Monthly Archives: February 2016

Mental Practicing Questions and Answers, Part 1

As I said at the end of my last post, mental practicing (along with the nature of memory and the importance of separate hands) is the final component of my approach to learning and maintaining music. I thought I would discuss mental practicing in a question and answer format. Some of the questions will simply expand on some of the points I mentioned in my very first blog post, while other questions actually came up through my teaching of mental practicing over the last year.

What is mental practicing?

  • Mental practicing (practicing in the mind) is used extensively by athletes, musicians, and many other professionals. While mental practicing cannot completely replace physical practicing, I believe that mental and physical practicing together produce results far greater than physical practice alone.
  • With regard to the piano, I quote from my original blog post:

    Even beginners at the piano can probably picture the piano keyboard to some extent (and if you can’t, you can “cheat” by first looking at the piano keyboard or at an image of one). Let us say, for instance, that you play “C, D, E” on the piano. If you close your eyes or look away from the keyboard and imagine that you play those same notes, ask yourself: “Do I SEE myself playing those notes, HEAR the notes in my mind, and FEEL the sensation in my fingertips?” This is mental practicing!

  • In other words, mental practicing of the piano is the ability to imagine yourself playing the piano – the sight, the sound, and the touch.

Am I supposed to picture the sheet music or the piano keyboard?

  • It is fantastic to picture the sheet music as well, but here I am talking about the picturing of the keyboard itself (“keyboard memory”). We ultimately must translate the markings from the sheet music onto the keyboard, so the direct imagining of the keyboard is more efficient.
  • Of course, it is ideal to still remember every single marking from the original sheet music if possible. But remembering the “translation” and interpretation of each marking into the physical act of playing is, for me, far easier.

What exactly is it that I’m supposed to imagine visually?

  • I once had a student who could imagine the entire piano keyboard in front of her all at once – all the octaves simultaneously, just as if she was sitting in front of the piano! Unfortunately, I do not possess this ability, and I haven’t met another person who was able to accomplish this feat.
  • I feel that our mental sense of sight is absolutely tied to our mental sense of touch. After all, playing the piano with eyes closed in most instances is not that difficult a task. Our imagination of touch helps to inform what it is that we “see” mentally. When I imagine myself playing through my pieces, I would say that the areas of the keyboard where my hands are playing are lit up in the darkness. But I believe that everyone must imagine the sight of the keyboard slightly differently.
  • You can imagine your fingers literally playing the keys, you can imagine the keys going down by themselves, you can imagine the keys lit up with colors… As long as your mind processes the playing of the notes somehow (as long as you know which notes you are playing), there are no specific rules about how, exactly, you picture the keyboard.
  • However, regardless of what you picture visually, it is crucial that you know which finger is playing each note! For instance, even if you imagine the keys going down by themselves, you should know which finger is playing which key, and imagine the sensations accordingly.


Do I move my fingers while doing mental practicing?

  • To me, pure mental practicing should not involve any movement of the fingers at all. The imagination of touch is just as it sounds – it is only the imagination of the keys on the fingertips or other parts of the fingers. Moving the fingers will mix mental practicing with physical practicing because of a certain dependance on muscle memory. This, I think, takes away from the true power of mental practicing, which is using the mind completely independently of the body.

Do I have to hear every single note while doing mental practicing?

  • Believe it or not, the short answer is “no”! You don’t actually have to hear every note in order for mental practicing to help you. But of course, you should try to mentally hear everything as much as possible. Hearing at least the melody, the overall feel of the harmonies, and other important elements is usually a good idea.
  • If you can’t remember or don’t know exactly how the melody sounds (if you are sight-reading, for instance), at least imagine the rhythm correctly and try to approximate the contour / shape of the melody as best you can.

So, how will mental practicing help me any more than just doing physical practicing alone?

  • Imagine that you’re playing a piece of piano music that is relatively new, but seems to be going pretty solidly in the practice room. While performing for an audience of some kind (whether it be one person or a formal audience), your thoughts start to wander slightly because of nerves. Even though you try to calm yourself down, you can’t help but wonder something like: “I wonder if I remember what’s next?” or “What is my left hand going to play after I finish this phrase?”
  • In that moment, you consciously think ahead about what will happen next in the music, but your mind draws a blank. You momentarily freak out because of your memory slip, but ultimately you somehow recover. From that point onward, you try very hard to not consciously think about what you are doing. After all, you don’t want to risk losing control again.
  • Basically, if you had mentally practiced the piece in an effective manner, you would have known EXACTLY what was coming next in the music. You would have known not only the sound of what was coming next, but the sight and touch of the ensuing passage as well. You also would have known precisely how you were going to move in advance. In other words, you would not have lost control.

Next post, I will explain how effective mental practicing enables one to have more reliable performances (as described in the preceding paragraph). I will also begin to define what “effective mental practicing” means and troubleshoot problems that may arise. I hope to continue the discussion by addressing some of the many other benefits of mental practicing.