Whether you’re recovering from an injury, trying to do some last-minute cramming before a lesson, or have neighbors who don’t enjoy trumpet excerpts at 11pm, mental imagery is a practice technique that many musicians and athletes have relied on for years.
And research suggests that engaging in both mental and physical practice leads to better performance than physical practice alone. But if you’ve ever tried to incorporate mental practice into your routine, you know that there are some real challenges that can sometimes get in the way.
For instance, it’s often easiest to do mental practice with eyes closed. The problem, of course, is that anytime I close my eyes, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to fall asleep. Or find my thoughts drifting off to an email I need to respond to. Or wondering if my neighborhood Pinkberry is going to have their awesome strawberry flavor this week.
Thinking back, there were times though when I didn’t fall asleep, and was very much engaged in my mental practice. I was recently reminded of this when I saw my daughter tapping her fingers on her leg as we waited for our food to arrive at a restaurant.
When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was practicing piano. Which made me think of how I’d often move my fingers in the air, whether I was walking to class, eating lunch, or listening to a recording. In hindsight, whenever I had music playing in my head, I’d often be tapping out the fingering, and even stretching my fingers out a bit or bunching them together to remind myself of a wider or narrower interval.
I think this may have helped me stay awake and be more engaged in my imagery practice – but does this have any impact on actual performance? Like, is this a good thing that could enhance the effectiveness of imagery? Or does it not really matter all that much?
The Correct Way to Sit in a Chair (and How This Could Help Your Performance in More Ways Than You’d Think)
I remember when my dad bought our first VHS camcorder, back in the early-to-mid 1980’s.
Unlike today’s tiny camcorders which fit in your hand, this thing was huge. ’Twas basically a VCR with a lens on it, so imagine trying to balance that on your shoulder.
Anyhow, it was pretty cool to see yourself on a TV. And if you’ve ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you know that watching yourself skateboard and fall down in reverse is pretty funny.
But for once in my life, I was also able to see what I looked like when performing on stage. And what I saw, was a wee bit horrifying. Shoulders hunched, neck arching forward, tummy jutting out, knees locked – it wasn’t a pretty sight.
In an instant, I understood exactly what a teacher meant when he remarked that I sounded great with his eyes closed…but not so much with his eyes open (which was relayed to me in as kindly a way as possible, of course, but still stung a little).
Of course, none of this should have been a surprise. After all, my posture on-stage was a pretty faithful representation of my posture in the practice room.
Given that I spent most of my practice time sitting, hunched over, this became my default playing position whether I was sitting or standing.
And even though I got pretty good at playing with crappy posture, I wasn’t doing myself any favors. Aside from it being a pretty uninspired visual experience for the audience, it led to a lot of bad technical habits too.
And a recent study suggests that it may have been negatively affecting my performance from a psychological perspective as well.
Have you ever found yourself spacing out while practicing? Where you suddenly “come to” and realize that your fingers have been moving, but you have no idea what you’ve been working on?
Maintaining focus and concentration is a common challenge in the practice room.
When asked, my advice has generally been something along the lines of making sure you have clear goals for each practice session and for each repetition. Or, practicing at a more personally optimal time of day, taking a nap, or making the most of your practice breaks.
But as useful as these strategies can be, they all take some time, planning, or effort. Meanwhile, there’s one pretty obvious thing that has been conspicuously absent from my list of suggestions. So obvious, in fact, that once you find out what it is, you may be tempted to stop reading.
But this should probably be the first thing we try if our mind starts feeling fuzzy and we’re having difficulty staying on-task.
What is this thing exactly?
A drink of water.
Yeah, I know. Totally boring. But here’s the thing. We all know how much of an impact hydration can have on physical performance, but we tend not to think of its impact on mental performance.
And research suggests that being slightly dehydrated could have a more noticeable impact on our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and problem-solve than you’d think.
How much of a difference, you ask?
I once heard a guitar teacher say that the point of practicing is to make things easier.
At first glance, the voice in your head might say something like “umm…duh.” And sure, there’s that – but I think there’s also a deeper wisdom to the statement when you ponder it for a moment.
Because aside from making what our fingers do more automatic, another important part of practice is figuring out how to make the physical act of playing more effortless. Or ease-ier, as it were.
For me, it wasn’t until the end of college that I began seeking ways to play with less physical effort, and experimenting with posture, finger pressure, and major changes to my chinrest/shoulder pad setup.
It was a challenging and frustrating time, but the things I learned helped immeasurably with intonation and solved many of the technical issues and inconsistencies that had eluded me to that point.
Which, at the time, sort of surprised me, because I’d always assumed that focusing on physical ease was more about reducing one’s injury risk than solving technical problems.
Maybe this is another “duh” sort of question, but are the two more interconnected than we might tend to think? Meaning, is learning to play with more ease, also the way to play better?
Violist Carol Rodland is a much sought-after teacher and performer, and recently joined the faculty at Juilliard. Given her own history with injuries, and her thoughtful approach to teaching, she has valuable insights on how to learn to work with our bodies, rather than trying to solve technical problems through sheer force of will.
In this 31-min chat, we’ll explore:
-an analogy she often uses to help students learn something new or change an old habit
-the importance of balancing one’s “zoom lens” with the bigger picture
-the idea of “full body resonance,” and how that can change one’s playing
-the link between playing comfortably, staying injury-free, and playing at a higher level with more enjoyment and flow
-a few ways you can tell if you’re listening to a violinist play the viola, or a violist who has gone fully to “the dark side”
-a common mistake we often make when learning how to “let go”
-the importance of appreciating individual differences, and how there’s no one “right” way to do things
-her own difficult journey with injuries; how it happened, and how she overcame the various hurdles
-how she got into pilates, and what she sees as being the benefits
-why the level of her cooking has gone downhill
-her memory of the day she met Karen Tuttle, and the “ah-ha” moment she had