From homework to chores to soccer practice to play dates, young folks nowadays have an awful lot on their plates.

So while athletes and musicians have long spoken about the value of visualization or mental rehearsal for enhancing performance, how important (and relevant) is this for young musicians?

I mean, if you’re auditioning for a big job and are looking to leverage every possible advantage, then sure, it makes sense to devote time and energy to visualization.

But when it comes to young elementary, middle, or high school-aged musicians, isn’t it more productive to devote their limited time to physical practice? Or is visualization impactful enough to be a worthwhile activity even in the early years?

Young gymnasts, imagery, and competition

A pair of German researchers recruited 75 competitive gymnasts from 18 different teams, ranging in age from 7 to 16. On average, each athlete had been participating in gymnastics for about 6 years, and were currently training a little over 8 hours per week (but this ranged from 3 hours per week to 25.5 hours per week).

Each was asked to take an assessment that measured what kind of imagery they used, and to see how much of an impact imagery use had on performance, the researchers obtained scores that the athletes earned in actual gymnastics competitions.

Two types of imagery worked best

As you can probably guess, imagery use did seem to have a meaningful impact on performance.

However, not all types of imagery were predictive of better performances in competition. Two in particular were associated with higher-level execution:

1) “Cognitive specific” imagery

This not-particularly-intuitively-named type of imagery was the most frequently used imagery strategy among the young gymnasts, and is probably what comes to mind when you think of visualization. If you’ve ever imagined playing through a piece, and saw yourself performing specific movements with your hands/fingers/etc., you’ve engaged in this kind of imagery.

2) “Motivational general-mastery” imagery

The next most common type of imagery could be thought of as “contingency-planning” or “overcoming-adversity” imagery. While it’s certainly important to be able to visualize success, we don’t want students to get the impression that success is going to come without any speed bumps or challenges (because when does that ever happen?).

This type of imagery involves imagining ourselves overcoming adversity and staying positive and focused even when we’re having a rough day. Because sometimes that ability to remain unflappable and hang tough in the face of difficulty can be a much more valuable skill than being able to perform well when everything is going your way.

All ages!

And last but not least, the researchers found that the relationship between imagery use and performance was true at all ages, so it appears that imagery is something that young athletes (or musicians) as young as 7 can use to enhance performance.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that even younger musicians could benefit too, but it’s hard to say from this study alone since the youngest gymnasts here were 7 years old.

Takeaways

I think it can sometimes be tempting to put performance skills and mental skills training on the back burner. After all, students have scales, etudes, and other sadistic/ingenious exercises (watch/listen to the exercise here ) to work on, ear training and theory to explore, and a ton of repertoire to learn.

But visualization, and the ability to get really clear about what we want, is not just a skill that comes into play in performance settings alone. Whether it’s cultivating a clearer concept of sound, or honing our vision for how to shape a phrase, the ability to imagine a clear target is an essential aspect of musicianship as well.

Besides, it’s not like imagery practice is going to take time away from students’ physical practice or video game time. Visualization is something they can do anytime, anywhere, unlike most other types of performance preparation which require the instrument in hand. Walking the dog, driving to lessons, brushing teeth…there are lots of opportunities to work through a few tricky passages in their head. And there’s no time like the present to start!

Additional reading

Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training @The New York Times