Mental Practice

Mental practice can be as effective as physical practice in music.

That sounds crazy, right?! You wouldn’t train for a marathon by sitting on your couch and thinking about running 26.2 miles. It seems counterintuitive that we can practice music without making a sound or even having an instrument in our hands. But practicing away from the instrument can be as effective or maybe even more effective than practicing with the instrument.

mental practiceIt’s not always practical to play an instrument. You can’t whip out a trumpet on an airplane; your boss might not appreciate the sound of an oboe during a break at work. However, it’s not difficult to find a quiet spot to look at sheet music. If you get in the habit of carrying music with you, like a novel, you can find excellent opportunities for mental practice throughout the day. Perhaps you have a doctor’s appointment that will interfere with your normal practice time or maybe a nasty chest cold is inhibiting your ability to work on the vocal solo you need for an audition. Mental practice will help you make progress toward your musical goals.

There are four major areas where mental practicing is superior to physical practicing.

1. Tapping Rhythms. The most obvious thing to practice away from the instrument is rhythm. I like to tap the rhythm on my leg as I watch the music. Some people like to clap, snap fingers, or say a nonsense syllable like “ta.” For added difficulty, try tapping the beat with one hand and the rhythm with the other. (Remember, the beat is the constant pulse of the music whereas the rhythm is how the beat is divided.) Maybe you like to count out loud. That works too. Or you can tap your toe to the beat and clap the rhythm. Continue changing it up by using simple rhythm instruments like a hand drum or castanets. Adding the metronome is always a good idea. (For more ideas on how to use the metronome, see an upcoming blog post.) The way you tap the rhythms is limited only by your imagination. Remember, the more fun you have, the better you will learn the material.

2. Sizzling Articulations. For wind players: Reinforce proper articulations by practicing them away from the instrument. Make a loud hissing sound by blowing air through your tongue and teeth, like a snake. You will be able to use your tongue to articulate the notes and the hissing sound will create resistance similar to your instrument. However, by focusing on just the skill of articulating (not tone or fingerings), you will be better able to catch and fix mistakes. For string players: mimic holding the bow in your right hand and practice the changes of direction.

3. Ghost Hands. Sit comfortably with music in front of you. Place your hands on your knees or in your lap. Now imagine that your arms are moving into playing position. In your mind, feel the instrument under your fingers. Now begin to hear the piece in your mind. Imagine your fingers moving, playing the piece flawlessly. Remember, you aren’t actually moving your fingers nor are you singing the music, but the image should be strong enough that you can hear it in your mind and your fingers “feel” the movements.

mental practice

piano fingers

4. Visualizing the Performance. One to two weeks before a recital, competition, or audition, try to imagine what the performance day will be like. Think about all the minor details, such as what you will be wearing and what the room might look like. Imagine yourself looking confident and calm as you walk onstage. Try to anticipate anything goofy that might happen. Plan for the worst and you’ll be surprised at how smoothly the performance actually went. I have found that the unexpected events can really throw things out of whack, but if you’re ready for anything, nothing will make you lose your cool. Imagine a judge writing with a squeaky pencil and a deep scowl on her face. Think about how you might feel if you get lost on the way (and then add some extra time to your travel plans.) Breathe deeply while you visualize and reassure yourself with positive self-talk. Don’t dwell on the negative, however. Spend most of your time visualizing a perfect performance and a deep sense of satisfaction.

In all of the above exercises, make the images as vivid as possible. Add as many details you can – the way it feels, the sounds, colors, maybe even the smells. It may take a little practice to hear the music loudly in your head. Start with small passages if you find your mind wanders. (For more help on focusing the mind, see my bog article on Concentration Exercises.)

Athletes believe in mental practice. So do surgeons. If you don’t believe me, read the articles “Mental Practice for Musicians,” “Mental Practice Makes Perfect,” and “The Benefits of Mental Practice.” I also recommend the book The Inner Game of Music

Woodshedding: The Articulation Game

“Woodshedding” is musician-speak for practicing, especially when working on difficult passages.

Woodshedding is the process of isolating a hard section of the music and practicing it until the technical issues are resolved. It is NOT playing a piece at a fast tempo from the beginning to the end at the finished tempo, nor is it mindless repetition. In my years as a teacher, I have found that woodshedding in a detailed, methodical, concentrated way is a struggle for many students.

Scientists are confirming what we already know – the brain craves novelty (Pure Novelty Spurs the Brain), and isolating tricky passages and practicing them correctly is the best path to mastery (Effective Practice Skills). When we practice wrong notes, we strengthen those neural pathways and make the mistake more likely to happen again.

The first step in fixing a problem is identifying it.

As you play through a piece of music, make a pencil mark on difficult sections. The way you mark you music is up to you, but make it obvious, (For more ideas about marking music, please refer to blog articles The Pencil Problem, and Miss It? Mark It. parts 1, 2, and 3.

Once you know which parts need “woodshedding,” you’re ready to go to work. Consider these two flummoxing measures from one of the Bach Sonatas for Flute:

music passage for woodshedding

woodshedding passage

I might be tempted to play these measures over and over again in the same way at the same tempo, but there will probably still be some wrong notes and a lot of frustration. This is the worst way to woodshed.

Is woodshedding always a grueling, unpleasant task? No! You can play games to give your brain the novelty and variety it craves. You will save time and reduce frustration too!

There are many ways to woodshed. Today’s blog post will focus on one way – changing the articulations. Note: this works best for wind instruments because we use our tongues to articulate. Pianists may not find much use for this game. String players, I’d be interested to hear if this is adaptable for your instruments.

You will need two dice and the following chart:

articulation rubric

roll two dice, play the articulation given

If you roll snake eyes (2), play the passage all tongued. If you roll 3, play slurring by two. If you roll 9, play the first note articulated and slur by 2 thereafter. And so forth. I’m not the first teacher to come up with the idea of changing the articulation to strengthen facility (many thanks to my teachers Tom Kennedy and Katherine Borst-Jones for showing me how to do this.) However, I hope you will find that it’s useful to see all of the articulations presented in the table above with the game suggestion. This presentation is my own creation.

Of course, you should do this exercise at a manageable tempo. The tempo should be quick enough to provide challenge, but there should be very few (if any) wrong notes.

This game is magical for learning scales too. (Also, see my blog post on The Game for Scales for another idea.)

Teachers, my students enjoy playing this game in their lessons. I have my students roll the dice when quizzing them on scales, but it is also useful when checking lesson assignments. Many exercises (thirds, chromatic scales, short etudes) are easily adaptable. Playing the Articulation Game will help students learn different slur patterns and will deepen their mastery of the assignments. Another helpful activity is the Rhythm Spinner Game that uses different rhythm patterns for woodshedding.

Keep this tool in your woodshedding arsenal. Changing the articulations is one effective way to improve technique on difficult passages, but there are other ways too. Future blog posts on woodshedding will share ideas about how to use the metronome for woodshedding.

Happy practicing!