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Sensory Deprivation Boosts Musicians’ Skill Level

• May 16, 2011 • 11:43 AM

Canadian researchers report floating in an isolation tank increased the technical skill level of young jazz players.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Everybody knows the standard answer. But newly published research suggests that, after you’ve labored all day in the practice room, you might want to spend an hour in a flotation tank.

Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto and Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia report floating in an Epsom salt solution one hour per week for four weeks boosted the technical ability of a group of college music students. This suggests such periods of minimal sensory stimulation can improve performers’ perceptual-motor coordination.

Don’t start filling up the bathtub, however: This experiment, described in the journal Music and Medicine, featured a level of sensory deprivation achievable only in a specially designed tank. The device was invented in the 1950s by neuroscientist John Lilly; in the years since, its use has been linked to improved sports performance and heightened levels of creativity.

But would it work for budding be-boppers? To answer that question, the researchers conducted an experiment using 13 students enrolled in an intermediate-level jazz improvisation course at Vancouver Community College.

Eight of the students — six men and two women — engaged in flotation sessions for four consecutive weeks. They spent an hour each week in a fiberglass shell, floating in a solution of Epsom salts and skin-temperature water. They were in the dark, and outside sounds were muffled.

All the participants — including the other five musicians who comprise the comparison group — made two five-minute-long recordings in which they freely improvised. The first took place one week before the flotation sessions began; the second, one week after the sessions concluded. Each session was rated by the instructor (who was unaware which students were undergoing the treatments) on five dimensions: improvisation, creativity, expressiveness, technical ability and overall quality.

The researchers found “a significant difference between the treatment and comparison groups on technical ability, but not on any other dimension,” the researchers write. Thanks to this enhanced skill level, those who had floated “had significantly higher grades in the jazz improvisation class than the comparison group.”

Vartanian and Suedfeld concede this was a small sample. But they note that, based on their initial recordings, the instructor rated the treatment and comparison groups essentially equal on all five dimensions. Since “The two groups can be considered equivalent in terms of motivation and baseline ability,” the difference in their ability was very likely the result of the flotation sessions.

So why didn’t the treatment group’s creativity scores also rise? The researchers suspect this reflects the one-week lag time between the final flotation session and the second recording.

That was purposeful on their part: They wanted to gauge long-lasting rather than immediate effects. (Previous research found increased creativity in university students after floating sessions measured their abilities immediately after they left the tank and dried off.)

Of course, for a musician, technical expertise can inspire increased creativity, as it gives one the confidence to take risks. So perhaps this boost in skill will lead to higher levels of originality in the long run.

In any event, the results suggest this technique holds considerable promise for musicians in general and jazz artists in particular. As Vartanian and Suedfeld note, flotation isolation “has been shown to induce a state of relaxed alertness, concentration and reduced stress.”

Which is exactly where you want to be when the bandleader gives his cue.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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