Most musicians sit practicing by the hour; religiously refining their technique with etudes and exercises. We musicians get fond of our routines. It’s very easy to have a great sense of accomplishment when you put in your time. In fact, some of us have anxiety fits when our practice material or routines get changed. Unfortunately, this puts the emphasis on the physical aspects of music. The point of practicing is to fine-tune the body so it will respond to the demands of the mind. Technique should never be the sole pursuit. You must tap into your musical mind, otherwise your performance will suffer.
When I hear a performance that is particularly moving, I know the musicians have been successful in creating and expressing their musical image. You don’t sense the effort in what they are doing, only the result. Their musical choices are clear and coherent to the listener–they have musical clarity.
Musical clarity is the product of well-defined choices. Call it imagery, visualization, hearing the music first, etc. What you call it is not important, the result is the same. Mental imagery allows the musician to match their performance to the music in their minds. This mental focus seems to transcend mere physical results. A study conducted by the Soviets prior to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics provided some interesting results. There were four groups of athletes training for the Olympics. The first group had 100% of their emphasis placed on physical training. The second group had 75% of their training focused on the physical aspect and 25% on the mental aspect (i.e., visualization). The third group underwent 50% physical training and 50% mental training. And finally, the fourth group had only 25% of their Olympic preparation in the form of physical training and 75% in mental training. I would have thought that the group with a balanced, 50/50 approach would have had the most success, but this wasn’t the case. The fourth group, which had trained most heavily in mental preparation and visualization exercises, showed better improvement than the other three groups. The athletes using 100% physical emphasis performed dead last.
In the same way, the closer the link is from your mind to your instrument, the higher your level of performance will become; provided you’ve created a clear mental picture. So how do you go about creating a mental image? By practicing of course, but not in the traditional sense. First, sit in a quiet area. Take your music in hand and try to hear yourself playing it as you read it through (you might have to get a pitch from a nearby piano). Now, choose a section that has caused you difficulty. Do you hear mistakes? Keep fine-tuning your mental picture until it’s mistake-free. Don’t be discouraged if this takes a while. Visualization takes a lot of concentration at first, but gets easier with time.
Now move on to hearing yourself play with great expression and with the most beautiful tone. When you pick up your instrument, continue the same thought process. Keep your attention on the image in your mind. The time for assessing how well you’ve done comes after you’ve played, not during. Arnold Jacobs, a world-renowned brass pedagogue, says “Make a statement.” You cannot simultaneously make a statement and ask a question. It diffuses your performance. There is plenty of time for evaluating after you’ve played.
When you finish, ask yourself a couple of questions. Was that what you wanted to play? Are you truly playing what you think you are? Sing the line and see if your playing matches it. Your control is internal, not external. When you practice, keep the picture of what you want to do always in the forefront. Don’t play mindlessly.
If you practice this way, your overall playing will excel and the enjoyment you glean from the experience will multiply. Using mental imagery makes you choose how you want to perform. It makes you have an opinion. When you’re mirroring the performance on your instrument to the performance in your mind, you’re free to explore new interpretations. You’ll find several ways to perform the same passage. You are only limited by your imagination. That’s the beauty of music. That’s the beauty we all want to experience and express. So go for it. Picture yourself becoming the next great artist.