A Technique for Finding Your Misplaced Car Keys, That Might Also Be Applicable in the Practice Room

“Daaaadddy!! Where’s my wallet???”

“I don’t know…where did you put it?” I replied unhelpfully, as I watched my son wander around the apartment muttering “wallet…wallet…wallet” under his breath.

Have you ever found yourself repeating out loud the name of the thing you’re looking for as you search for it?

Some would suggest that it’s simply a way to make sure we don’t forget what it is that we’re looking for as we engage in our search. But others have wondered if verbalizing thoughts – or in this case an object – could actually affect how our brain perceives and processes details of the world around us.

In other words, is there something about saying the word “wallet” out loud that enhances our ability to scan our surroundings and find the wallet quicker?

It does sounds a little farfetched. And you may also be wondering what this could possibly have to do with music. But don’t worry – we’ll get to both in a moment!

Seek and find

A pair of researchers recruited 26 University of Wisconsin students to complete a seek-and-find exercise. Where they had to find a specific item mixed in amongst a screenful of up to 35 other items (e.g. “Find the trumpet” in the picture below).

From Lupyan G., Swingley D. (2011). Self-directed speech affects visual processing. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(6), 1068-1085.

Half the time, the students were asked to simply find the specified item and click on it. But the other half of the time, students were instructed to say the name of the item out loud before searching for it.

This isn’t an especially difficult task of course, since everything is right there in front of you, and it’s not like the trumpet can be hiding inside the pocket of yesterday’s dirty gym shorts. So the students all did pretty well at finding the items, whether they said the names out loud or not.

But that’s not to say that there weren’t differences. Because their performance was definitely improved when they said the item out loud.

Specifically, they made fewer errors. And they were also able to find the target item a tiny bit faster too.

Hmm…so what does this have to do with practicing and performing?

The importance of being able to describe your target

Admittedly, this is a bit of a leap, but the study reminded me of something Leon Fleisher said many years ago.

He was working with a piano trio, and at one point asked them to verbally articulate their musical intention for the passage they were working on. And not just to say that the phrase was “upbeat” or “energetic” but to be much more specific and descriptive.

He explained that it’s easy to think that you know what you want in your head, but if you can’t describe it in words, it’s an indication that you don’t actually have a clear enough idea about what it is that you really want. And how are you supposed to make something happen, if you don’t know exactly what you’re going for?

As Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Indeed, a number of psychologists have thought for some time (going back to William James in the late 1800’s) that words help to crystalize fuzzy, abstract ideas and concepts into working memory, where we can then bring them into focus, look at them, and put them under a magnifying glass. Sort of like how a forensic sketch artist might take a witness’s description of a person, and turn that into a concrete picture that we can see and use in a more tangible way.

How to apply this in the practice room

Whether it’s coming up with a clear concept of sound, identifying exactly where a phrase’s high point is, or deciding whether the concoction you are making for dinner is supposed to be chili or spaghetti sauce, it makes sense that we would be more successful in getting to our intended destination, if we take a moment to clearly articulate (and say out loud) what we want before we go after it.

I was chatting about this last week with violinist Nathan Cole, and he said this reminded him of an intonation-enhancing exercise that he’s found helpful over the years.

In much the way that verbalizing the name of an object made the participants better at finding it, this exercise seems to improve intonation by creating a clear and vivid intonation target in our heads. Because sometimes, the intonation issue may not be so much because of our fingers, but our inner ear.

That probably sounds awfully vague and abstract, so let me turn things over to Nathan, who put together a video to illustrate how we can put this into practice.

More Nathan

For more helpful videos, practice techniques, and other fun stuff (like this ranking of the most difficult violin concerto openings) from Nathan, check out his website and blog Nate’s Violin.

Additional reading/videos

Have you ever heard of the “rubber hand illusion”? Nathan and I thought that this and the Total Recall technique had some conceptual similarities. Check out the short videos below which illustrate this odd phenomenon.

The rubber hand illusion (BBC version)
The rubber hand illusion (Ellen Show version)

How to Find Your Missing Keys and Stop Losing Other Things @NY Times

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


6 Responses

  1. Loved Nate’s video and thought much of it made sense and would work. As an oboist however, one can’t play the pitches on piano, sing and finger the notes on our instruments all at the same time. Any creative ideas out there for how to bridge that gap?

    1. Hi Donna,

      I wonder if it would work to record yourself playing the pitches on piano, and then play back the recording, fingering the notes on your oboe in sync (or ‘N Sync, if we’re sticking with 90’s references) with the recording?

      And then to record the piano, with yourself singing, and finger along with the recording?

      I’m sure Nathan and others will have creative ideas on how to adapt this to other instruments as well!

  2. I wonder if this technique would also work in combination with visualization for woodwind/brasswind players.

    After you play and sing along with the piano, imagine/recall that performance while you play your wind instrument but always keep focusing on your visualization as it should be the primary source of the music. This technique is supposed to help the music come from your mind rather than just mechanically. You can even visualize yourself playing your instrument along with a piano and voice, all in unison. You should be imagining how your instrument feels in your hands/mouth as you play in your mind. I am just getting started with this myself but I am sure there are others here who can give feedback on this who have already used visualization successfully. Have fun too!

  3. Great one. I’ve often reminded students who are reluctant to sing, “if you can’t hear it, if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it either.” It’s really so obvious, yet in a way counterintuitive to practice pitch the long way around.

    Right now I’m looking at a Turina Trio with a lot of high register notes for the violin. Upon a play through, the pitches aren’t obvious by any means! So the first step will be to really use this multi-sensory approach. That will make everything easier.

  4. Great video although I hoped that you provided a link to order the time-saving pitch implant for my brain

  5. I just got an interesting practice idea, based on these approaches. What about playing a favorite version of a piece (Claudio Barile’s Reinecke Undine Sonata for flute), while I “play” along -with no sound production? So I could mime the whole thing, accurate fingerings and all, while listening to the exquisite Barile version. Perhaps, tricking my brain into thinking that I’m actually producing the music. This is very exciting!

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