The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein is said to have learned Franck’s Symphonic Variations by engaging in mental practice on a long train trip, playing it on a piano for the first time at the first rehearsal.

Is this just the stuff of legend? Or are feats of learning like this possible for us “normal” folks?

To what degree can we learn, memorize, and play pieces that are at our ability level without the benefit of an instrument to practice on?

Mental practice vs. physical practice

A team of Italian and German researchers conducted a study with 16 pianists (ranging in age from 18 to 36, each with at least 15 years of piano study).

The pianists were given two comparable 19-measure excerpts to learn – from two different Scarlatti sonatas (K72 and K113). Why these two in particular? The researchers wanted to make sure that technical issues wouldn’t be a factor, and both of these excerpts were easy enough to be sight-readable by every participant.

To compare the effectiveness of mental practice vs. physical practice, the two excerpts were learned on two different days. On one day, the pianists engaged in 30 minutes of mental practice on one excerpt, and then gave a performance of it from memory. On another day, the pianists engaged in 30 minutes of physical practice on the other excerpt, and gave a performance from memory.1

The results were nuanced, but interesting.

Two measures2 of effectiveness

The effectiveness of the pianists’ practice was evaluated in several different ways.

Number of notes

One measure was simply the number of notes they were able to recall from memory. When relying on mental practice, the pianists were able to get about 63% of the way through the excerpt before stopping. That’s not bad, but physical practice was more effective – getting the pianists about 84% of the way through the excerpt.

Ratio of wrong notes to total notes

The researchers also computed a ratio score – of wrong notes to total notes. Because it’s one thing to play 300 notes, but if half of them are the wrong ones, that’s much less meaningful than playing only 200 notes, but nailing every single one.

Here too, physical practice was more effective, with a ratio of .08 to .17 for mental practice (lower is better).

So. Thus far, the results suggest that mental practice is better than nothing, but not quite as good as physical practice. Which makes total sense, of course.

But wait – there’s a twist (because there’s always a twist, right?).

10 more minutes!

After the first performance test, all of the pianists were given 10 more minutes to practice. So for those doing physical practice, this meant a total of 40 minutes of piano time before a second and final run-through.

Those who did mental practice also got 10 minutes to practice – but this time, on a real, physical piano.

Could they get to the same level of playing in 10 minutes on a piano that the other group achieved in 40?

As it turns out, yes, they could. Ten minutes of physical practice was enough to get the mental practice group’s performance up to the level of the physical practice-only group. With regards to the number of notes played, the mental practice folks got 83% of the way through the piece. The physical practice group got 90% of the way through the piece – but this difference was not statistically significant.

Same thing with the ratio of correct notes to total notes. 30 minutes of mental practice plus 10 minutes of physical practice led to a ratio score of .07, while 40 minutes of physical practice resulted in a score of .04. Once again, this small difference was not statistically significant.

What exactly does mental practice entail?

There was a bit of variation from pianist to pianist, so a bit of caution is probably not a bad idea. But it does seem that mental practice plus physical practice could be an effective combo. Useful if you’re stuck on a train or airplane and don’t have access to instruments. Or if you’re trying to save your chops after a double rehearsal, and avoid injury.

But hold on a sec. What exactly does mental practice mean? What were these pianists doing in their heads during their 30 minutes of no-touching-the-piano-allowed time?

The researchers dug a little deeper, and found that strategies ranged from mentally hearing the sounds of the notes to imagining the feel of the correct hand/finger movements to singing out loud. Some of these strategies seemed to lead to higher ratings3 (by a panel of musicians) of their performances, while others led to no change or even lower ratings.

Based on the results, here are the researchers’ recommendations:

  1. Auditory imagery – or hearing the notes on the page “should be a default operation, a foundation on which other operations rest.”
  2. Analysis – figuring out the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic structure of the piece is another important aspect of mental practice.
  3. Listening to recordings can help – once again, to support the development of the inner soundtrack of the music in your head.

A couple additional notes of interest…

A plug for aural skills training

The pianists all took an aural skills test, and those who scored higher on aural skills ability were able to play a greater percentage of the excerpts. They also received a higher overall performance score from the judges. So if you’ve been looking for a reason to pay more attention in ear training class, I guess now you’ve got one!

Mental practice – not a common practice4?

These were all experienced pianists, who were well aware of a range of mental practice techniques. However, none of the 16 reported utilizing mental practice regularly during their normal practice routines. Which made me wonder…is that a bit of an anomaly, or is mental practice really not a regular part of most musicians’ day-to-day practice habits?

Footnotes

  1. But not necessarily in that order. To make sure things were fair, half of the pianists did mental practice first and the other half did physical practice first.
  2. Ha! A pun!
  3. Which included factors like articulation and phrasing, dynamics and expression, etc.
  4. Ha! Another pun!