With the Olympics just around the corner, you’re likely to come across an article or two about athletes’ use of mental imagery or visualization in the near future. Because whether it’s to build confidence, enhance performance, or allow for additional practice repetitions without putting excessive wear and tear on their bodies, mental rehearsal has become an essential piece of many athletes’ training regimens.

It’s not just Olympians who engage in visualization, of course. I had a student who used visualization to prepare for her secondary piano lessons so she could spend more of her practice time on her main instrument, and less on the piano (ok, maybe not the most nobly-intentioned use of visualization, but clever, and not a bad way to use one’s subway commute). And we’ve all mentally rehearsed awkward conversations in advance, whether it’s telling your dad you just wrecked a loaner car, negotiating your rent, or delivering the “It’s not you, it’s me” line to your soon-to-be ex.

But aside from knowing that we should probably visualize what we want as opposed to what we don’t want, what exactly are we supposed to do?

Should we be sitting down somewhere quiet? Or standing up with our instrument? Remaining completely still and motionless? Or is it ok to let our fingers and arms move? Should we be focused on the kinesthetic sensations of our muscles? Or just the sound we want to produce? Seeing everything as if we were looking through our own eyes? Or as if we are watching ourselves from the audience?

Yeesh…

At the end of the day, how do we know if we are doing visualization correctly?

The PETTLEP model

Drawing from research in sport psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, two British researchers developed a 7-point checklist of the key factors which influence the effectiveness of visualization. A Cliff’s Notes guide to effective visualization, if you will.

Called the PETTLEP model (you’ll see why in a moment), the main idea is that the more closely we can get our visualization practice to resemble our physical practice, the more effective our efforts will be.

Here are their 7 guidelines for taking your visualization to the next level:

1. Physical

Perhaps the most important of the guidelines, the idea is to make your visualization experience as physically similar to playing as you can. Meaning, go beyond simply imagining the kinesthetic sensations we would experience when playing our instrument. Wear the same clothes you’ll be wearing at your performance. Have your instrument in your hands (unless, of course, you’re doing this in the subway). Get your heart rate up, make your hands cold, try to remember what your body feels like when you’re nervous.

2. Environment

If you’re doing visualization to practice a passage or solve a fingering issue, it may not matter so much where you imagine yourself playing. But if you’re using visualization to build confidence and prepare for a big audition or performance, imagine yourself playing in the same exact location where you’ll be auditioning/performing.

Couldn’t sneak into the hall ahead of time, even just to take a quick peek and walk around? That’s ok – there’s probably a picture or video online of the space you’ll be performing in, which can work too. If that fails, even walking into a similar hall or space, just to get a feel of the size, the stage under your feet, and the expanse of the seats in the audience can help.

3. Task

We all think about different things while performing; your imagery should reflect this too. Do you focus on your fingers? On the quality of sound? On phrasing? What toppings you’re going to put on your celebratory pizza? This will vary from person to person, and also across skill level too, with more experienced folks tending to be focused more on higher-level big-picture concepts than technical or mechanical details.

Either way, think about what the optimal content of your thoughts should be in a performance, and add these to your visualization script.

4. Timing

Generally, it makes sense to do imagery in real-time. Not rushed, or slowed-down, but with the same exact rhythm and timing as the physical execution of every shift, bow change, and exhale. Of course, if you’re slowing things down to troubleshoot a passage, just like you would when practicing physically, it can certainly make sense to do this in your mental practice too.

5. Learning

As we continue to learn and grow, so too will (or should, anyway) the content of our imagery. Why? Because as we become increasingly skilled musicians, the level of detail and awareness we have about our playing continually expands. Think about all the things you know now that you didn’t a year ago, never mind 5 or 10 years ago. There was a time, for instance, when simply getting the notes was enough. Then it was getting the notes with good sound. In tune. With good rhythm and pacing. With inflection. And so on. Once you get the basics down, your focus turns to increasingly subtle details and refinements, all of which have to be continually added to your imagery script as well.

6. Emotion

Most of us don’t perform in a relaxed, totally chilled-out state. So visualizing ourselves performing in the biggest audition of our life, supremely calm and relaxed, doesn’t prepare us particularly well for the reality that we’ll ultimately be experiencing.

What emotions will you be experiencing at the audition? Will you be nervous? Excited? Add ‘em to your script!

7. Perspective

There are two perspectives or points of view we can use to “see” ourselves in action. An internal perspective is where you experience yourself playing as if you are looking through your own eyes. An external perspective is where you see yourself playing as if you were sitting in the audience, looking at yourself through another person’s eyes.

Internal seems to be more effective, as it’s a closer approximation to what we experience when we’re playing for real, but sometimes an external perspective can be helpful too. For instance, if you’re trying to rehearse your walk on stage, or figure out how to refine the movements of a skill that uses more of your entire body.

And, some people just have a natural preference for one or the other. That’s ok too.

It’s not all or nothing

Whew! That might seem like an awful lot to think about at first. But don’t worry. If you’re new to visualization (or even if you’ve been doing it for years), take it in small steps. Just focus on one area first, and as that begins to feel more natural, begin incorporating other elements as you become increasingly comfortable with the process.

You don’t have to incorporate every single one of these elements to experience the benefits of mental rehearsal. Think of the PETTLEP model as a roadmap for effective visualization. A set of guidelines that can help you more closely approximate the experience of physical practice, thereby maximizing the effectiveness of your efforts.

Additional reading

Here’s an interesting article (and short video) illustrating athletes’ use of visualization at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics: Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training @The New York Times