On Video Games and Neural Pathways

When I started this blog ten (!) years ago I found it considerably easier to write frequently (usually weekly) than I do now. The change is mainly due to my son, who was two then and family life centered around the home, with my wife staying home with him full time. Now he is twelve and has numerous activities that require our time and attention, and Mrs. Everett has long since returned to teaching music herself. Add to that a steadily increasing slate of responsibilities at church, and my ability to sit and write “for fun” has declined precipitously. Nevertheless, I enjoy writing here and intend to continue doing so for the foreseeable future, even if with reduced frequency.

My last post here, almost exactly three months ago, used a video game comparison to illustrate a problem in music teaching, and I’ll be using a related illustration today. Imagine with me, if you will. It is the summer of 1991, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) has just been released. You have just turned twelve years old and you are thrilled that your parents purchased this new system for your birthday. The only small disappointment is that so far the only game you own is the one that came with the system, Super Mario World. While other games will follow, for the time being you are content with this one, and are greatly enjoying the improved graphics and more expansive world building made possible by the more advanced technology of this new system. At twelve, you are not yet quite clever enough to be amused by the trope of having the stages of the game steadily increase in difficulty and complexity, while the main bosses, once reached, are consistently incompetent and easily defeated.

That was my life in the summer of 1991, and it was a pretty good one. I spent way too much time playing Super Mario World and, with a little help from Nintendo Power magazine (there was no Google or YouTube yet, remember?), finished the game before school started. I didn’t realize it then, but I was also establishing neural pathways that would persist years into the future.

Just a few days ago, my son asked if we could purchase a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online. He was interested in playing some of the games from older systems that were available through the online service, and suggested offsetting the cost by canceling another, rarely-used service to which our family had subscribed. This seemed reasonable, so I purchased the subscription. I have also enjoyed revisiting some of the games from my childhood, including Super Mario World. While this is unsurprising, I have been surprised by the extent to which my memories of how to overcome the various challenges of the game have remained mostly intact over thirty years later, as have the instinctive actions needed for effective gameplay. Not that I haven’t had to “dust things off” a little, but I am far from starting from scratch. Even my son is impressed!

Now, what does that have to do with brass playing…or anything important? Only this: repetitive actions establish neural pathways that enable the brain and body to act instinctively and efficiently, and these can persist even after years of disuse. I didn’t have to relearn how to play Super Mario World; I just had to, in a manner of speaking, find those old paths again. Effectiveness in playing a musical instrument depends on this same phenomenon. Daily practice establishes neural pathways that enable music making to take place largely on an instinctive and subconscious level. This frees the player from the burden of consciously thinking about “how to play,” so that the conscious mind can focus more on “how it goes.”

But, there’s a catch. While good habits and correct technique establish neural pathways that facilitate great playing, poor habits and faulty technique establish neural pathways that facilitate poor playing. Habits that are continually reinforced become ingrained, whether good or bad. Have you ever noticed that, even after years of playing and practicing correctly, sometimes an old bad habit that you thought you had long since overcome begins to find its way into your playing again? Somehow, those familiar paths persist, and while poor habits can and must be replaced with good ones, well-established poor habits can easily reassert themselves and must be guarded against.

Playing a musical instrument well is an enormously complex task, and effectiveness requires a mix of instinct and conscious awareness. Training those instincts requires daily and systematic practice in which good playing habits (and thus the neural pathways associated with these) are further ingrained and strengthened. Poor habits, sadly, never fully go away once established; they are only replaced with good habits that must be, again, continually reinforced. The better we train our young students in good habits from the beginning of their playing careers, the greater their likelihood of persisting in those habits in the long term, and avoiding the arduous and continual task of replacing poor habits in the future.

Speaking of Super Mario World, I was just involved in a multitrack recording project that presented one of the themes from the game, arranged for a massive trombone ensemble. It was a fun project and the end result was really great. I hope you enjoy it!

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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