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Many elite athletes have described using visualization and mental practice to supplement their training and improve performance. And likewise, a number of musicians have spoken to this as well.

More than likely, you’ve used some form of mental practice yourself, whether it was hearing notes in your head as you read through a score, visualizing how you’d like your performance to go as you drove to the concert, or mentally practicing how to ask your theory professor for an extension on your final project.

Mental practice is generally thought of as being a purely mental activity. As in, you sit in a quiet place, and silently imagine yourself playing or practicing the music in your head.

But in the last few years, researchers have started testing out some hybrid approaches, that include a few twists. Like dynamic motor imagery, for instance, where you get up and move around as you engage in mental imagery.

And you might remember that we looked at a 2018 study (Romano-Smith, Wood, Wright, & Wakefield) a few months ago, which found that doing mental imagery while watching video of an expert performing that skill was even more effective than just doing mental imagery by itself (click here to read that again).

Mental practice can be a great practice tool – but if you tried the “action observation + mental imagery” hybrid and it just felt like you were banging your head up against a wall with very little to show for it, a more recent 2019 study provides some clues as to why that might be.

Let’s take a closer look…

A golf study

A team of researchers recruited 44 golfers (average handicap of 9.52) from several golf clubs to participate in an imagery study (McNeill, Ramsbottom, Toth, & Campbell, 2019).

An imagery assessment…

Each golfer was first given an imagery ability assessment to see how vividly they could see or feel various physical movements. They were then split up into two groups, based on how good they were at visualizing the physical feeling of these movements.

10 practice putts…

Everyone started out with 10 practice putts, so they could get used to the putting surface.

20 real putts…

And then they were given 20 chances to get the ball to stop on a target 15 feet away.

And a short imagery session…

After taking 20 putts, the imagery group watched a 3 1/2 minute video, where they saw footage of an expert golfer performing 20 putts, accompanied by a voice describing some of the key visual and kinesthetic feelings that are associated with successful putting.

The control group, on the other hand, just read a short golf-related article for 3 1/2 minutes.

…followed by 20 more putts

Finally, the golfers took 20 more putts, to see if the short imagery session had any impact on their putting performance.

And did it make a difference?

Results

Well, a single 3 1/2 minute imagery session is not a huge amount of training. But some of the golfers did benefit nonetheless – the important word being some.

Specifically, the golfers who went through the mental practice session and were categorized as good imagers improved the consistency of their putting more than the good imagers who didn’t do any mental practice.

But mental practice did not seem to help the golfers who were categorized as being poor at imagery. The imagery session didn’t seem to have any effect on their putting performance at all.

Takeaways

In other words, the ability to vividly imagine the physical feeling of a movement may be an important part of making this particular imagery strategy (i.e. action observation + mental imagery) work. 

So if you can imagine how playing your instrument would feel while watching your favorite musician effortlessly navigate a particularly tricky passage on YouTube, then yay! Action observation combined with mental imagery may be a really useful addition to your practice toolbox. Especially if you’re stuck on a plane or train, or it’s too late to practice without annoying the neighbors.

But if you’re watching a video, and finding it really difficult to imagine the physical sensations involved in playing, I wouldn’t stress about it too much. There are some indications that even just watching someone perform a skill (i.e. action observation) can improve your imagery ability, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch and listen to more recordings when you have some downtime.

Marathon, not sprint

And imagery, like anything else you do in music, is something you can totally get better at over time. So there’s no rush, and it’s likely that with time and practice, you’ll be able to expand your use of imagery.

After all, there are probably some things you can already imagine the feel of pretty vividly, and other things you can’t.

Like, you may have difficulty imagining what a really effortless up-bow staccato feels like, but be able to imagine the feel of drawing a nice juicy forte sound out of your instrument. Or you may be able to imagine the feel of a tricky string crossing passage, but struggle to imagine the feel of a big shift.

It’s a process!

All this to say, if you find mental practice really hard, really frustrating, and just can’t get a feel for the nuances of the physical movements in your head, a) you’re totally not alone, and b) I also don’t think that this is the sort of thing that is going to make or break your career either.

You certainly don’t have to give up on it entirely – but I think it’s also completely fine to give yourself permission to focus more on physical practice, and work on gradually increasing your awareness of how your body feels, as the motor movements become more deeply ingrained in “muscle memory.”

In the same way that your ears were not as well attuned to the subtle intonation, sound, and rhythmic details that seem glaringly obvious to you now, but were not on your radar 6 months, a year, or five years ago, if you keep paying attention to your body, and the kinesthetic sensations involved in playing your instrument as you practice and refine your skills, you might find that imagery strategies like the one we looked at today will start to resonate more over time.

But I want to get better at imagery faster!

That said, if you’d like to make a point of practicing getting better at imagery, you certainly could. =)

To that end, here’s a helpful article that describes how to improve your imagery skills with the PETTLEP model: Perfecting Practice: Applying the PETTLEP Model of Motor Imagery

Or, if you want the tl;dr version, you can get that here: Enhancing Sports Performance Using PETTLEP Imagery

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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 a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. 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 discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. 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.

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.

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