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Enhancing your musical performance abilities.

Musicians usually are amazed when they hear stories bout those who perform remarkably well with little physical practice. Usually we explain this phenomenon by citing the performers' prodigious mental capacities. Fritz Kreisler, for example, was a renowned violinist who was famous for his disregard for physical practice. He silently studied scores while on long train rides between concerts and described learning entire concertos without touching his violin. He believed technical skill was a result of mental ability, and he advocated the creation of a "mental picture" of one's playing actions. (1) There is truth to these beliefs, and everyone possesses the ability to improve by mentally practicing away from their instrument.

Similarly, athletes such as Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan and Nancy Kerrigan prepare for performance by "seeing" and "feeling" themselves performing key actions successfully in their "mind's eye." (2) In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey equates athletic improvement with the development of mental skills, "without which high performance is impossible." (3) During the past century, this phenomenon has been studied by sport psychologists who advocate the use of cognitive strategies to improve physical performance.

Sport psychologists believe peak performance is a consequence of both physical and mental factors. Mind and body cannot be separated, and many athletes and coaches say at least 40 to 90 percent of sports success is due to mental factors. (4) In both sport and musical performance, the mental aspect of a skill becomes more important as the skill level is raised. Sport psychologists specialize in the use of mental skills, such as imagery, relaxation, modeling and mental practice to enable athletes to maximize their performance potential.


Research in the field of sport psychology supports the belief that the use of imagery can help decrease anxiety during performance, increasing focus and concentration, easing the effects of stress and promoting a more cognitive approach to practicing. Parallels between the fields of music and athletics are numerous, but two important similarities must be kept in mind. First, both athletes and musicians depend on the trained response of their muscles to function in their skill. Secondly, performance in both fields requires concentration, focus and the ability to allow the mind to control physical reactions when the body is under stress.

Sport psychologists became interested in imagery after they discovered how often it was used by the most successful athletes. Questionnaires related to a person's cognitive style and use of imagery were given to athletes at different experience levels, so researchers could develop a psychological profile of a successful performer. In addition to having high self-confidence, good concentration skills and feeling relaxed but energetic during performance, many of these athletes stated they used imagery to prepare for competitions.

Imagery is a mental process in which an individual experiences the sensory and perceptual processes of an event by consciously visualizing the experience in his or her mind. This technique "programs" the human mind to respond according to how it has been trained. It is important to understand that this process is an ordinary mental function and has not been invented by psychologists. In fact, all infants rely on imagery to process information, so we all have some natural capacity for it. As people reach the stage of adolescence, however, more emphasis is placed on other skills, such as verbalization, and the use of imagery decreases.

Images allow for a simultaneous processing of huge amounts of information, just like skilled movement. If a musician or athlete is able to form an image of the movement, he directly experiences the action or perception that goes along with it. In contrast to imagery, conscious analytic thought is a serial process, requiring each bit of information to be taken in sequence.

When teachers describe for a student the actions that take place in a particular movement, the words they use are symbols representing a more abstract concept. In a state of simultaneous processing rather than conscious thought, one allows the body to function automatically without interference of thoughts about how to play. The technique of modeling, in which the student tries to imitate the teacher's sound or physical gesture, may be used during a lesson to trigger simultaneous processing.

Though most researchers agree that imagery and mental practice do indeed have a significant effect on performance enhancement, they continue to debate exactly why imagery works. Some research suggests the impulses that occur in the brain during actual movement also occur to a smaller degree when the same movements are imagined. (5) This is called the "psychoneuromuscular theory."

Richard Suinn most recently tested this phenomenon when he had a downhill skier use imagery to recreate a race. The electrical activity in the skier's leg muscles was monitored as he imagined the downhill run, and the printout of muscle firings mirrored the terrain of the actual ski run. (6) A student reading music and hearing the music in her head is gaining benefits similar to those from physical practice, if the same impulses occur in the brain during actual movement.

Another theory, called the "symbolic learning theory," suggests that imagery functions as a coding system to help athletes acquire or understand movement patterns. All movements are first encoded in our central nervous system so we have a blueprint; or plan, for the movement. The symbolic components created by imagery help make the movements more familiar and perhaps more automatic. This theory is supported by the fact that mental practice usually is found to be more effective on movement tasks that have a cognitive, rather than a purely motor, component.

Imagery should involve as many of the five senses--auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory and kinesthetic--as possible. The emotions associated with performance experiences also are important to the practice of imagery. Students learn to overcome their fears when they imagine themselves performing optimally even while under pressure.

Many sport psychologists believe internal imagery is more effective than external imagery. Internal imagery takes place when someone imagines an activity inside his own body as if he is actually performing it. External imagery, which might be used when a person is first learning the skill of imaging, involves mentally watching oneself perform an activity as if watching it on television.

Sport psychologists stress the importance of positive imagery, or the visualization of an ideal performance. In fact, research supports the claim that positive imagery is important for yielding successful results. A significant study on dart throwing found positive mental practice led to improvement, while negative mental practice actually led to a decline in performance. (7)

Music teachers should remember this when preparing students for performance. If teachers warn their students to be prepared for anything that could go wrong, they may be creating a negative image in the student's mind. Similarly, if students anxiously imagine themselves making mistakes in performance, they may be setting themselves up for failure. Teachers should remember to spend time in lessons telling students what to do in a competition or performance, rather than what not to do.

Imagery may be used to help an athlete connect a positive attitude or frame of mind with performance. A "power image" is an image evoking the specific attitude and action feeling that is desired in performance situations. To obtain a strong climax at the end of a piece, for example, a violinist might imagine a cheetah lying in wait at the end of a runway, then building tremendous speed as it launches toward its prey.

Past successful performances should be examined to conjure images of ideal technique, attitudes and emotional states. A student should come up with cue words and phrases that match with these emotional images, such as feelings of calmness, control and enjoyment. These feelings then may be used as an emotional template in which the student imagines executing an ideal technical model.


Sport psychologists advocate the use of relaxation techniques prior to both imagery rehearsal and actual performance. It is important during imagery rehearsal to imagine feeling calm and in control while on stage. Mentally rehearsing these emotions enables musicians to attain them more easily when the situation becomes a reality. Relaxation training may be used to reduce performance anxiety, remove localized tension, promote sleep before competition or performance, and teach athletes and musicians how to regulate muscular tension. In addition to its performance benefits, the regular use of relaxation techniques may reduce the detrimental effects of stress on a musician's daily life.

The techniques of relaxation may be divided into two categories. The first category of techniques works from "mind to muscle" and includes the cognitive or mental approaches to relaxation, such as meditation and imagery. (8) When a performer mentally tells the body it is relaxed, the subsequent relaxation is a result of imagery.

The "muscle to mind" techniques address the bodily aspects of relaxation. Progressive relaxation, a technique devised by Edmund Jacobsen in the 1930s, requires the student to first tense each muscle in his body and then let it relax. (9) The muscles are trained to become sensitive to any level of tension so they may release that tension. As the muscles in the body are relaxed, the mind becomes calm and focused. Stretching is another way to release tension in the body, as many practitioners of yoga have found. Students may do simple stretches before a practice session, such as extending the arms overhead or doing a forward bend, to relax the muscles and focus the mind.

Deep breathing always should accompany relaxation techniques. It also should be used prior to performance as a way to calm the body and focus the mind. In addition to its calming effect, deep breathing facilitates performance by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood, thus carrying more energy to the muscles. Many people use only shallow breathing in their daily life and breathe from high in their chests rather than in their diaphragms. Under conditions of stress, the breathing pattern often is further disrupted. Performers may hold their breath or breathe rapidly and shallowly from the upper chest.

Learning to take a slow, deep breath usually triggers a relaxation response, so performers may find it helpful to take deep breaths prior to walking on stage. Some musicians also may find it helpful to plan a deep breath mid-performance, such as on a long rest, between movements of a piece or rhythmically breathing along with a long melodic line.

When first learning to breathe properly, students should put their hands together in front of their stomach. They may imagine that the lungs are divided into three different levels. As they inhale through the nose, the lower section is filled with air and the abdomen is forced out. Students then should expand the chest cavity and raise the rib cage and chest as the middle section fills with air. Finally, students should fill the upper portion of the lungs by raising the chest and shoulders slightly. Exhaling through the mouth involves pulling the abdomen in and lowering the shoulders and chest to empty the lungs. Articulating the rhythm of one's

breathing is beneficial for two reasons: it focuses the mind and maintains a slow and constant breathing pace. Students might, for example, try mentally counting to five on the inhalation and exhalation. As diaphragmatic breathing becomes easier, they may experiment with longer counts or hold the breath between the inhalation and exhalation. To promote relaxation, students may think of a specific word, such as "calm," as they exhale. They also might imagine releasing any distracting thoughts as the air is expelled. In addition to being a relaxation aid, working with breathing and counting may be another way for music students to practice the kind of sophisticated timing necessary in the gradual, smooth shaping of a crescendo or the use of rubato.


Teachers may elect to begin using relaxation and visualization with their students by using scripts, such as those featured in a book titled Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance. (10) Some examples may be found in Chapter Eleven, "Optimal Sports Performance Imagery," by Emmett Miller. A script is a written narrative, which may he read out loud by the teacher, that directs the student through a series of relaxation and imagery techniques.

Even if the scripts are not used in imagery sessions, merely observing the language used in these scripts may change the way teachers instruct their students. Imagery scripts employ wording such as "let yourself" or "allow the body" to act in a certain way. If this type of language were used in teaching, it might promote a more relaxed and natural approach to playing the instrument. Instead of forcing the body to move in a certain way, which has a negative effect on tone quality, we may encourage our students to allow their body to move naturally and therefore play with less tension. For example, instead of instructing a student to "put your shoulders down," a teacher might say, "Let the shoulders relax."

Mental Practice

A distinction should be made between the terms "imagery" and "mental practice." Imagery is a more general term that designates any kind of conscious visualization. In contrast, mental practice is a technique in which someone rehearses a motor or cognitive process to strengthen the learning of a new skill. Mental practice might be used while learning or memorizing a piece in preparation for performance. There is an abundance of research that investigates the effectiveness of mental practice.

The greatest support for the use of mental practice has been provided by research studies in which one experimental group combines physical and mental practice. This finding suggests that musicians can gain the most progress by backing up physical practice with additional mental practice. (11)

Researchers have found the alternation of physical and mental practice resulted in the same performance gain as physical practice alone. (12,13) At a time when many musicians suffer from injuries or physical stress due to excessive amounts of physical practice, a regimen that alternates physical and mental practice may be extraordinarily beneficial.

Another study found the effects of mental practice deteriorate after a period of seven days. For this reason, students should be advised to practice mentally at least once a week. Because there was little difference in the effectiveness of mental practice between experienced and novice subjects, both beginning and more advanced students may benefit from using mental practice. Researchers suggested that an optimal amount of mental practice seems to be about twenty minutes. (14)

There are a few studies that have researched the effects of mental practice in specific relation to the music field. Most of the music-related experiments have studied the effect of mental versus physical practice on sight-reading skills. Many studies indicate physical practice is superior to mental practice when both are used exclusively. Musicians should be advised that mental practice should not be used as a substitute for physical practice at their instrument. However, only practicing mentally is more effective than not practicing at all. (15,16,17,18) This finding is important for students who may be unable to practice at their instrument because of injuries or other circumstances.

There are several ways to approach mental practice. It might be used to learn or memorize a piece of music or to test one's memory. It is important to use all the senses while practicing: one should hear the music, feel the keys under their fingers and see either the keyboard or the musical score. Performers might alternate between visualizing the score and the keyboard, while cueing themselves about physical gestures ("relax elbows now," "sink slowly into the keys here") or musical analysis (noting the form, chords or cadences).

Practical guidelines for the use of mental practice may be found in a book written by Malva Freymuth titled Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians. She states that in a practice session, students should follow a "three-step loop," in which they imagine an ideal aural model, then physically play the passage in an attempt to recreate that model and finally analyze the rendition by comparing it to the model. (19)

Even listening to one's repertoire is a form of mental practice. If students record their lessons, or listen to recordings of artists playing their pieces, they are strengthening their aural memory of the piece. A study about the memorization of piano music indicated that mental practice with listening actually yielded superior results over mental practice alone. (20) To maximize the effectiveness of this type of practice, students can imagine the feel of the keys under the fingers, remind themselves of verbal cues while listening and visualize either the keyboard or the score.

Students may elect to tap their fingers as if playing the piano while they hear the piece mentally. This strategy may be used to strengthen kinesthetic memory or as a beginning strategy for students who find it difficult to "hear" the piece without moving their fingers. A study by S.L. Ross contained one experimental group that used a simulated slide movement of the trombone while mentally practicing. Results from the study indicated the use of body movement rehearsal techniques may enhance the effects of mental practice. (21)

Modeling is another technique espoused by sport psychologists, and it is a form of mental practice. Some athletes watch videotapes of a single physical skill, such as a backhand stroke in tennis, being performed with perfect technique. By observing perfect execution of the skill, these athletes hope to gain an understanding of the physical techniques of successful athletes. In the same way, musicians may watch a great performer and empathize with his or her playing or imagine how it feels to play with the same sense of freedom or ease.

Mental practice and imagery are helpful, in part, because they develop the skills of concentration and focus. Those attempting to overcome performance anxiety often overlook the importance of concentration. When people are focused solely on sound and are listening intently to the music they are making, it becomes more difficult for them to pay attention to thoughts of self-doubt or fear.

Focusing purely on mental strategies is an important way to develop the concentration necessary for performance. Most students rely on physical repetition to train their mind and muscles, but a change in this practice approach may lead to vast rewards in performance. By advocating mental practice as an appropriate alternative to purely physical practice and advising students to supplement it with relaxation and imagery techniques, teachers may be helping their students avoid injury and become more focused, relaxed and confident performers.


(1.) Freymuth, Malva, Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians: A Practical Guide for Optimizing Practice Time, Enhancing Performance, and Preventing Injury. (Boulder, CO: Integrated Musician's Press, 1999).

(2.) Moran, Aidan P., The Psychology of Concentration in Sport Performers. (East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, 1991): 208.

(3.) Gallwey, Timothy, The Inner Game of Tennis. (New York: Random House, 1974): 17.

(4.) Williams, Jean M., "Psychological Characteristics of Peak Performance," Applied Sport Psychology, edited by Jean M. Williams. (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1986): 124.

(5.) Jacobsen, Edmund, "Electrical Measurement of Neuromuscular States During Mental Activities I: Imagination of Movement Involving Skeletal Muscle," American Journal of Physiology 91. (1930a): 567-608.

(6.) Suinn, Richard M., "Psychology and Sports Performance: Principles and Applications," Psychology in Sports: Methods and Applications. (Minneapolis: Burgess, 1980): 26-36.

(7.) Powell, G.E., "Negative and Positive Mental Practice in Motor Skill Acquisition," Perpetual and Motor Skills 37. (1973): 312.

(8.) Williams, "Psychological Characteristics of Peak Performance," Applied Sport Psychology. (1986): 124.

(9.) Jacobsen, Edmund, Progressive Relaxation. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).

(10.) Sheikh, Anees A. and Errol R. Korn, eds., Imagery in Sports and Physical Performance. (Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company, 1994): 176-179.

(11.) Feltz, D.L. and D.M. Landers, "The Effects of Mental Practice on Motor Skill Learning and Performance: A Meta-Analysis," Journal of Sport Psychology 5. (1983): 25-27.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Driskell, J.E., C. Copper and A. Moran, "Does Mental Practice Enhance Performance?" Journal of Applied Psychology 79. (1994): 481-492.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Coffman, Don D., "Effects of Mental Practice, Physical Practice, and Aural Knowledge of Results on Piano Performance," Journal of Research in Music Education 38, No. 3. (1987): 187-196.

(16.) Geerlings, Carla J., "Effect of Mental and Physical Practice on Improving Keyboard Performance," (thesis, University of Kansas, 1998).

(17.) Ross, S.L., "The Effectiveness of Mental Practice on Improving the Performance of College Trombonists," Journal of Research in Music Education 33. (1985): 221-230.

(18.) Pierson, Michael Eldon, "Effects of Mental and Physical Practice on 6th Grade Beginning Band Instrumentalists' Performance Accuracy," (thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1992).

(19.) Freymuth, Mental Practice and Imagery for Musicians: A Practical Guide for Optimizing Practice Time, Enhancing Performance, and Preventing Injury. (1991).

(20.) Lim, Serene and Louis G. Lippman, "Mental Practice and Memorization of Piano Music," Journal of General Psychology 118, No. 1. (January 1999): 21.

(21.) Ross, "The Effectiveness of Mental Practice on Improving the Performance of College Trombonists," Journal of Research in Music Education 33. (1985).

Lesley Sisterhen is pursuing a D.M.A. degree in piano performance and pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma, where she studies piano with Jane Magrath. She also teaches both group and applied piano as an instructor at the University of Central Oklahoma. She received an M.M. degree in piano performance from Florida State University and a B.M. degree in piano performance from the University of Houston.
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Author:Sisterhen, Lesley
Publication:American Music Teacher
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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