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Mental Music Practice

Mental Practice. Visualization. Both terms that describe practice away from the instrument. In my own experience, Mental practice has been an effective way to enhance memorization and feel much more secure with any piece. This post is a research review. While this is a subject I’m very interested in, the shear amount of research is amazing. That said, not much has been done with specifically with music practice. There are a few books that discuss mental practice and a few research studies. I’ve limited my review to a few music-specific sources. Unfortunately this is rather limited. Both journal articles cited here have a more complete research review of mental practice with information from many sources dealing with sports or other physical activities.

In short, the research around mental practice outside of music can be summed up in two words: it works. Well, the subjects mentally practicing improved more than the control groups which did not practice. Studies found, however, that the exclusive use of physical practice was superior to the exclusive use of mental practice. Those same studies also showed that the combined effect of mental and physical practice can be as effective or more effective than physical practice (taken from the research review in Ross and Coffman).

A 1985 study (Ross) measured the effectiveness of various kind of practice on college trombonists. The musicians (30 college or graduate level music studnets) were divided into five groups. No practice (control), mental practice only, physical practice only, combined mental and physical practice, and mental practice with simulated slide movements. Each group aside from the control was asked to practice the etude given as a pretest three times. For the physical group that meant playing it three times (any tempo); the mental group had to sit there and mentally rehearse it without physical movement. Mental w/ slide movement mentally rehearsed while holding the trombone in position and moving the slide to the notes as if playing. The combined practice group played the etude once, then mentally rehearsed it, then played it again. Following the practice session, the same etude was played again.

To score the exercise, 1 point was given for each perfectly played measure. Dynamics and other musical elements were not considered; rhythmic accuracey and pitch were the only factors. There were 34 total points. As expected the no practice group saw the least improvement. The combined group saw the most. Mental practice alone actually saw the second least improvement. The study’s author suggested the following as a reason:

In traditional physical practice, both auditory and kinesthetic feed-back provide important and necessary information to the performer regarding the degree of deviation and the position of the muscles associated with these deviations in performance. Based on this valuable information, corrections can be made and accuracy gradually increased. Embouchure and slide movements are adjusted as feedback occurs. This helps explain, in part, why the physical practice subjects improved significantly more than the no practice subjects.

That physical feedback is important. Knowing what it feels like is important. This can be defined as a “knowledge of results.” Another study (Coffman, 1990) sought to find out if 1.) mental practice was effecitve and 2.) if knowledge of results mattered. The study diveded forty subjects (music therapy and education students) into 8 groups. The instrument was piano, and none of the students involved were piano studyents–though all of them had completed some group piano classes. There were two no practice control groups, one heard the piece to be played for the post test (though were not told what it was or that they would be playing it) and another heard nothing. The other groups has six 30 second practice intervals separated by five seconds of silence.

Physical practice was divided into two groups. One heard the synthesizer as they practiced, the other did not. Mental practice groups had to sit without moving but saw the notation. One group heard a tape recorded version of the post test composition to be played and were told to imagine themselves playing. The other mental group heard only metronome clicks along with which they were supposed to practice. The combined group was similarly divided. They spend three trials mentally rehearsing and three physically practicing–alternating methods. One group was allowed to heard the sythesizer as they played and heard a recording of the composition during mental practice. The other had the synth turned off and heard metronome clicks during mental practice.

Evaluations were done blind for this study. The performers were scored on both the pre and post test based on performance duration, pitch accuracy and rhythm accuracy. Again the study found that physical practice alone or combined with mental work was more effective than exclusive mental practice or no practice. Knowledge of results did have a positive influence on improvement.

Other Mental Practice Mentions

In previous posts I’ve reviewed some books that address the mental aspects of performing. The Inner Game of Music talks extensively about the mental aspects of performing, and much of the material in Piano Technique
deals with mental rehearsal. Gieseking goes as far as to recommend students memorize something completely away from the piano! Richard Provost has also written an extensive article on visualization techniques.

Works Cited

Ross, Stewart L. “The Effectiveness of Mental Practice on Improving the Performance of College Trombonists.” Journal of Research in Music Education. 33.4 (1985): 221-230.

Coffman, Don D. “Effects of Mental Practice, Physical Practice, and Knowledge of Results on Piano Performance.” Journal of Research in Music Education. 38.3 (1990): 187-196.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 June 10

    You are right that not much research has been done into music practice. The best I have found is:

    H. Jorgensen and A. C. Lehmann, Eds., Does Practice Make Perfect?: Current Theory and Research on Instrument Music Practice. (89-107) Oslo, Norway: NMH-Publikasjoner. 1997

    Which is a series of research papers on the subject.

    I’m trying to construct a bibliography of books & journal articles on practice at my blog ( I do have a long list of things offline which I need to update this list with. I’m going to try and do this over the next couple of days – if you’ve any resources I don’t have I’d love to know what they are.

  2. 2009 October 25

    I’d like to look at the topic from diferent angle:
    There is an saying: “practice makes perfect”.
    And of course every skilled musician (or athlete or actor…) knows it’s not quite true,what is true is actually :”PERFECT practice makes perfect”.
    That means in simple words,playing a piece two times perfectly is much,much more benefitial than playing the same piece 2o times with mistakes.
    here is where comes “mental practice” for me.You can imagine whatever you want right? Than imagine playing a piece PERFECTLY!!
    Imagine playing with perfect tone,with perfect confidence,with smooth moves.
    Imagine that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to make a single mistake .
    Maybe you can’t play perfectly but you can imagine that!
    (little example to ilustrate: you can’t jump 4 meters high,But can you imagine that? Of course you can!Try it and feel it!)
    Also as author already said,it is a great way for memorization (which in return gives you greater confidence that you can play well)
    Another aproach for vizualization (involving real playing) is playing with eyes closed.
    At first it is dificult but with time you improve quickly,and playing with eyes closed you are forced to visualize what you play (frets,strings, chord shapes etc…)

  3. 2011 July 2
    Artem permalink

    The best book that I found on this is by Malva Freymuth – “Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians”.
    It’s short, concise, right to the point and contains many good and useful techniques: from memorizing A440 to performance practice on a particular stage.
    She cites numerous other books, so if you ever get a hold of the book check the reference section: there are a lot of other books and articles mentioned there (Sporting Bodymind, Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, etc.) that are great resources as well.

    I keep the book next to my practice folders just to keep track of all the visualization techniques I can do.

  4. 2012 September 1
    Christian Culleton permalink

    The best description that I’ve ever heard for this old axiom is that “Practice makes PERMANENT”. Regardless of how you practice, whatever you practice, is going to become a permanent aspect of your physiology.

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