How to Get Good at Mental Imagery, Even If You’ve Never Been Able to Visualize Worth a Darn

You’ve undoubtedly heard musicians, athletes, teachers, coaches, and psychologists all extol the virtues of mental imagery. How it can not only enhance your learning, but improve performance, help build self-confidence, regulate your emotional state, and more.

But you’ve probably also heard that for imagery to be effective, you must be able to generate vivid, clear images (or sounds or kinesthetic sensations).

So…what are we to do if we can’t create a clear image, sound, or physical movement? What if the only thing we can conjure up is a fuzzy, vague, fleeting image? What if all we can see and hear are missed shifts and cracked notes?

Should we scrap the idea of imagery altogether? Or just keep at it in the hopes that one day something will finally click?

Imagery ability varies

Researchers have known for some time that imaging ability is a skill that varies from individual to individual. Much like any physical skill, whether it be running, jumping, or sniping a baddie with your precision gaming mouse, some folks find visualization pretty natural, while others find it to be a real challenge.

Yet, there hasn’t been a ton of research devoted to finding ways to get better at it. For the most part, the idea has been that if you do more imagery, you’ll eventually get better at it.

But that doesn’t feel like especially helpful advice, no?

It’s like if I went to my teacher, expressed my frustration at not being able to play fingered octaves in tune, and their advice was to practice. That if I did more fingered octaves, I would eventually get better at fingered octaves.

Which I suppose is perfectly valid advice in the most general sense, but isn’t nearly as helpful as being given a specific strategy for improvement1.

What makes up an image?

Part of what makes imagery challenging, is that real life is a pretty rich and complex experience. So in order to make each image clear and vivid, there are quite a lot of elements we need to be able to add to the movie in our head.

Here are the three main areas:

  1. One category is comprised of all the external elements of the situation, like the architecture of the room, acoustics, and the itchy tag on your shirt that you meant to cut off, but forgot (“stimulus propositions”).
  2. Then there’s our internal experience, including muscle tension, increased heart rate, and our cold, clammy, zombie hands (“response propositions”).
  3. And finally, our interpretation of it all, as in whether we see the situation as a challenge or a threat, or whether we’re feeling anxious or energized (“meaning propositions”).

A team of British researchers developed an imagery training technique called layered stimulus response training (LSRT), that is built on the principle of developing imagery ability in layers, one tiny step at a time, instead of trying to create a vivid scene all at once. Somewhat like the process of building a house, from pouring the foundation to framing to interior decoration, adding more detail and refinement with each new stage.

Three steps of LSRT

Step 1: Image

The first step is to generate an image. Something like, playing through the first movement of a concerto in studio class2. It’s best if the image is something that comes from past experience, as this will make it easier to imagine the details.

An important part of this step is describing as much of the scene as you can in words. Because if you can’t describe what you see in your head, it’s probably a sign that the image is not clear and vivid enough.

Then you would let the imagery play out until the scene ends at some logical point. Like the end of your studio class performance, or the last note of the scale.

Step 2: Reflect

Then, you would rate the image you just created (1=“no image at all, only thinking of the scenario” and 5=“a perfectly clear and vivid image”), and reflect on the quality and completeness of the image. Did you see just the visual elements of the location? Or did your image also incorporate how your hands felt? How clearly did you hear the sound of your instrument?

The idea is to break the image down, and identify which parts were vivid and which parts were unclear. This way you have some idea what to add to the image in your next attempt.

Step 3: Development

After reflecting on your imagery attempt, you can either re-image the same exact thing, focusing on the elements that were the most vivid and easiest to imagine clearly. Or, you could try to develop the image, by adding another layer of detail on top. It could be another aspect of the space, like adding a stand or different lighting to your image. Or it might be a change in perspective (going from a 3rd person perspective to a 1st person perspective). Or the addition of vibrato to your sound. Or how your fingers feel during a tricky shift.

If this process seems vaguely familiar, it may be because it resembles the formula for deliberate practice. Where you try something, reflect on how it went, and plan small adjustments or improvements for your next attempt.

But does this really work?

The team responsible for developing LSRT took 24 participants with little to no golf putting experience, and who were also assessed to be low in imagery ability, and put them through a 4-day visualization program.

One group completed a visual imagery session each day, where they were asked to “imagine seeing the golf ball run along the green and gently roll into the hole” five times.

Another group engaged in a daily motor imagery session, where they were asked to “imagine yourself correctly and successfully performing the golf putting task” five times.

And the third group was trained in the 3-step LSRT process, and asked to “imagine yourself correctly and successfully performing the golf putting task” five times, utilizing the reflective and additive layering process.

Two big changes

After 4 days of practicing golf putts in their heads, only the LSRT group improved their ability to mentally “feel” the shot.

And perhaps more intriguingly, only the LSRT group improved their putting performance.

Which suggests, that imagery ability can be improved with the right kind of practice. And two, that it can be improved enough to produce results of practical significance.

bulletproofmusician.com
Williams, S. E., Cooley, S. J., & Cumming, J. (2013). Layered stimulus response training improves motor imagery ability and movement execution. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 35, 60-71.

Take action

If you’ve struggled with visualization in the past, this is as good a week as any to give LSRT a try. Here’s a quick summary of how this might look:

1. Visualize a passage.
2. Reflect, evaluate, and rate the vividness from 1-5 (i.e. Which parts were easiest to imagine? Most clear and vivid?).
3. Repeat the image, aiming to make the clearest, easiest to imagine elements even more vivid.
4. Reflect and evaluate the image once again.
5. Repeat 4 more times, each time taking the vividness of the image up a level, or adding an additional layer of detail to the image. Something like how effortless and light your fingers feel (response proposition), or the feeling of confidence before executing a tricky shift (meaning proposition). Don’t worry too much about what the “right thing” to add to the image may be. Just add whatever detail you feel would make the image more realistic.

Footnotes

  1. Like the fingered octave technique Franco Gulli once suggested, which is to experiment with varying the ratio of sound you produce with the upper and lower note. Playing each note equally loudly would be a 50/50 ratio, playing the lower note louder and only barely playing the top note would be a 90/10 ratio, and fingering both notes but only playing the lower note would be a 100/0 ratio. The idea is to start at 100/0, and progressively move in the direction of 50/50, but stop when you get to the point where you hear just enough of a little shimmer from the top note to make it sound like an octave. Spoiler alert: it’s going to be something much closer to 90/10 than 50/50, which is the key to making them infinitely easier to play in tune.
  2. Though it needn’t be nearly this complex; it could even be something as simple as playing a scale in your practice room.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
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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.

Comments

5 Responses

  1. I have little trouble visualizing kinesthetic imagery. I spent considerable time developing this skill, and I find that it really helps my playing BUT: I have had no success in visualizing and retaining complex stationary images, like the score for example. I have a colleague who memorizes his music by memorizing the visual image of the score, and his memorization seems to be as close to flawless as I’ve ever seen, so I’ve been trying to do the same for some time now. I don’t seem to be able to visualize more than a measure or 2 at a time, and those measures disappear from my memory when I try adding to them.

    I wonder if there is any research on this.

  2. Oh, this is tremendously helpful! I have been working on imagery, but my images aren’t very detailed, so I tend to “try again with more detail” and see what happens without any real idea of what to do. These kinds of mental exercises are so exhausting for me, I figure they’re like a muscle that needs to be strengthened except I didn’t know what exercises to do. So my next question is, when I’m mentally visualizing a performance and working on trying to get it down to the last detail, what are some techniques I can use when I don’t know what the performance space is going to look or sound like? Are there any adjustments I can make to better prepare myself mentally to adjust on the fly?

    1. Sometimes Google Images can be helpful in getting a sense of the space. And if it’s possible to go scope out the space the day before, that can be useful too.

      But part of being more adaptable on the fly involves playing/practicing in more spaces, and when that’s not an option, playing in many different ways in the same space you usually play in (variable practice), so that you’ve become much more comfortable playing the same passage in different ways.

  3. I think students tend to be better at “visualizing” with whatever their dominant learning style is. For instance, I think my aural learners hear the sound, and know when it isn’t matching when they play. I try to start all of my students with really basic forms of “imagery” from day one, and keep adding. At the beginning, it is often verbalizing the note they are about to play (and then later all the letters of the passage before they play). Later I ask them to name finger numbers for faster passages much more quickly. I suspect this does different things for different students (some may be hearing the pitch, some seeing finger numbers on the page, some feeling their finger moving). But in general, if they can verbalize it, they can do it. I’m pretty sure they are visualizing some aspect of the playing even though I can’t get inside their brains. Months later I ask them to visualize the bow paired with the left hand. Maybe we add the contact point on the string next. Or which finger is in contact with the string during the shift. I ask them to visualize the exact moment the shift must start, or how fast the hand moves. When they shift to a note in the higher positions, I ask them to think of an object that would put their thumb to requested finger the right distance apart. (Is it a note with an orange shape in the hand? grapefruit? toy car? etc.) I think this is basically teaching visualization over the course of years. I often refer to it as “car practice” or “vacation practice” if students tell me why they won’t be able to practice much the following week. With many students, I forget to take it to the extreme levels you mention. Feeling the future mood. Picturing the future performance hall. I need to remember to continue the requests for everyone! I like the idea that this can be taught in as little as 4 days!

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