…so what does this have to do with practicing and performing?

The importance of being able to describe your target

Admittedly, this is a bit of a leap, but the study reminded me of something Leon Fleisher said many years ago.

He was working with a piano trio, and at one point asked them to verbally articulate their musical intention for the passage they were working on. And not just to say that the phrase was “upbeat” or “energetic” but to be much more specific and descriptive.

He explained that it’s easy to think that you know what you want in your head, but if you can’t describe it in words, it’s an indication that you don’t actually have a clear enough idea about what it is that you really want. And how are you supposed to make something happen, if you don’t know exactly what you’re going for?

As Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Indeed, a number of psychologists have thought for some time (going back to William James in the late 1800’s) that words help to crystalize fuzzy, abstract ideas and concepts into working memory, where we can then bring them into focus, look at them, and put them under a magnifying glass. Sort of like how a forensic sketch artist might take a witness’s description of a person, and turn that into a concrete picture that we can see and use in a more tangible way.

How to apply this in the practice room

Whether it’s coming up with a clear concept of sound, identifying exactly where a phrase’s high point is, or deciding whether the concoction you are making for dinner is supposed to be chili or spaghetti sauce, it makes sense that we would be more successful in getting to our intended destination, if we take a moment to clearly articulate (and say out loud) what we want before we go after it.

I was chatting about this last week with violinist Nathan Cole, and he said this reminded him of an intonation-enhancing exercise that he’s found helpful over the years.

In much the way that verbalizing the name of an object made the participants better at finding it, this exercise seems to improve intonation by creating a clear and vivid intonation target in our heads. Because sometimes, the intonation issue may not be so much because of our fingers, but our inner ear.

That probably sounds awfully vague and abstract, so let me turn things over to Nathan, who put together a video to illustrate how we can put this into practice.

More Nathan

For more helpful videos, practice techniques, and other fun stuff (like this ranking of the most difficult violin concerto openings) from Nathan, check out his website and blog Nate’s Violin.

Additional reading/videos

Have you ever heard of the “rubber hand illusion”? Nathan and I thought that this and the Total Recall technique had some conceptual similarities. Check out the short videos below which illustrate this odd phenomenon.

The rubber hand illusion (BBC version)
The rubber hand illusion (Ellen Show version)

How to Find Your Missing Keys and Stop Losing Other Things @NY Times

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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