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How Positive Affirmations Changed the Way I Play Piano

Changing our beliefs about our abilities can change our abilities.

Key points

  • Changing how we think about our abilities can lead to changes in our ability.
  • Autosuggestion can be a helpful technique for improving our musical abilities.
  • Excellent sight-readers believe they are competent in sight-reading.
Anastasia Kochlina/Pexels
Source: Anastasia Kochlina/Pexels

I am always eager to talk with excellent sight-readers of music about how they go about sight-reading, how their sight-reading ability was cultivated, and how they teach sight-reading to others. A few general observations have followed from these inquiries, that I would like to share here.

Firstly, I have come to the conclusion that sight-reading (prima vista), is a distinctly different cognitive process than reading music that has been practiced. Secondly, some individuals seem to have a proclivity towards sight-reading, while others do not. Thirdly, there is likely a critical period that is prime to cultivate sight-reading skills. Fourthly, within individual proclivities, sight-reading ability is enhanced with daily practice. Finally, belief in one’s ability in sight-reading seems to affect one’s ability to sight-read.

My curiosities about sight-reading come from a lifelong struggle to become a better sight-reader. Over the years I have had a number of experiences that have shaped my ability to sight-read. The first significant experience came when I studied at The Royal Conservatory of Brussels in Belgium. Part of the curriculum was a class called Prima Vista; sight reading. In this weekly meeting, I sat next to a kind professor who asked me to sight-read, sight-transpose, and read in transcribed clefs (bass, tenor, treble, and alto clefs) by sight. He mentioned upon several occasions that his American students always struggle with prima vista. He encouraged me to relax more and try less.

A second experience came through a personal experience with a certain, uncontrolled, psychedelic mushroom. Under a small dose of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, I was able to read at sight a piano transcription of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod. I recall the experience clearly and it was corroborated by my guide during that experience, who was also a professional pianist. I do not understand completely why or how this experience took place, and I do not know if it is repeatable. It has been documented that heightened focus and concentration occurs with use of this mushroom, which contains a chemical substance called muscimol. I do not suggest or use this method, because the risks involved with ingesting naturally occurring psychedelics are too high for whatever insights might come from using them. I have found that meditation can deliver the same insights, without the risks that come with ingesting chemicals. However, many researchers are investigating the use of psychedelics and perhaps this will become an area of research in someone’s academic lab.

The third experience that has been relevant in understanding sight-reading is interviews with excellent sight-readers. They all have described that the first step in becoming a better sight-reader is to believe in one’s abilities to sight-read. The repeated lesson has been to convince yourself that you are an excellent sight-reader. It is this third experience in belief in one’s abilities that I have spent the past few years exploring with myself and my students.

Historical Context

Within the school of cognitive psychology, attention is paid to self-talk; the inner dialogue that takes place throughout our day. Cognitive psychologists describe the habitual patterns of self-talk that frame how we think about, interpret, react and act in the world. Our self-talk is a sort of cognitive filter through which we experience the world. Cognitive researchers have found that the self-talk of most people, and particularly individuals with neurotic individuals, is overwhelmingly negative. For example, many of us experience an overwhelmingly critical internal dialogue that focuses on flaws, imperfections, and inadequacies about our body, our appearance, and our abilities. Cognitive psychotherapists challenge these ways of thinking, called cognitive distortions, and utilize affirmations to reprogram or create more healthful and positive habits of thinking. The idea is that underlying thoughts influence how we interpret the world. When our interpretation changes to a less negative (negation) or a more positive (affirmation) belief, our reaction will change accordingly.

Although cognitive psychology draws greatly on the Greco-Roman Stoic philosophy, similar teachings are found within Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhism. Within the Eightfold Path, we find teachings of right or useful speech as well as right thought. This is a sort of ethical practice that helps us to live in a way that brings about contentedness and, ultimately, enlightenment; the extinguishing of desire. In both the Hindu and the Taoist traditions we find wisdom. A common expression in these traditions is found in the quote,

"Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes destiny."

Within the cognitive psychology tradition, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) offers a similar teaching referred to as the ABC model. In this model, A is the activating event, B is the belief, and C is the consequence for a given belief. The idea is that if we challenge and change a distorted belief into a more accurate or positive belief, we will change our experience of the world, and how we react to it. The message is: change your thoughts to change your reality. As William James illustrated in his 1890 text on the principles of psychology, habits of thinking shape our experience of the world.

Positive affirmations are a common practice in the cognitive, humanistic, Buddhist, and positive psychology traditions. The effort is to counter and change habitual negative self-talk into positive or more useful self-talk.

The Method

I began using a morning meditation in which I repeated the affirmation, “I sight-read with ease, accuracy, and control.” I repeated this affirmation for ten minutes each morning, before my daily practice. I then spent an hour each day sight-reading easy music from beginner piano books. During my daily hour of sight-reading, I intermittently take breaks to meditate on the affirmation. With students, I ask them to repeat the affirmation each morning twenty times. This comes from the instructions on affirmations given by Emile Coué in his classic text, Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion.

In addition to autosuggestion, I have also experimented with using hypnosis to assist students in enhancing their sight-reading abilities. This is a topic that will be described in more detail in a future essay. Briefly, using the technique of “magnetic water” has been very useful with young students. This is a technique described by Anton Mesmer in the eighteenth century. I have simply suggested to a student that a glass of water has been “magnetized,” sometimes holding magnets to the glass of water for a few moments, and then telling them that the water will have a calming effect which increases their ability to focus and concentrate when sight-reading. The technique has shown remarkable short-term effects in the student’s ability to focus and concentrate on the task at hand. As described by Coué, all hypnotism is autosuggestion, and this change in ability is attributed to a change in belief about one’s abilities at the task. The effect is a phenomenon of belief; a placebo. The idea here is identical to the use of self-affirmations; changing the way we think and what we believe can change how we behave.