Need to Work on Shifting or Leaps From One Note to Another? Here’s How Mental Practice Could Help.

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I’m assuming I’m not the exception on this, but I remember maintaining a pretty aggressively unenthusiastic stance towards scales, etudes, and other technical exercises during my childhood years.

On some level, I think I understood that they were “good” for me, in the way that I could accept that my Flintstones vitamins were “good” for me. But in much the same way that I used to hide Fred, Dino, and Pebbles under my plate (clearly not the most sophisticated hiding place – what was I thinking?!), I did the bare minimum with my assigned technical exercises too.

But in hindsight, there are a few exercises that I wish I would have taken a little more seriously.

One of these, is a book on shifting, that I think might be one of the very first technique books that my teacher, Marya Giesy, shared with me. The Exercises for Change of Position book by violinist Gaylord Yost (download @IMSLP).

Getting from one note to another

At the time, it seemed like a pretty silly set of exercises. I mean, it’s just ~16 pages of shifts between various positions, with different fingers, on different strings. But looking at it now, I can appreciate the value of what Yost laid out. Because there are so many important nuances and details involved in getting from one part of the instrument to another that are worth practicing, whether on the violin, guitar, piano, or (presumably) other instruments.

Because aside from the shifting movement itself, which has to happen smoothly and often, very quickly, there are certain muscles that need to move even in advance of the shift. All of which takes quite a bit of anticipation, coordination, and timing to perform successfully.

Movement timing?

So that’s why I was intrigued, when I came across a study recently that looked specifically at mental practice’s effects on movement timing. And not just whether the correct notes were played or not. Which apparently, hadn’t been studied before.

So what does this all mean? Like, why should we care?

Well, maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about seeing someone shift and get from one part of the instrument to another with smoothness and effortlessness that’s pretty awesome. Kind of like watching a tennis player with an effortless one-handed backhand, or a basketball player with a beautifully smooth shooting stroke.

So if these key nuances and details of shifting/leaps/getting from one note to another some distance away can be improved through mental practice, away from the instrument, I thought that might be worth exploring.

An Italian study

A team of Italian researchers (Bernardi et al., 2013) recruited 16 pianists from local conservatories. All of whom were currently performing at a professional level.

Everyone first participated in two one-hour mental practice training sessions, which included various concentration, mindfulness, and imagery-focused exercises. They were also walked step-by-step through the process of using mental practice to learn the first four measures of the Finale from Beethoven’s C minor (Op. 1, No. 3) piano trio

Imagery training

Essentially this involved focusing on first visualizing which keys to press, and then gradually incorporating imagery of what their body needed to do to play the phrase. With instructions like “visualize as precisely as possible the keys on the keyboard corresponding to the written notes,” “visualize the position of the hand, the width of the movement of the arm.”

Then, participants were asked to add the feel and sound of the passage into their imagery, starting slowly, breaking the phrase down into smaller pieces, but gradually increasing the tempo. With instructions like “Feel each single interval, in terms of both movement and sound, starting at a slow tempo,” “feel inside your body how the fingers should press the keys, initially using a legato touch.”

Next, participants were encouraged to try playing the passage physically, for real, and switching back and forth between physical and mental repetitions, to refine their mental images.

Then they began adding dynamics to the equation (fortissimo, in this case), which affected articulation and touch.

And finally, they were asked to imagine performing the whole passage in its entirety as a complete series of connected movements.

They were asked to practice this process daily, with whatever repertoire they were working on, for the next couple weeks.

More imagery training

The second training session was much like the first, except they practiced using imagery to work on a different piece (Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 7).

And after two more weeks of daily mental practice, it was time to put all of this to the test.

Test day

When test day arrived, participants were presented with an arpeggio excerpt from Brahms’s 51 Exercises for Piano1

from 51 Exercises for Piano, by Johannes Brahms

This excerpt was chosen because the distance between notes and the fast tempo makes it a little challenging to hit the right keys. Though it’s not so hard that it’s not still sight-readable.

Everyone started off with a baseline performance, where they played the figure through just one time with a metronome.

Mental practice group

Then, the mental practice group was given 7 minutes to practice the piece mentally, without moving their hands or fingers in any way.

After which they played the passage through again.

Followed by another 7 minutes of mental practice, and then one last run-through of the passage.

Physical practice group

The physical practice group went through the same basic process, except that instead of mental practice, they were given 7 minutes to do any kind of practice they wanted, as long as it involved physically playing on the piano.2

No-practice group

And then there was a third group (control group) of participants who were not allowed to do any kind of practicing, and kept busy with questionnaires during the 7 minutes between performances instead.

So…were there any learning or performance differences between the groups?

The results

The researchers looked at two key aspects of accuracy – spatial accuracy (i.e. the number of wrong notes) and timing accuracy (i.e. hesitations in their movements). 

They also used video to do a movement analysis of the pianists’ finger, hand, and wrist movements. Like, how well-coordinated were the movements of the wrist and fingers? Did the fingers begin to open even as the wrist was moving, in anticipation of what would need to happen slightly in the future? Or did the movements of each part of the hand happen one at a time, one after another, in a more basic, less sophisticated sort of way?

And what about hand and finger speed? What was the fastest speed attained, and how long did it take to get to this peak velocity?

Accuracy

In terms of missed notes (spatial accuracy), both practice groups improved from their first performance to their last, while the no-practice group improved pretty much not at all. Although, as you’d expect, the physical practice group improved a bit more than the mental practice group did, missing fewer notes overall.

When it came to timing accuracy, however, both practice groups improved more or less equally. Where both the mental and physical practice groups saw an increase in the speed of their movements, as well as a reduction in the time it took to get to peak velocity too.

Which means what exactly?

Coordination

In other words, not only did their hands move more quickly from one part of the arpeggio to another – but there was also better anticipation of the movement. Where participants in the two practice groups started to execute the movement earlier, with less hesitation, than they did in their baseline recording.

Which I suspect is similar to how a violinist might front-load some of the movements required for a big shift (like loosening up the thumb, getting the hand shape into position, and starting to get the elbow around) well before they need to start the main shifting motion itself. So that there’s less to do during the shift, making for a smoother, more efficient, and less frantic sort of motion – and consequently, greater accuracy too!

So what are the main takeaways from all of this?

Takeaways

Well, for one, it’s nice to see yet more evidence showing how mental practice, while definitely not a replacement for physical practice, can nevertheless lead to some very specific, concrete improvements in our technique.

And even though movement anticipation might seem like an awfully narrow, tiny aspect of playing one’s instrument, I think it’s cool to know that we might be able to improve the coordination of tricky leaps or shifts in our head, without having to put our hands and bodies through the wear and tear of excessive physical repetitions.

If, however, mental practice doesn’t come naturally to you – like maybe you have difficulty imagining all of the details, or tend to get distracted easily – that’s ok too. To me, the study suggests that practice doesn’t have to be all physical or all mental. So instead of a mental-only practice session, a better place to start might be to do something like what the participants in the study did – alternating mental and physical reps in the practice room, so you’re integrating mental practice with the auditory and kinesthetic feedback that you get from the physical repetitions.

Bonus takeaway

The authors of the study had one more tip to offer, given some additional nuanced findings that there wasn’t space to review here in this post.

Consistent with findings in previous research, they found that the mental practicers who played fewer wrong notes, were the ones who reported doing more listening of expert recordings on a regular basis. Who presumably then had clearer “auditory models” to work off of in their imagery sessions. So there does seem to be some additional evidence here that listening to recordings, and cultivating one’s inner ear, might help to make your mental practice sessions more effective too.


References

Bernardi, N. F., De Buglio, M., Trimarchi, P. D., Chielli, A., & Bricolo, E. (2013). Mental practice promotes motor anticipation: evidence from skilled music performance. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00451

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, the first bar of Exercise 5a.
  2. In other words, they weren’t forbidden from using mental practice, because previous studies have found that it’s difficult to prevent people from doing any mental practice, but there did need to be at least some physical playing of the instrument involved.

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.

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