Arthur Rubinstein smiling while seated at the piano

Arthur Rubinstein

“When I sit in Paris in a café, surrounded by people, I don’t sit casually – I go over a certain sonata in my head and discover new things all the time.”
—Arthur Rubinstein, pianist
The Musician’s Way, p. 34

Like Arthur Rubinstein, countless expert musicians use mental imaging to rehearse compositions in their minds. They’ll internally “hear” a piece of music, feel the sensations of executing it, and mentally refine their interpretations.

Even more crucial, adept musicians image ahead as they play or sing, sensing musical gestures to come. In fact, such imaging habits are central to professional-level performance. Nonetheless, because imaging is a hidden skill, it often goes unrecognized by aspiring musicians and their teachers.

The Musician’s Way applies mental imaging as an essential tool to learn, memorize, rehearse, and perform music. By using the strategies in the text, you’ll discover how mental imaging can speed up your learning process, increase your confidence, and liberate your artistry.

In this article, I describe fundamental aspects of mental imaging and offer a concise exercise.

The Importance of Mental Imaging

First, mental imaging isn’t exclusive to elite musicians. Everyone uses imaging in daily life. For instance, suppose that you’re reading a book, and then you decide to exit the room you’re in. Would you have trouble locating and then heading out the door? Of course not.

When we enter and then move about in a room, we detect where we are in relation to the door. When we opt to leave, we move according to our mental map of the space; then, as we walk, we look ahead to where we’re going.

Just as we naturally use mental maps to navigate as we walk, skilled musicians depend on inner maps to learn compositions and steer their performances. While playing or singing, they know where they are in a piece, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. They steadfastly feel ahead as they execute, looking ahead if using a musical score, and then their execution becomes easy as a result.

Performers construct their musical maps through skillful practice. For starters, to learn a new piece, as spelled out in The Musician’s Way, veteran musicians get an overview of the music, and then they divide it into sections. Next, they progressively map the interpretive and technical elements.

With clear mental maps established, musicians play or sing with abandon, knowing that they can’t get lost. Unprepared performers, by comparison, rely on spotty mental maps that send them fishtailing out of control. The gaps in their awareness provoke one mistake after another.

In A Soprano On Her Head, Eloise Ristad wrote, “We get messed up because we don’t have a clear image . . . and therefore give ourselves too many conflicting messages about how to play.” (p. 116-117)

“Just as we naturally use mental maps to navigate as we walk, skilled musicians depend on inner maps to learn compositions and steer their performances.”

If deliberate mental imaging is new to you, I invite you to try the following exercise; it calls for a metronome and a piano or electronic keyboard (if a piano isn’t available, use a different instrument).

Mental Imaging Exercise

In this basic exercise, you mentally image playing a simple passage on a keyboard, and then you actually play the passage. During your actual playing, you use imaging to lead your execution.

music notation showing simple mental imaging exercise

Mental Imaging Exercise

A. Imaging

  1. Sit in front of a piano keyboard, and locate the keys needed to play the above example. Play a G (sol) to get the pitch in your ear, and then switch on your metronome.
  2. Keeping your eyes on the music, reading one measure ahead, repeatedly sing the example while you imagine playing it – vocalize note names, and playfully move your right-hand fingers in the air.
  3. Create a vibrant, multisensory mental experience: Feel your fingers depress the imaginary keys, inwardly hear the sound of a piano, perceive the spatial layout of the keyboard, and soak in the emotion of the dynamics.
  4. Image the example at least three times. Aim to register fresh, more realistic sensations with each recap.

B. Imaging & Executing

  1. Place your right hand on the keyboard, and sense how you’ll execute the first measure of the example. With your metronome ticking, prepare to play by counting aloud: “1 and 2 and.”
  2. As you begin to play, image one measure ahead of the one that you’re playing: that is, when executing the ascending scale, sense the descending scale; as you execute the descending scale, sense the last two notes; as you play the final notes, sense the ascending scale in the first measure, and so on.
  3. Execute unselfconsciously. Instead of micromanaging your movements, trust your mental map, be playful, and allow accuracy to occur without being obsessed with correctness.
  4. Repeat several times, deliberately imaging ahead, and aim for great ease and expressiveness with each recap. Sing along using note names during your first time through; thereafter, cease using your voice, and mentally sing note names.

Mental Imaging in Practice & Performance

When we employ imaging to practice and perform music, we harness our minds in these same two ways:

1. To aid in learning, refining, and memorizing a piece, we simulate playing or singing to imprint a lucid mental map.
2. As we execute, we image ahead so that our music-making is secure and spontaneous.

In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey depicts two exercises that underscore the power of imaging coupled with unselfconscious execution. In both exercises, a can is placed in the corner of a tennis court. Then, standing on the opposite baseline, a player attempts to hit the can with a ball:

  • First, the player focuses on technique—she thinks about racket angle, swing, and so forth. She tries hard to do things “correctly.”
  • In the second instance, the player abandons that sort of forced trying. She notes the location of the can, imagines the ball traveling from racket to target, and then swings the racket naturally—without self-judging.

In which instance do you envision yourself having more fun and being more accurate?

For you to perform music securely and artistically, you have to sense imminent phrases with the clarity of a tennis player who knows the location of that can. Still, your mastery has to be such that it’s as though the can is an arm’s length away, and you can’t miss it.

You can gain that degree of clarity and confidence by selecting accessible material and forging robust mental maps in practice.The Musician's Way book cover

Even so, keen imaging skills take time to develop. In due course, with steady practice, you’ll image so readily that you’ll be able to learn and rehearse music while riding a bus or sitting in a café. If you’re on tour, for example, and spending hours in transit before an event, you’ll use imaging to practice mentally, and your confidence will grow rather than fade.

Then, when you step on stage, your awareness of your material will anchor your control and set your creativity free.

*  *  *

The Musician’s Way is the only book to delineate comprehensive strategies whereby aspiring musicians can acquire the skills of expert performers.

Related posts
Feeling Ahead
Mental Imaging
Playing with Ease
Reinforcing Performance Habits in Practice

© 2020 Gerald Klickstein
Adapted from pages 34-37 of The Musician’s Way
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