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It’s All in Your Head: The Untapped Potential of Mental Practice

0 Zachary Preucil

images-6Lately, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on trains. In fact, I’m currently writing this from somewhere in eastern New York on hour nine of a tiring return to Rochester. I’m not just riding the rails for my health, of course (in fact, it has quite the opposite effect); some professional opportunities arose in distant cities, and with my meager graduate student budget, I had little choice but to pass by the airport and head to the local Amtrak station. Contrary to popular belief, however, taking the train isn’t an entirely terrible means of travel. Sure, the food is questionable, the bathrooms are even more questionable, and sometimes you stop randomly in the middle of some godforsaken stretch of country for no apparent reason. But it is cheap, less cramped than airplanes, and cellos are (generally) welcome. The only problem is that there are no practice rooms.

It might sound silly to put it that way, but the reality is that when you take the train, any hope of productive practice in the day is pretty much out. Even if you don’t reach your destination at some ungodly hour, your focus and energy will be sufficiently depleted, making any subsequent practice attempts a futile effort. If you’re enduring such a predicament midsummer, with no concerts in sight, there is of course no cause for concern, but if you’re an Amtrak regular in the thick of spring concert season-well, it can be a little stressful, to say the least.

In contemplating this dilemma, I recalled reading a recent article about an up-and-coming violin soloist who claims to learn a piece entirely in his head prior to even picking up his violin. I’m not completely sure of the specifics, but it seems he visualizes himself performing, remembering the sensory perceptions of bowing and fingering, and internalizes it so effectively that he is literally able to play the piece afterwards without having “learned” it the traditional way. When I first read about it, I was astounded-and a little skeptical. Did this person really have the piece completely learned when he picked up his instrument, or was it still rough around the edges? Did it work just for him? Was I reading The Onion?

As I thought about it more, however, it began to make sense. Your fingers, arms, hands, or whatever you use to play an instrument cannot function without your brain-unless you’re the proverbial chicken with its head cut off (although I have met a few of those in music school). The signals the brain sends to your extremities when you play come from the neural pathways you’ve created in practice. But that doesn’t mean physical practice is the only way you can do that. All you need is to make your brain think that you’re playing your instrument; you don’t actually have to be playing. It’s no secret that the brain can be easily fooled; why else do we get scared when watching horror films? Our gut reaction is that, yes, Freddie Krueger stands before us with a sledgehammer-even though, intellectually, we understand that it’s just a picture.

This realization brought to mind a recent video I saw on the violin channel of Pamela Frank, stating that she never practiced more than an hour a day. Just that-an hour! And she’s one of the most revered violin professors in the world! Now, granted, if you have an ridiculous amount of music to learn, you may have to spend more than an hour, but the reality is that if you practice efficiently, you shouldn’t need that much time to do so. As Leopold Auer once famously stated, “If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty. If you practice with your fingers, no time is enough.”

The thing is, I think the majority of music students practice with their fingers. We all know those people who seem to live in the practice room, assuaged somehow by the constant sensation of their fingers on the strings or the keys. Of course, practicing everything completely in your head is illogical-you wouldn’t, for example, get up to play a solo recital without having played the repertoire anywhere besides your imagination-but if you are a competent mental practicer, and are able to integrate that same mindset into physical practice, you’ll increase your productivity tenfold. Mental practice is so powerful because it forces us to constantly be thinking about what we’re doing-there’s no way we can get into “muscle memory” mode because there’s no muscle memory to contend with. Furthermore, it represents the possibility to get past the impediments imposed by technical issues and get the sound and interpretation you really want. I remember once having a lesson in undergrad where my teacher was trying to make me play the opening of the Elgar concerto with an appropriately dramatic sonority. We had talked a lot about technical considerations, but I just wasn’t getting it. Finally, she simply said, “Look out the window and pretend as if you’re playing it to someone in a room across the street.”

I was pretty skeptical that would make a difference, but I figured there was no harm in trying. I squinted out the window and into the next building, where an unsuspecting secretary was mindlessly typing away on her laptop, and focused all my energy on trying to project my sound in that direction. To my amazement, I was able to achieve a much fuller tone! At the time, I merely accepted the incident as further evidence of my teacher’s innate genius, but in retrospect, I think I achieved such a result because I switched gears mentally. I was thinking of the sound I wanted to achieve; I wasn’t telling myself how to achieve it. As a result, I didn’t unintentionally cause any of the technical impediments that had been holding me back before. This experience drove home for me how important it is to recall physical sensations when playing an instrument. When I am teaching, I often ask my students to recall a certain physical sensation from everyday life-such as holding a drinking mug, for instance-and then recalling that sensation when playing the cello (holding a coffee mug, incidentally, is actually not that different than holding a bow. This is not my idea….see Paul Katz explain it here). I’ve found it to be greatly effective, more so than trying to explain the micro-mechanics of playing, although such a discussion is certainly necessary at first.

Obviously, any player must be decently set up for mental practice to be maximally effective, and clearly, imagining you sound like Yo-Yo Ma won’t get you too far (how could it? Just think of all the people who have imagined they sounded like Yo-Yo over the years). But I think it’s more effective than people realize, and in any case, a lot of us don’t use it as often as we could (or should). So, that’s why I’m putting down my laptop and spending the rest of this train ride with my imaginary cello (it is a strad). I’m confident that I’ll have all my new repertoire down solid by the time I arrive in Rochester. Unless, of course, this is all in my head….

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