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Music and the Brain: Christine Carter on the psychology of practice

In 1999, the National Arts Centre’s Music Director Pinchas Zukerman founded the Summer Music Institute with just 10 students. Today, the Institute welcomes over 70 students each year and has become a magnet for the best young Canadian and international classical artists, providing world-class instruction for especially gifted young musicians. SMI alumni have established international careers in music performance, teaching and research.

Clarinetist Christine Carter (alumna, 2006) is in-demand these days as a performer and performance psychology coach. We’re thrilled that she made time in her busy schedule to tell us about the fascinating path her career has taken and her thoughts on practicing, performing and teaching.

Allyson Rogers (SMI Administator): You’ve been very successful as a performer. How did you become involved with research in music cognition and psychology? Can you tell us about the path you’ve taken?

Christine Carter: My interests in music and psychology initially started out on two separate paths.  I knew I wanted to pursue music, but I was also fascinated by the brain. I started taking various psychology courses while doing my undergraduate degree at Western [University of Western Ontario], including one taught by the neuroscientist, Dr. Jody Culham. I couldn’t get enough of the material and eventually ended up working as a research assistant in her Neuroimaging of Action and Perception Lab. While not related to music, the research gave me a window into another field that I felt had much to offer to musicians. When I continued my education at McGill University, I was finally able to bridge the two interests. I joined Dr. Caroline Palmer’s Sequence Production Lab and continued music psychology research with Dr. Jessica Grahn at Western’s Brain and Mind Institute while working on my Doctor of Musical Arts.

AR: As a high-level performer, I imagine you bring a unique perspective and skill set to the academic milieu in which you are working. How does your performance background inform your research? What can trained performers bring to these discussions?

CC: Working with scientists has forced me to be more objective, addressing potential variables and empirically testing hypotheses. As a musician, however, my interest in readily applicable practice techniques guides the research along a more ecologically valid path. It is important to ask questions whose answers may benefit musicians. In order for this to be the case, the research tasks must resemble what musicians have to do in their daily lives. I have been very lucky to work with researchers who value a musician’s perspective and musicians who value the research.

AR: Your research supports “random practice schedules” as opposed to “blocked practice schedules.”  Were you surprised by this or did it confirm something you knew intuitively?

CC: I had a sort of “aha” moment when I first encountered the idea of random practice schedules.  While switching back and forth between different materials seems like a counterintuitive approach, the technique answered a lot of questions for me. Like many musicians, I had experienced the boredom of playing the same material for an extended period of time, and this offered a fresh alternative. Instead of berating ourselves for not paying attention, we can structure practice so that we must pay attention. Now that I have been practicing this way for years, it seems ever more intuitive. It more closely resembles the way children naturally learn, rotating through different tasks rather than deciding to practice one task for an hour. Interestingly, it has also made me look at the structure of music in a new light. It is common in most classical musical forms to present material, leave that material, and then bring it back, as in a sonata or rondo form. Perhaps composers instinctively knew that this would ensure their listeners remember their tunes!  

AR: Has your research on practice techniques changed your approach to teaching?

CC: Absolutely. I consider my research, teaching, and performance all different sides of the same triangle. If certain techniques from the research are effective, they inform the way I practice and the way I teach my students to practice. My students all know the drill; if they are struggling with a particular passage, we use a couple of different practice strategies to tackle the challenge and then move on, coming back to this passage later in the lesson. Technical exercises, theory, and ear training are also slotted into the lesson rather than strictly reserved for the beginning and end. The more I vary the lesson, the more they are mentally engaged, and ultimately this is what leads to long-term retention.

AR: What was the value of the Summer Music Institute to you?

I was inspired on a daily basis by the musicianship of my colleagues and had unparalleled access to the finest coaches around. The principal winds of the National Arts Centre Orchestra set an example of meticulous preparation and musical understanding, but also of humility and kindness. We could not have had better mentors. In fact, I was so influenced by these musicians that I worked with the Distance Learning Department at MSM this year to have all of them present guest masterclasses from the NAC's Hexagon Studio. I am about to leave for the sound check for Kimball Sykes’s class now! Through this program, we also tangibly felt the support of the community in Ottawa. It was so meaningful to meet and interact with the wonderful people who facilitated this program.    

AR: What’s next? Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?

CC: I am currently building a performance psychology course curriculum for musicians, growing out of the various workshops I have been giving. I wish I had had earlier access to the techniques I now use, so I am enthusiastic about the prospect of sharing these with a broader base of students. As a performer, I have been working on a number of chamber music projects with Bulgarian pianist, Anna Petrova, including a set of trio collaborations with another alumna of the Young Artist Program, violist Molly Carr. Following performances in New York City, the three of us will be premiering a new work for this instrumentation at the Mozartfest in Würzburg Germany this coming June. Right before we head to Würzburg, Anna and I will also be in residence at the Málaga Clásica chamber music festival in Spain. With all of this traveling, I will cross my fingers that a project brings me back to Ottawa in the near future!

Allyson Rogers