Involving mental practice into your daily practice session

Have you ever thought about practicing your music while you were commuting to school or work, or maybe idling in the park or waiting for your boy/girlfriend on the street corner?

Have you ever thought about practicing your music while you were commuting to school or work, or maybe idling in the park or waiting for your boy/girlfriend on the street corner? Have you ever tried to engage your practice in an alternative way, like closing your eyes and letting your imagination visualize the movements of your fingers playing your instrument while also imagining the sound in your mind at the same time?  Yes? This is the basic idea of how to “mental practice” music.

“Mental practice” tends to be classified as a cognitive practice strategy. I was first introduced to the idea while attending music school in Australia.  My first “memorization class” was in a piano group class. It was quite a scary experience: My tutor handed out copies of the printed music score to a short piece, and then gave us 30 minutes to memorize for a performance on the piano in front of everyone. I couldn’t fathom how I could memorize music without playing it on the piano first.  I still remember when it was finally my turn to play, I could barely play any bars that resembled my solfège. However, some in the class were able to memorize the music quite well, some even finishing the whole piece with both hands.  I was quite curious how people could silently learn music by just visualizing the score in their minds, while the real sound is absent. This launched my attempt to use “mental practice” as a strategy to overcome my difficulties in memorizing music. The benefits I found were numerous: mental practice was quite helpful in improving my general and common musical practice as well as memorization.

The most important thing is using your imagination to “hear” every note you play. 

What is mental practice?

Before discussing the benefits of mental practice in detail, let’s define what mental practice actually is. According to researchers, “mental practice” refers to rehearsing music in your mind without muscular movement or acoustic feedback (Iorio, Brattico, Munk Larsen, Vuust & Bonetti, 2021). This practice strategy effectively enhances musical abilities such as music memorization, playing technique, and even performance.  Several findings suggest that “mental practice” is mainly associated with different forms of imagery including audiation-, visualization-, kinaesthetic-, motor- and finally emotional imagery (Fine, Wise, Goldemberg & Bravo, 2015).  They suggested in their research that when we practice our music mentally, we should “hear” the music in our minds, visualizing the score or the situation of a live performance, imagining how our fingers move and expressing our musical prowess at the same time.

Photo by Tadas Mikuckis

The process of “mental practice”

Let’s illustrate this with the first 4 bars exposition of Mozart’s Sonata in C major for piano. Imagine this is a new piece you are about to start working on.  First, you might want to get a big-picture look at your piece by listening to recordings and trying to play small bits on your instrument while you start to get familiar with it. Then you start reading the music in detail, observing the phrasing, the passage, dynamics, or any large intervals on your score. I myself would imagine the sound of music in my mind or hum the musical line as I looked at the score.

Mozart Sonata in C major, K.545 (Bar 1-4)

I would start with my left hand, analyzing the harmonization. The left hand begins with the tonic C major chord (CM), then with G major chord (GM), back to CM—FM—GM—end on CM. They are all in Alberti bass broken chords and some are in inversion. For the right hand, it starts with a C major chord, then descends an interval minor 6th, then returns to C at the end of the phrase. You might notice that the next 2 bars also have a very similar rhythmic pattern as bars 1-2.  Next I would write fingerings on my score. And after that comes the exciting part: mental practice.

To begin, I would start working on the first 2 bars. You can even go measure by measure. Close your eyes and slowly start playing your left hand on your table or lap, imagining your fingers’ movement on the keyboard and “hearing” each key you are “playing.”  After you feel confident of the notes with your left hand, we can start working on the right. I would suggest that you first play your right hand slowly on piano to get the picture of the melodic line in your mind. Then, close your eyes and play on your lap slowly as you do the same on your left hand. Include the change in hand movements when you play accents and dynamic changes. The most important thing is using your imagination to “hear” every note you play. When you feel confident of the notes you play with each separate hand, put both hands together. Lastly, play the music on your piano.

Mental practice therefore reinforces music memorization both as a way to absorb all the musical details on your score and to build a fuller understanding of the piece.

Benefits of including mental practice into your daily practice

(1) Building up a good habit for meaningful practice

Although my memorization class was scary, it forced me to reflect on the way I had practiced music in the past. I tended to focus on solving the playing technique, playing the notes and the rhythm accurately. When our focus is on technique, we might forget that the musical understanding behind the music should be always supporting what we are playing.

Involving mental practice in my practice sessions when I am in the very early stages of learning a new piece helps me build the healthy habit of reading my music more carefully and in a more analytical way right from the start. Without “acoustic feedback,” mental practice also allows me to be more aware of all the musical details given on the music score, preventing me from practicing the motions with an absent mind. You will start to pay more attention to all the musical forms, musical patterns, phrasings, intervals, chords, and the harmonization on your score.  All of these will help you to figure out the musical idea the composer has given and to better understand your repertoire.

(2) Mental practice enhances musical memorization skill

There are thousands of different ways to work on musical memorization. The best ones for you might depend on your learning style and personal preference. Some people can memorize music with ease. Arthur Rubinstein learned César Frank’s Symphonic Variations without a piano on a train before his concert. Other people have a photographic memory, or have a good ear and can memorize music by listening.

Including mental practice in my daily practice sessions has enhanced my music memory.  Music memorization is something that must be cultivated gradually over a long period. Mental practice allows me to learn and memorize the music in small chunks, from measures into phrases, and phrases into sections. It provides me an alternative way to repeatedly review my music little by little, to solidify my memory every time, and ultimately play my music more accurately, securely.

Mental practice therefore reinforces music memorization both as a way to absorb all the musical details on your score and to build a fuller understanding of the piece. Instead of relying on your fingers’ muscle memory, you will have built the most reliable music memory that you can call on when you perform. Even if you hit a wrong note, instead of being knocked off track, you would still know the flow of your music and be able to continue your piece.

Once you become proficient with this practice strategy, you might find out that you can memorize music faster. One day, we may be like Arthur Rubinstein!

Arthur Rubinstein 1906

(3) Overcome difficulties in your playing

Mental practice helps me to solidify my playing techniques and overcome playing difficulties. When we practice music mentally, the imagery in our minds effectively activates our corticospinal tract which leads to motor control of our muscles (Fadiga, Buccino, Craighero, Fogassi, Gallese, Pavesi, 1999) and enhance the movement velocity (Gentili, Papaxanthis, Pozzo, 2006).  In addition, auditory imagery has enhanced musicians’ motor planning and movement anticipation (Keller P. E., Koch I. ,2008).

Once I tried to overcome a fast passage from Czerny.  The piece is in a very steady ¾ beat with chords on the left hand. A similar repeating rhythmic pattern goes on in the right hand, but modulates in different keys until the end. I found that it was quite difficult to keep the tempo steady at a fast pace and keep the notes on my right hand clear and even at the same time.

When I tried to run the fast passage slowly by mental practice, it helped me to visualize and review each right-hand note and fingering with imaginative sound. When I played on piano afterwards, I realized I had a better image in my mind about the notes on my right hand. It helped me to reach every note in a better way when I later played at a fast tempo.

Photo by Marius Masalar

(4) Motivate yourself to explore a better tone on your instrument

The last point I would like to make might not be related to mental practice directly, but is taken from my experience. Mental practice might allow you to “hear” your ideal interpretation and preferred tone on your instrument, which might motivate you to adjust and refine your tone. For example, you might change the way you play, experimenting with touching the piano to make a lighter sound. Mental practice might help you to explore your own interpretation and sound on your instrument.

In conclusion, including mental practice in practice sessions makes for meaningful practice. It prevents us from practicing absent-mindedly, enhances musical memorization, improves playing technique, and motivates us to explore musical tone. Here’s my final tip: Mental practice might not be complicated, but it requires a lot of mental effort. You might find that more patience and effort is required to apply mental practice than to actually practice your instrument. It’s a good idea to start with short time intervals, say 10 minutes per session, to avoid exhaustion. I hope this blog gives you a few ideas about applying mental practice. Happy practicing!

Sabrina Ho (@sabpianoho) is a piano teacher, children music class tutor. She is usually found in listening in studio giving support and encouragement to tonic friends!
Special thanks to our community editors Jackie Fu (@jackiefu557) and Cecilia Tan (@ctan).