Monthly Archives: April 2016

Mental Practicing Questions and Answers, Part 2

Continuing where I left off in the last post, I will start by talking more specifically about how mental practicing helps you in the act of performance itself.

How will mental practicing help during actual performances?

  • To answer this question requires a bit of exposition. To me, mental practicing is nothing more and nothing less than using your brain to be aware of your practice – the sight, the sound, and the touch. In other words, everyone does some amount of mental practicing while doing regular physical practicing (typically unintentionally). Usually, students and lower-level musicians will tend to do very little of it while higher-level musicians may tend to be much more aware of what they are doing. The more unaware you are of what your body is doing and the more you play “automatically”, the more dangerous the situation will be when you get nervous.
  • But wait! It also is never good to overanalyze or overthink at the moment of performance either. I want to emphasize that being aware of your senses and overthinking are two entirely different things. Certainly, there is a sense of “automatic” in performance if you consider that to mean “natural and relaxed without overthinking” or “courageously stepping forward just like any other time”.
  • Going back to the idea of thinking, “I wonder if I remember what’s next?” while performing, your awareness of your senses from mental practicing is what would save you in that situation.
    • If you remember the sound of the following passage, you may already save yourself (depending on how detailed the aural memory is). If you at least know how high or low the next passage is, hopefully you can move your hands to that approximate area of the piano and maybe your muscle memory will then take over and save the performance. And the more you can find by ear, the better. But unless you have both perfect pitch (or excellent relative pitch) and an ear that can hear many pitches at once distinctly, this alone will probably not be enough for you to relax.
    • If you remember the touch and sight of the passage as well, though, you will know exactly where to move on the keyboard. It is the same certainly you would feel if you had just checked your sheet music. But instead of checking the sheet music, you merely checked your brain to determine the exact area of the keyboard you needed. In other words, your answer to the question would be, “Oh, that’s right, I do remember where to move.”

Can you give a simple example of these ideas in action?

  • In this simplified example, let’s say that you are playing a C major chord in root position with your right hand (C, E, G) and that you don’t know what is next. Naturally, you will start to become nervous.
  • If you remember the sound of the next chord as being the dominant chord (a G major chord) and you remember that the top note is G, that helps, but you may not remember the exact voicing of the chord. If you remember that the note sounds specifically two octaves higher than the first chord, that will at least help you to get to the correct area of the keyboard.
  • But if you remember that the notes are G, B, D, G (and you can picture this in your head) and you remember the sensation in fingers 1, 2, 3, and 5, you have the exact information that you need to continue onward and (at least for that moment) you will no longer be nearly as nervous. It is as if those specific notes are lit up on the piano and you know exactly which fingers to place there.


Can you elaborate further on some of these ideas?

  • First of all, mental practicing simplifies and combines many different chunks of information. For instance, in the preceding example, there is not really enough time to think “The notes are G, B, D, G and the fingers are 1, 2, 3, 5 and I imagine the sound to be like this”. Instead, in an instant, the sight, sound, and touch of the chord pops into your mind and you know exactly what to do next.
  • Mental imagery / imagination itself IS the awareness of what is happening in performance. Mental practicing is not just supposed to save you in times of emergency. It is no more and no less than you consciously being aware of your senses.
  • Mental practicing allows you to practice your awareness of senses DIRECTLY instead of as a by-product of practicing physically. It takes care of blind spots that are created even with physical practicing of the best possible intentions and observations.
    • In very fast and/or very technically difficult passages, it is easy for the security of the passage to be almost entirely dependent on muscle memory. Indeed, the muscle memory has to be strong enough that the passage can be executed under even the most mentally demanding situations. However, if you become very nervous and slip a little off the keys or have some other little mishap, it is possible for the whole passage to fall apart because you do not have conscious awareness of the notes. Mental practicing will save you here.
    • In contrapuntal passages such as fugues or any music that is dense / complex, it is very difficult to be simultaneously aware of everything that is happening. Separate hand practice and separate voice practice is wonderful for increasing awareness, but mental practicing will tie up all other loose ends.
    • In very slow pieces and passages, it sometimes can be very nerve-wracking because there is more time to be aware of what you are doing. Here, mental practicing actually shines the brightest in some ways! You have a huge amount of time to think ahead. If you mentally practiced properly, you will find that you always know what happens next long before it actually happens.

This actually ended up being a much more detailed answer than I originally anticipated. But hopefully these elaborations much more clearly elucidate both the nature of mental practicing itself and how mental practicing helps you in performance. Next time, I will continue to talk about other benefits of mental practicing.