Music is very much a mental activity. Of course there is a physical side, but it should be primarily lead by our mind in our pursuit of excellence. Performances and practice tend to be the least effective when the performer, or student, turns off their brain and plays by muscle memory. Our goals as musicians and teachers should be to play our music mindfully and teach our students to do that as well. One important ability that is too often under utilized is mental practice. Practicing music in our heads alone. No sound is made. No note sung. No key pressed.
Walter Gieseking, a great 20th century pianist and teacher, was said to use mental practice possibly even more than practice in front of a piano. In his book The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection, it is said that “[Gieseking] does not impress [his repertoire] upon his memory by playing them over on the piano, but by visualizing them through silent reading.” (p. 11). He supposedly learned an entire piano concerto on a single plane flight. If the musical giant Gieseking used the technique we should look into it more.
Studies in Mental Practice
Our minds and our bodies are interconnected. Studies show that what we do mentally can have a profound affect on our bodies. In a study done in 2014 researches wrapped the wrists of two groups of people in a wrist-cast, making their wrists immobile for 4 weeks. One group was instructed to sit and imagine performing wrist exercises 5 times/week. They would perform 52 imagined exercises while sitting down in a quiet room. The other group was given no instruction at all.
At the end of the 4 weeks, when the cast was removed, the group that sat and imagined exercises had wrists that were two times stronger than the group that did not.
In a similar study scientists used three groups of people to test their hypothesis that imagining exercising physical muscles can lead to strength gains. The study was done over the course of two weeks. The control group were told not to do any special exercises. The second group had very well defined instruction in exercises they were to do for one muscle three times a week. The third group got audio cds walking them through the exercises, but they were not allowed to do them physically. They had to sit and imagine doing them instead.
Not surprisingly the group that did no exercises saw no increases in strength. The group that physically did the exercises saw an increase in strength by 28%. But most surprisingly of all, the group that just imagined doing the exercises saw an increase of strength of 24%! That’s almost the same as the group that actually did the exercises.
What does this all mean? It’s been tested time and time again. Our brains cannot differentiate between physical movements and mental thoughts. The applications for these studies go well beyond exercising and even our topic here, music practice. Studies show that students who just think they can succeed, do much better than students who don’t.
Now that you know about the effectiveness of mental practice, we need to focus in on it’s benefits in addition to our physical practice.
Why Mental Practice
There are a few major reasons why mental practice is so important, but yet so overlooked.
You Can Practice Whenever, Wherever
We don’t always have our instruments with us (unless you’re a singer of course), but even then you don’t want to start practicing your next aria on a flight. With mental practice you can practice anywhere. You don’t need your instrument, just your mind. Hopefully you take that everywhere.
As a piano teacher this is especially important. We can’t take our pianos anywhere. I have a student that recently went on a trip for a couple of weeks, and we knew he would not have access to a piano. Being the serious student that he is, he brought a new piece he had wanted to start. I encouraged him to do thoughtful mental practice.
At our next lesson two weeks later, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it seemed he had practiced quite a bit. It was only the second or third time he had tried physically playing through the piece when he played for me at our lesson. The piece was memorized, and honestly I think he got more done in those two weeks without a piano than he normally did in two weeks with a piano. He now regularly incorporates mental practice in his practice routine.
It Forces You To Focus
The worst kind of practice is when we don’t pay attention. We practice passages mindlessly over and over again. I honestly think this type of practice often does more harm than good. Correct practice requires intense focus on correcting movements, musicality, and technique. This kind of focus is hard to replicate day after day, even for an experienced musician. Practicing is just hard work.
Muscle memory, although almost a requirement for effortless playing, is the ability to play a piece of music without thinking. Sounds like a good thing to develop, and it is. The problem comes when this is the only type of “memory” that we develop. It can lead to sloppy playing and memory slips. Muscle memory will come naturally and doesn’t have to be practiced. What we need more of is mindful practice.
When you practice only mentally, by definition you need to be focused. You can’t let your fingers just run across the keys without a second thought. Now this isn’t to say mental practice is simple. Focus is still needed and you can easily start thinking about something else, and start wasting time.
But with consistent mental practice you’ll find your focus increasing in physical practice as well. You won’t be depending on muscle memory anymore. Your pieces will be better memorized as a result.
You Don’t Need to Make Mistakes
If it’s in your head why mess up? Just don’t. If you’re mental practice is going to be as effective as possible you should be very vivid about the images and sounds you’re hearing. At first it may not be an accurate depiction of reality, but as you continue you’ll notice perhaps at a slow tempo you can reproduce in your head what you want the music to actually sound like. And you don’t have to make mistakes.
The common saying is “Practice makes Perfect.” But it is absolutely not true. Practice makes permanent. If you are constantly making the same mistakes over and over, those mistakes are what you are practicing. Those mistakes are what you will play. While playing music mentally you can avoid making those mistakes over and over again. When you finally approach your instrument you would not have practice mistakes over and over. To be clear, no one should be practicing mistakes. Avoiding mistakes is perhaps a topic for another blog post though.
It May Help with Pitch Recognition
We can hear music in our minds. Anyone who has had their favorite pop song repeat ad nauseam in their heads can attest to this. When Beethoven went completely deaf he still wrote music. Some would argue his best, most influential music, was written after he went completely deaf. How did he do it? He heard the music in his head.
Some musicians argue that by attempting to hear the correct pitches in our heads during mental practice, we are training our ears to understand the relationship between pitches. This skill invaluable and often underutilized.
Mental Practice – How To
We know that mental practice works, but the question is now, how do we actually do it effectively?
Be as Vivid as Possible
It’s not good enough to just casually think through your piece. You need to work to hear the sounds in your head. You need to see your fingers playing the notes. Are you sitting or standing? How are you holding your instrument? If it’s a wind instrument what is your embouchure like? You should even put yourself in a location to make your mental practice even more vivid. The best place to practice is the venue of your next performance. What if you could practice there all day and all night? Would that be helpful? You can, and should do this with mental practice.
If you’re a pianist, are you playing on a nice piano? Are the acoustics good? Now you need to actually practice.
Practice Exactly Like You Normally Do
This is where most musicians fail. Mental practice, if used at all, is often used to practice performing. Performing and practicing are two very different things. You need to be willing to work through that difficult passage using mental practice. Repeat it over and over. Play it slow. Play it fast. Play it in rhythms. Do whatever you would normally do in a practice session. Then don’t forget to repeat! Mental practice should take just as long as if you were using your instrument.
This is real time practice. Imagine what your body is doing, your technique, and pay close attention to the sounds you’re creating. Don’t worry if at first it’s difficult to be this specific. Like any skill it will take time to develop.
Once you can play through the entire piece, you should practice performing it mentally. You should be able to play through the entire piece in your head, from beginning to end. You should be able to hear every note, and see every movement you make vividly. If you can’t do this, it’s because your piece is not memorized well enough. You’ll need to go back, even if just mentally and memorize the piece correctly..
My challenge to you is to just do it. Do it for your full week of practicing. Don’t touch your instrument. Try practicing something brand new. This way you will really see what results are waiting for you. Don’t forget though that mental practice is a skill like any other. As a new skill you can’t expect to get the full benefit of it right away. Give it a week, see how much you improve, then keep it up for the long term. Your improvement will continue to increase until mental practice becomes an invaluable tool in your toolbox.
I would love to hear your experience with mental practice in the comments. Let us know what has helped you and the results you got!