Developing Cognitive Flexibility for Success in the Music World and Beyond

 By Hans Jørgen Jensen


One thing that we can be sure of is the fact that nothing stays the same. Change is the default state of nature and to succeed in life, we must develop the important ability to be mentally flexible and adaptable to whatever life throws our way. 

I have taught many cello lessons over the years in which students complained about their instruments and blamed musical issues on them. I even remember a situation in my own life when I as a young cello student complained bitterly to my father (perhaps for the 100th time) about my cello rattling. My father’s answer: “Try to shake your head and I am quite sure you will hear it rattle there!” Of course, my father knew that the cello rattled but he wanted to teach me that no matter what is wrong, it is up to us as performers to adjust to whatever circumstance and make the best of it.

The answer from my father at that specific moment in my life had a profound influence on me and from that moment, I never again blamed any faults on my cello. 90% of the time, an unpleasant instrument noise such as an extra rattling sound is a temporary problem that will usually disappear the next day; most of the time it is not even audible to the audience in the hall.

Over the years I have told that story numerous times to my students to instill in them the belief that they can adjust to anything, whether in the practice room or on stage. It can be very frustrating to deal with an instrument that suddenly feels and sounds totally different from how it used to. A performer that travels to a warm, humid place to play a concert must quickly adapt to fluctuations in instrument response, bow hair tension, and general instrument malaise. No matter what situation we or our instruments find ourselves in, we must adjust and be flexible to make the most of the new setting and circumstances. To get the sound to more closely match what it used to be, most performers will experiment with using a faster bow stroke or playing closer to the bridge, etc. I often tell my students to forget about how the cello used to be and start searching for new sounds and new possibilities. I always say: “Nothing is ever the same, so learn to adapt and adjust!”

Opening the mind to a new situation can add a level of novelty and excitement; with a high level of adaptability, the situation can suddenly become different in a new positive way. Developing the ability to change and see things in a new perspective is an incredibly useful skill to have in your musical career and beyond.

Cognitive Flexibility

The ability to switch between thinking about different topics at the same time, being able to consider multiple aspects of the same situation and for musicians, to be able to use highly effective practice methods, is called cognitive flexibility. People with cognitive flexibility can learn things quickly, solve problems in creative ways, and adapt and adjust to new situations in very direct and constructive ways. When practicing cognitive flexibility, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and come up with new inventions plays an important role in fostering creativity. Being able to turn what at first seems like a setback—such as losing a competition or an audition—into a positive thing by changing your perception of the event is also a powerful tool for growing and learning new things.

Use cognitive flexibility to manage your stress


While stress can manifest as either a positive or negative force in our lives, both forms of stress result in our body releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that trigger common signs of stress: butterflies in the stomach, racing heart and sweaty palms. Ultimately, what distinguishes good stress from bad is how we react to it and deal with it. Good stress when used the right way helps us meet our deadlines and gives us extra energy to meet our goals. Feeling a bit of stress when thinking about an upcoming performance or competition can help us if we use it as an inspiration for going to the practice room and practicing well to help prepare for the competition. Good stress is also what we feel when we are really excited about something like going on a first date, going on a roller coaster, or the kind of nervousness we feel before an exam or concert. That kind of stress helps us be inspired and motivated and ultimately focuses our energy towards delivering a great performance.

Bad stress can be harmful to our health and have a lot of negative effects such as feelings of anxiety and concerns about performing, making us avoid things that are difficult. It can decrease the quality of our performances. “Bad stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress doesn’t take a heavy toll on your body if you can find ways to relax quickly. However, chronic stress, when you repeatedly face stressors, can take a heavy toll on your body, and can cause negative health effects. Chronic stress can cause headaches, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety, pain, and high blood pressure.[1]” It should be avoided at all costs and for that reason, developing and using your ability to use cognitive flexibility is the key to turning negative stress into positive stress.

A very interesting research study indicates that acute stress is good for you. Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley and post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby have uncovered exactly how acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance. In studies on rats, they found that significant but brief stressful events caused stem cells in the rats’ brains to proliferate into new nerve cells which, when they matured two weeks later, improved the rats' mental performance. "I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert," Daniela Kaufer, said.

Cognitive flexibility plays an important role in many activities  

There are numerous situations that happen in a musician’s daily life in which having a flexible mindset will make the difference between finding the best solution to a problem or finding the smartest way to influence one’s own behavior towards something that will make you stronger and better. Self-control is one of the most important aspects behind practicing. Supporting the important ability of self-control is willpower. A recent research study showed that if people believe that they have limited willpower it will often inhibit them from being as successful in accomplishing things as people who believe that they have unlimited resources. The study additionally showed that people who believe in their own unlimited amount of willpower had much better self-regulation, better time management, and much less procrastination than students who thought that they had limited willpower. It is therefore important to realize that the more we push ourselves towards believing in our own willpower, the better we can self-regulate our actions and achieve our goals.

Andrew J. Martin of the University of New South Wales has identified three important aspects about cognitive flexibility to keep in mind:

  • Adjust your thoughts and thinking in response to change
  • Manage positive and negative emotional responses to change
  • Alter your behavior in response to change

Keeping these three things in mind as you go through your daily musical work can serve as a great inspiration toward keeping your mind and reactions to things very open, fluid, and flexible. Happy cognitive flexibility and happy practicing!