Should You Be Using a Metronome When You Do Mental Practice?

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Pianist Leon Fleisher has said that between melody, harmony, and rhythm, rhythm is by far the most important.

As the saying goes, timing is everything. And there is indeed something really compelling about how great performers have a way of stretching and compressing time, of playing with great freedom (yet in perfect time), and doing some incredibly nuanced things with the placement of notes – as Yo-Yo Ma elicits in Fleisher’s playing here, and as Fleisher and Pamela Frank describe here and here.

Of course, timing, like any skill, needs to be practiced and cultivated.

And while metronomic precision is not at all the same thing as good rhythm, practicing with a metronome can help make sure we’re not cheating or fluctuating randomly in erratic ways.

But…have you ever used a metronome when doing mental practice?

I mean, it’s pretty typical to focus on one’s concept of sound when visualizing. Feeling the physical ease and movements of our fingers and bodies. And perhaps even imagining what we’ll see when performing.

But have you ever wondered about the accuracy of your sense of rhythm during mental practice? When you mentally rehearse a tricky passage in your mind, how close is the timing of the imagined version to what it would be if you played it on your instrument for real?

Like, if it takes you 48 seconds to play the Schumann Scherzo in real life, does the visualized version also take 48 seconds (give or take a second or two)? Or is your imagined version more like 42 seconds? Or 53?

Because that would suggest that the version in your head could be rushing. Dragging. Or both.

Ok. Point taken. But how big a deal is rhythmic accuracy in mental practice?

Imagery speed vs. physical speed

There’s actually not a lot of research looking at the relationship between imagery speed and real-world performance speed.

So a team of researchers recruited 21 national-level judo black belts, to see how speeding up or slowing down imagery of an already well-learned series of moves might affect the real-time performance of these movements.

The athletes were told nothing about the purpose of the study; just that they would be supplementing their training with short imagery sessions, in which they would perform and mentally practice a sequence of three moves that involve throwing one’s opponent over one’s hip (the the Koshi-waza from Nage-no-kata ).

Pretest

To determine the regular pace at which the athletes typically execute these movements, everyone started out with a pre-test, where the athletes were asked to perform each series of moves 3 times, just as they would in competition or training. On average, it took each athlete about 40.5 seconds to go through the series.

Then they were asked to perform each series twice more – but faster (37.3 seconds). And then, another two times – but slower (42.4 seconds).

Training

The athletes were then divided into three training groups. One group – the faster group – would visualize performing these moves faster than they did in the pre-test. A second group – the slower group – would mentally rehearse executing these techniques more slowly than normal. And a third group – the control group – would do no imagery practice, but simply stretch for the same amount of time as the other groups’ imagery practice.

Three times a week, for 4 weeks, the athletes engaged in mental imagery sessions consisting of 6 mental repetitions of the 3 throws. They were instructed to visualize both the physical and visual aspects of the skill, and to make sure they really were speeding up or slowing down the images in their mind, they were asked to start a stopwatch when they began the visualization, and stop it when they were finished. Here’s the exact script they were given:

Attempt to imagine yourself doing the second series of the Nage No Kata (Uki-Goshi, Haraï-Goshi, and Tsuri-Komi-Goshi) with your eyes closed by visualizing yourself standing in front of your partner, holding the kimono with a right kumikata in a normal posture. Try to see and feel only what you would do if you actually executed the kata. Make sure to see your hand on your partner’s kimono, and try to execute the entire kata at the requested speed. You will execute the Nage No Kata, just as you did in the pretest when you made actual movements. Just imagine yourself doing the kata at a faster speed (or “slower speed,” in the slower group’s script), keeping in mind your trajectories and displacements. Only start the timer when you start feeling and seeing the first movement. Reposition yourself again and do the same thing on the left side at a slower (faster) speed. Do the same for the next two techniques first on the right and then on the left. As soon as you finish the kata, stop the timer and open your eyes.

At every third imagery session, the athletes were asked to perform the techniques on a partner for real, just as they would in a competition or training session, so researchers could time the duration of their movements and see if the visualization practice was having any impact.

Finally, after completing all of their imagery sessions, the athletes did a post-test, where they once again performed the movements at a normal training or competition speed, just like at the pre-test.

So…did anything change?

Results

The short answer, as you can see from the chart below, is yes.

From: Louis, M., Guillot, A., Maton, S., Doyon, J., & Collet, C. (2008). Effect of Imagined Movement Speed on Subsequent Motor Performance. Journal of Motor Behavior, 40(2), 117-132.

Speeding up the movements in their mental practice, led to faster physical performance of these movements. Likewise, visualizing slower performance of these techniques, led to slower physical execution of these moves.

In the pre-test, for instance, the faster group performed the first technique in 7.63 seconds. At the post-test, it was 7.25 seconds. Admittedly, this first decrease in time was not statistically significant. But the second technique dropped from 15.38 seconds to 12.88 seconds. And the third technique went from 16.13 seconds to 13.88 seconds. The latter of which were both statistically significant.

Meanwhile, the slower group increased from 8.25 seconds to 8.63 seconds for the first technique (also not a significant change). And increased from 15.88 seconds to 19.63 for the second technique. And 16.63 seconds to 20.63 seconds for the third technique.

The control group’s movement times, on the other hand, stayed more or less the same for each of the techniques1.

So what does this all mean?

Takeaways

The study suggests that the speed of our movements in mental practice can affect the speed at which we perform these skills in actual performance. And that the speed of our physical movements could “drift” in the direction of whatever we visualize in our minds – without necessarily being aware of it.

Meaning, if we have a tendency to rush or drag in our mental practice, this could seep into our physical performance too.

1. Umm…so does that mean we ought to fire up the metronome when we’re doing mental practice?

It would have never occurred to me to use a metronome during mental practice. But, if you’re preparing excerpts for an orchestral audition, in which rhythm is going to be particularly closely scrutinized, I could see how that might be helpful on occasion. (Has anyone experimented with this before? I’d be curious to hear your experience if you have.)

2. Does this mean slow mental practice is bad?

I don’t think the research is saying that there isn’t value to slow mental practice. It can be useful to slow things down and problem-solve tricky technical details in your mental practice, just as you would in your physical practice. It’s just that as you get closer to a performance or audition, you probably want to make sure that your mental rehearsal is a pretty close replica of exactly how you intend to perform.

3. Does this mean that you could learn to play a passage faster, simply by visualizing that passage at a faster tempo than you can currently play it at?

You know, that’s the first place my mind went when I read this study. I don’t think the study necessarily answers this question, but I’m intrigued by the idea. Like, what would happen if you set a metronome at a tempo a few clicks faster than what you can currently manage, and spent a week or so visualizing yourself playing a tricky passage at that tempo. Would this help you get the passage up to that tempo?

I honestly have no idea – but if you try it, please do report back in the comments and let us know how it goes!


References

Louis, M., Guillot, A., Maton, S., Doyon, J., & Collet, C. (2008). Effect of Imagined Movement Speed on Subsequent Motor Performance. Journal of Motor Behavior, 40(2), 117-132.

Footnotes

  1. Except for the third technique, which went from 16.2 seconds to 14.8 seconds. This wasn’t necessarily something the researchers expected to find, but they note that this could simply be a practice effect, resulting from the tiny bit of practice the athletes got from the pre-test and the regular checkpoint tests they did every week.

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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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Comments

13 Responses

  1. Wow this is interesting. And honoustly, I don’t know why I never thought of using a metronome with imaginary practice. It sounds so obvious. Definitly going to try

  2. Interesting article. I’ve been recently working on some songs for an audition packet as a singer, and this is very relevant to me.

    In my voice lessons, my coach gets very technical with notes, so as I practice at home, those notes always come up in my mind when I reach the respective points in the music. But doing so causes me to slow down the tempo because I’m now cognitively processing if I’ve done it correctly or not.

    To fix this, I’ve purposefully set up a metronome to force myself through those spots. In other words, it forces me to just get through the technical shifts and on to the next part of the song. It increases my fluidity and makes, what was once many small technical changes, one fluid movement.

  3. Honestly, I did not read anything stunningly new. If there were no organized scientific observations on this issue, it is possible to conduct a survey between the performers on the experience of their self-observations. I will add my two pennies to the topic. When I try to imagine the metronome beats. or see an image of a knocking metronome, two things happen:
      1. clear contractions of the vocal cords appear in an imaginary rhythm;
    2. The imaginary rhythm is not stable, and has a tendency to be late and “stuck.” The reason for the first is clear to me – ideomotor movements; the reason for the second is asking for scientific research …

  4. I’m an orchestral pianist. I used to use the metronome in my mental practice. Because I have so many pieces to play continually in the concert and sometimes I can’t recall all the tempo in my head, also because it’s normal for the orchestra to have very limited time to prepare the pieces together with all of the orchestra too. So, I practice my mental with a certain metronome, listening to it while singing a melody inside. And that helps a lot, I can remember most of the tempo / tempo change and play more smooth without mistake. Thanks for the article 😊

  5. I have been spending more and more time doing mental practice with a metronome, because I realized I had no idea whether my mental processes were at all steady or not. It has definitely helped my consistency in auditions. It has especially helped in the warm-up room before auditions. I put in earplugs to block out the competition, and do a mental run through with a metronome. It is more focusing than playing against the noise. Also, it works against the rushing that adrenaline can bring about, and prevents me from wearing myself out and stiffening up right before I play.

    1. I asked my students about metronome/mental practice, and one of them said something along these lines too – that it helped them stay more focused on their visualization when they had a metronome to play along with. Sounds like a great way to keep your mind “in the game” as it were in a warm-up situation where it would otherwise be really easy to get distracted, etc.

  6. I’ve always either used a metronome or tapped my foot while mental practicing. This article makes me want to try not doing that, just to see the other side of it.

  7. Regarding your third question (whether visualizing the music faster helps you play it faster), that is the claim made in the book Forward Motion by Hal Galper. This is a book about jazz phrasing. In Chapter 10 of his book Halper emphasizes a skill that he calls “vivid aural imagination” that is necessary to improve how one plays jazz. His point is that you have to be able to hear the music vividly in your head before you can play it.

    The book is on jazz, and a lot of it is centered on improvisation, but he also applies the principle to technical speed. Halper tells a story where he once listened to some recordings of Art Tatum playing very fast. Halper listened to the recordings for 3 hours, then immediately went to the piano and started playing. He was able to play as fast as Tatum for a while, but gradually slowed down to his own technical level as the sound of the fast recording faded from his ears. He concludes the story by saying, “How fast you can play depends on how fast you can hear. Everyone has an upper limit of hearing speed that they work on extending over the years.”

    I’ve given that a try, and have had just enough success to believe that it really works. But I still have a long ways to go to get where I’d like to be. “Hearing fast” is harder than it seems like it ought to be.

  8. Re: the Hal Garper story, and this study, I agree that concept & speed are correlated.

    “You can only play as fast as you can hear”. There’s a somatic component as well. If your body is freaking out while imagining playing something fast, you will freak out and interfere when it’s time to play it.

    It does leaps and wonders to cultivate a clear somato-musical concept that is fluid, easy, swift, and sonically accurate.

    One way I practice this is, say I have a target tempo of q=120 but can only play q=90 clean. I will record myself at q=60 perfectly precise, then speed up the recording and hear myself playing it perfectly at q=120. I study this concept and note that my body tenses when I imagine playing that fast.

    I dissolve the tension through mindfulness while internalizing the new tempo.

    Much of my practice these days is mental, especially when I’m preparing music. I do perform mental practice with the metronome and foot tap (I generally prefer self-generated rhythm). By establishing a clear conceptual framework for the piece, it’s much harder for gross errors or mis-use to creep in.

    Thanks for the article Noa!

  9. An extremely important experience. Reminds me of a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time: can musicians with a good sense of rhythm mentally visualize a metronome with a precise rhythm too? Because I can’t – something obviously slows down the beats of the mental metronome.

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