Taubman Piano Festival
Friday-Sunday, June 23-25
Cali School of Music

“Neuroscience and Piano
Dr. Lois Svard
Friday, June 23, 1-2:15 p.m., G-55
Montclair State University
1 Normal Ave.


Information: Artistic Director
David Witten,
wittend@montclair.edu or 973-652-4217


If you love music, you’re probably right-brained. Scientists, with their love of facts and figures, are left-brained.

Except not.

Lois Svard, who will speak on “Neuroscience and Piano Performance” at the Dorothy Taubman Festival at Montclair State University on June 23, says that though popular culture books used to break down creativity that way, when she began looking into it, reading articles by neuroscientists, she learned that music is actually processed throughout the brain.

And the notion that the brain is really only plastic, or flexible, as a small child? Not true either.

“We continue to change through life in response to learning, experience or injury,” Svard says. “We can constantly rewire the brain.”

Svard explores neuroscience and music in a blog she writes titled “The Musician’s Brain.” She has received an NEA Award for Arts Commentary and Perspectives on the Arts.

The Taubman Festival, in which Svard is participating for the first time, honors the late Dorothy Taubman (1917-2013), a piano pedagogue who stressed playing without pain. The festival includes master classes, demonstrations and free evening recitals on Friday and Saturday.

Pianist Sondra Tammam will speak on “Level 2 Octaves with Speed and No Fatigue,” and Jacqueline Herbein will lead interactive sessions on relaxing and “Building Dynamic Alignment at the Piano.”

David Witten, head of the piano program at MSU, will give a lecture on “physical concepts at the keyboard and single rotation.”
Witten said in an email that the idea to bring in Svard came from Marilyn Somville, formerly dean of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, who pointed out that neuroscience and neuroplasticity are becoming important components for musicians.

Svard has spent most of her life as a performing pianist, performing new American music. It was at Bucknell University, where she taught from 1984 to 2011, that she became interested in the creative process, and designed an interdisciplinary program for seniors about it.
She took some undergraduate neuroscience courses at the school. The jargon was challenging, she said, but “it’s like learning a different language.

“Neuroscientists say that making music is the most complex cognitive activity a human engages in, using sensory, auditory, motor, and all kinds of cognitive skills. Lots of areas of the brain are involved.”

Though scientists have been studying the subject for at least 30 years, the information hasn’t been reaching musicians, because scientists publish in scientific journals and go to scientific conferences, Svard said, adding that there are many applications of the study.

For example, the way we practice an instrument can be tweaked. “Simply repeating something over and over again does not encourage strong plasticity in the brain.

“Research has found repetition, whether with languages or motor skills like playing the piano, is the least efficient way to practice. You’re using short-term memory. You want to get something to move into long-term memory in the brain, and you have to use different strategies to do that.

“For example, if you’re learning a piece of music, practice a little bit of one section, then switch to another section. You constantly force the brain to work to try to remember. When doing that, you’re encouraging the formation of the neural circuits that have to do with that piece of music.”

Of course, you still have to repeat a lot, Svard said, but many students, particularly young ones, merely repeat a piece from beginning to end over and over.

“You have to be able to start in lots of different places in a piece of music. Musicians often refer to those as landmarks.”

Dorothy Taubman, with Rose Cali. Courtesy David Witten.
Dorothy Taubman, with Rose Cali. Courtesy David Witten.

Connecting to the Taubman approach, Svard pointed out that musicians don’t just wire a piece of music into their brains, but their movement as well, and how they physically approach their instruments.

“We can wire in injuries. So if we routinely practice with a lot of stress, or not a very healthy approach to the instrument, then that gets wired in.” Neural pathways in the brain reinforce those unhealthy ways of playing, she said.

“You can change that wiring in your brain. If you’ve learned the wrong notes or rhythms you can change the wiring and correct that.”
Though Svard doesn’t have a degree in neuroscience, she pointed out that neuroscientists who study music usually don’t have a degree in music.

Combining neuroscience and music is a trend, she said, with more and more music students interested in neuroscience and more neuroscientists looking at the music connection.

Scientists have learned that human beings are hard-wired for music just as they are for language, Svard said. “It’s a very natural human instinct to be involved with music, to listen, sing, move to music.

“Musicians talk about anatomy, how we use our fingers, our arms, our muscles, to create a beautiful sound. We talk about relaxation and tension. We don’t talk about the brain. The brain controls our muscles. It sorts through all the information that enters the brain through all our senses.

“The brain is really where practicing happens.”