Welcome to my blog!  I thought it would be interesting to start my blog off with a brief overview of an alternate practice technique that does not involve physically playing the instrument.  It goes by a few names, but I’ll call it Mental Practice.

Mental Practice

First, I’ll give a little background on my experience with mental practice. I’ve been using this technique as much as I can over the past 6 months or so and can say that it is certainly something that needs more attention from students and teachers of all levels. My experience with mental practice is limited and I’m learning more about what works and what doesn’t as I go, but I can at least share what’s working for me and also what some of the core concepts behind mental practice are.

I had the opportunity to learn more about this technique (from the real expert) in one of my graduate seminars this past year at the University of Ottawa. My professor was Gilles Comeau, who has a cross appointment with the school of music and faculty of human kinetics and is a widely respected researcher in music education. After he first introduced some of the basic concepts to the class we were all invited to start trying it for ourselves (if we hadn’t already) and report back with our findings. As all graduate students in performance know, you are expected to learn and perform an intense amount of repertoire throughout the year, so I saw this as another tool that could make my workload a little easier to handle.

Here are some of the basic ideas behind the technique:

  • Mental practice is essentially practicing through visualization only. This visualization may involve visualizing your motor movements as you read the score and hear the music or it may only involve hearing the music as you visualize your movements (without the score). This can save the performer much exertion (and time) in the physical practice session and helps with the overall efficiency and effectiveness of practice.
  • When one visualizes or pretends in their mind that they are performing a passage as they hear it, the same regions in the brain that are responsible for motor movement while playing are activated. In other words, there is actually no difference in how the brain functions between the physical act and the visualization. The only difference is that you save the physical energy.

Using the Technique

To start, it’s recommended to slowly work the mental practice into your regular practice time with the instrument before trying it exclusively without the instrument. A good way to go about introducing mental practice into your regular practice is to take a short, difficult passage (let’s say a tricky shift or a bar or two at the most) from new piece you are working on and begin doing repetitions to iron out the kinks. Start by trying the excerpt through once on the guitar and if you’re successful, try running the same thing through in your mind, with the exact sound, feeling, and tempo as you just played. If you’re not successful, do not repeat the passage in your mind as you will only be working to imbed the mistake in your brain. Instead, try the passage again at a slower tempo to correct it the way you like and then move on to the mental repetition, again keeping the physical feeling and sound of what you just played. Repeat this process until you are confident you’ve learned the passage. After you’re comfortable with the amount of music you are learning/repeating, try expanding to include a few more bars if you need to make some excerpts longer.

After a while you might try the technique without the instrument and with the score only. This takes a lot of focus and it’s harder to be convinced of whether it’s working or not if you don’t have your guitar in hand (in fact, you’re probably thinking “I could actually be practicing right now!”). To this, I say that you just need to take it slow and gradually increase the amount you do just like you would before with the instrument. An interesting experiment to see if you are tensing up at certain moments in a piece is to record that piece and then listen back while mentally rehearsing it. I had an experience when I tried this experiment with a piece I was preparing this past year and found that whenever it came to a particularly difficult passage, my left calf muscle would tense up. I only noticed it when mentally practicing with the recording because I wasn’t preoccupied with the any other physical activity like playing, so I was free to observe any extra physical effort that I had trained myself to exert when performing this passage (cool, eh?).

I should finish by saying that, in terms of effectiveness, physical practice is still preferable to mental practice if you have the choice between them, but both combined in the practice session can prove to be the most effective and efficient way to go. A purely mental practice session would be something one can try when playing is not possible or desired at the time. I’ve seen the results myself (in more ways than the quick anecdote I provided) and hope I’ve at least peaked your interest. If you’ve taken the time to read this you then must be interested enough to give some of this a try – and I hope you do. Good luck!