hand playing a piano keyboard“To rely on muscular habit, which so many do in technique, is indeed fatal. A little nervousness, a muscle bewildered and unable to direct itself, and where are you? For technique is truly a matter of the brain.”
–Fritz Kreisler, violinist
(quoted in, Kato Havas, Stage Frightp. 125)

When Kreisler said that technique was “of the brain,” I assume that he was referring to the mental processes via which we musicians direct our execution.

And I think that he wasn’t merely speaking about mechanics but rather pointing to the inclusive artistic and physical aspects of music making.

That is, when we professionals perform, we conceive of upcoming phrases before we execute them.

We direct ourselves across the terrain of a composition, much like car drivers see ahead as they navigate a road.

Mental Imaging: The Most Important Skill

That self-direction is rooted in our ability to do what I call mental imaging. And I’m convinced that mental imaging skills are among the most important skills for musicians to develop. Even so, over my decades of performing and teaching, I’ve learned that many aspiring musicians and their teachers don’t grasp the roles that mental processes play.

“When we professionals perform, we conceive of upcoming phrases before we execute them.”

Countless would-be performers, for instance, rely on mindless habits – e.g., rote repetition in practice – that bring about all sorts of problems. Chief among those pitfalls is that mindless learners falter under pressure because they instill muscle memory without awareness of their music-making actions. They’re like automobile drivers who can’t see where they’re going: at any moment they might crash. It’s no surprise that they’re jittery on stage.

This post sums up ways in which mental imaging techniques can be used by musicians to foster creativity and confidence. See The Musician’s Way for detailed applications.

Mental Imaging During Music Practice

1.  When learning a new piece, use imaging to simulate your execution and instill a vivid mental map before you play or sing. E.g., to absorb an unfamiliar phrase, instrumentalists might move their fingers in the air as they vocalize; singers could silently mouth words as they internally hear a tune.

When you image, create a multisensory experience and make your imaginary playing or singing as realistic as you can: hear the music in your mind, register tactile and movement sensations, connect with the expressive shape of each phrase.

2.  As you play or sing, perceive the musical gesture that follows the one you’re executing. Always think, feel, hear, and sense ahead, but do so easefully, trusting in your mental map.

3.  To help solve problems, use imaging to try out permutations of fingering, diction, tonguing, phrasing, and so forth. For instance, to unravel a technically thorny passage, a string player might imagine touching the fingerboard and then test various fingerings.

4.  When memorizing, depend on imaging to solidify your mental record of a piece. In the practice room, for instance, you might image a phrase from memory 2-3 times before you attempt to execute it without the score. Later, to maintain your memory, you could image an entire piece or section, and you can do so anywhere, whether in the practice room, riding a bus, or waiting in line.

Mental Imaging and Music Performance

1.  Backstage, employ imaging to bring yourself into performance mode. If you’re nervous, let’s say, you might shore up your self-assurance by recalling one of your top performances. Then, in preparation for your entrance, mentally hear your music and mime the playing or singing actions, absorbing the character of a piece.The Musician's Way book cover

2.  After your entrance, use imaging to set the tempo of a piece and ready your first phrase.

3.  As you perform, image ahead, release effort, and unleash your emotions as you direct your execution with awareness.

Mental Imaging and Creativity

1.  During downtime, such as when you’re riding a train, playfully hear music in your head: generate compositional ideas or novel interpretive ideas; alternatively, you might memorize or mentally review passages.

2.  When seeking new ideas, you can use imaging to consider possibilities for programming and staging – see yourself as an audience member taking in your show.

3.  To overcome barriers, envision yourself playing or singing with optimal ease and soulfulness. You might even visualize yourself performing as one of your musical heroes or imagine yourself tossing off tricky passages with aplomb. Use imaging to stoke your enthusiasm for making music.

New to mental imaging? See pages 34-37 of The Musician’s Way for an introductory exercise and examples of imaging in action.

Related posts
Deep Practice
Dialing Down the Effort Meter
The Four Stages of Memorization
Solving Problems in Practice

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Photo licensed from Shutterstock