My college trumpet teacher, George Recker, used to say, “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” He was referring to how vitally important it is to be able to hear the music you’re trying to make, and the best way to test whether you can hear it is to sing it, because when you sing, you aren’t relying on the technology of the instrument to find the notes, you have to find them yourself. Singing is one of the techniques that veteran practicers use. Not only singing, but chanting or clapping or tapping rhythms, and a host of other activities. Several professional musicians I’ve interviewed about practice for The Practice of Practice say meditation is one of the best things you can do for your music. Science research is showing that meditation has lots of benefits. We’ll save that for another post.
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As a lifeguard during boring lap swims when swimmers simply splash up and down the lanes, I’d practice all my major scale fingerings and patterns, softly singing the solfege syllables that went along with them. [FYI, the solfege for the major scale is do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do (Yes, Sound of Music stuff)]. This is just one kind of mental practice. Tuba master Rex Martin hears–in his mind’s ear–a sound that he says is better than he’s capable of playing, and he strives to reach that ideal he hears in his head.
You’d be right if you thought musicians and artists and athletes and all other experts have known about this (and used it) for a long time. Published studies into mental practice go way back to 1892. A 1985 study of college trombonists (Ross) measured improvement on a piece of music after using 5 different practice methods: regular practice, mental practice only, both regular and mental practice, mental practice with moving the slide, and no practice at all.Everyone improved (even the ones who didn’t practice at all were marginally better the 2nd time around). Those who improved the most were the ones who combined physical and mental practice.
So what is mental practice? Another paper by McPherson and Zimmerman showed that successful musicians used mental practice strategies like chanting rhythms, singing parts, counting, fingering silently (though I would add that you should hear the music in your head while fingering), and especially isolating difficult or problem sections to practice mentally.
Here’s Rowan Atkinson with a pretty funny skit. It’s like he’s mentally practicing drums, and we get to hear what he’s hearing inside his head to hilarious results. Enjoy, and use this to remind you to inject mental practice into your own practice routine.
.McPherson, G. E., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Self-regulation of musical learning: A social cognitive perspective. In R. Colwell & C. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 327-347). New York: Oxford University Press.
Ross, S. L. (1985). The effectiveness of mental practice in improving the performance of college trombonists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33(221-230).
- 5 Meditation Tips for Beginners (psychologytoday.com)
- The hows and whys of meditation for beginners (ksl.com)
- The 8 Best Meditation Apps For Unwinding — On The Go! (huffingtonpost.com)
- What is Meditation? (draggarwal.org)
- How Meditation Can Boost Your Brainpower (lifehack.org)