• Evan Leontis

Mental Practice: What it is and how you can use it to optimize your performance

Practicing is an essential activity for us as singers. We practice to solidify the vocal technique we are learn voice lessons, to learn new repertoire, to explore different interpretations of our music, and of course to MEMORIZE our music for performance. As singers we are called on to memorize music for performance much more frequently than our instrumental friends. Aside from chamber music and oratorio, we always sing from memory and memorizing music can be a big source of stress for us (I know it certainly has always been for me!). Being able to learn and memorize music quickly, efficiently, and thoroughly is an essential skill for every singer-whether you are getting ready for your freshman jury as a music major or learning a new operatic role as a professional singer. As with anything in life, “time is money”, so being able to learn and memorize music with ease saves you both time and money (not to mention lost sleep) over the long run. The other obstacle singers face is that we cannot physically practice for as many hours a day as a pianist or a violinist. Our vocal folds are tiny and rather fragile, and thus can only handle so much voice-use per day. Because of this limitation, we must find ways to supplement our physical practice time, which brings me to the topic of this post-mental practice! Luckily, mental practice provides us with a number of tools that we can employ to help us with the task of learning and memorizing music without fatiguing our voices.

Musical practice can take the form of a number of different elements and techniques through the use of both physical practice (PP) and mental practice (MP). Physical practice includes both the focus on the technical side of playing an instrument or singing through the practice of scales,vocalises, or other technical exercises, and also the learning and preparation of new repertoire by physically playing or singing. Mental practice, on the other hand, has been defined as “the process of creating an accurate mental image of a physical action, with the intention of affecting one’s physical performance of the task in question” (Freymuth). Another definition notes that MP is the “cognitive rehearsal of a skill that takes place within an individual, in the absence of any gross muscular movement” (Ross). A number of studies have been conducted comparing the effectiveness of PP and MP, and also to determine the effectiveness of various MP techniques. Their findings provide us with valuable information that can lead to benefits such as more efficient practice and learning of repertoire, avoidance of overuse, fatigue and injury, the ability to practice during recovery from injury, increased body awareness and release of excess tension, performance anxiety relief, and an increased ability to set goals for artistic excellence.

There are a number of different mental practice techniques we can use as musicians including:

  • Silent rehearsal of a piece from either an internal or external perspective

  • Listening to a recording (also known as an auditory model) of a piece

  • Silent analysis or score study to compliment music learning or memorization

  • Visual imagery of a musical score to aid memorization

  • Writing out the text of a song or aria to memorize words

The effectiveness of MP has been proven in a number of studies which show that when MP is used in conjunction with PP, it can be as effective as PP alone (Ross; Rosenthal, Wilson, Evans, and Greenwalt; Theiler and Lippman). In a study of college trombonists, Ross compared the effectiveness of PP alone, MP alone, MP with simulated slide movements, PP combined with MP, and no practice (Ross). This study found that the group who employed a combination of PP and MP showed the greatest improvement, followed by the PP alone group, then the MP with simulated slide movements group, the MP alone group, and finally, the no practice group, which predictably showed the least amount of improvement (Ross). In the discussion of these results, Ross hypothesizes that the subjects in the combined practice group “were able to benefit from both the feedback associated with physical practice and the increased concentration on the cognitive aspects of the music” (Ross). In other words, musicians who combined PP with MP improved the most because the two types of practice informed each other so that the whole ended up being greater than the sum of its parts.

Another study compared the efficacy of several types of MP techniques when used by musicians to master a piece of music quickly (Rosenthal, Wilson, Evans, and Greenwalt). The study was conducted with 60 graduate and upper-undergraduate brass students. The subjects were randomly divided into five groups, each assigned a different MP or PP technique. Group 1 listened to an auditory model of the selection, Group 2 was asked to sight-sing the selection (with the use of a keyboard as needed), Group 3 was asked to silently analyze the selection, Group 4 was asked to practice the selection using PP, and Group 5 served as a control group who were asked to practice a different selection using PP. After they had completed these tasks the five groups were recorded playing the selection, with the control group sight-reading it. The recordings were rated for accuracy of notes, rhythm, phrasing and dynamics, articulation, and tempo. Findings from these recordings showed that MP with the use of an auditory model was about as effective as PP overall, and in note accuracy it actually exceeded PP. Interestingly, the group that showed the highest score in rhythmical accuracy was the MP group who used silent analysis. The researchers suggest this may have been because, “the exercise we selected for this study was rhythmically complex and the opportunity for silent analysis enabled the subjects to work out the analytical aspects of the rhythms” (Rosenthal, Wilson, Evans, and Greenwalt). This finding suggests that musicians can benefit from the use of silent analysis when learning a new piece of music that is rhythmically complex or challenging. Silent analysis allows for focused attention to be put on rhythm without the need for any attention being put on producing pitches. A practical application of this information is available for us when we are learning a new piece of music. If we are struggling with the execution of a difficult rhythm, we can stop to silently study the passage for a moment then return to or singing the passage, instead of trying to sing it correctly by repeating it over and over and getting frustrated with ourselves and perhaps fatiguing our voice.

Theiler and Lippman conducted a study of the use of MP by guitarists and vocalists. They compared the effectiveness of PP alone, PP combined with MP employing visual, kinesthetic, and auditory imagery, PP combined with MP employing an auditory model, and a control group who combined a shorter amount of PP with reading a self-help book on performance anxiety, in performances both with and without a score (Theiler and Lippman). Overall, their results showed that combining PP with MP is as effective as PP alone (Theiler and Lippman). This study also reveals important differences between instrumental and vocal practice. Combining the use of an auditory model during MP with PP led to the best results overall for the vocalists in both the memorized performances and performances with score, whereas for the guitarists this combination was most effective only in increasing the proportion of the piece that they were able to play from memory (Theiler and Lippman). These results can be explained by the fact that instrumentalists use kinesthetic and visual imagery in addition the auditory imagery in MP, due to the implicit nature of physically playing an instrument, which provides a great deal of kinesthetic and visual feedback. Singing, on the other hand, does not provide any visual feedback and provides kinesthetic feedback to a lesser extent. Because of this, vocalists are more reliant on the auditory feedback of singing and as this study demonstrates, the use of an auditory model seems to be more beneficial during a vocalist’s MP.

The findings of Theiler and Lippman’s study also demonstrate the benefits of using an auditory model during memorization of music. Combining PP with MP using an auditory model resulted in the most accurate memorization of music for both the guitarists and the vocalists (Theiler and Lippman). The researchers suggest that the use of an auditory model “may have fostered coding of an auditory model of the piece, particularly important for long-term memory and for use of self-generated auditory feedback for self-correction” (Theiler and Lippman, 1995). This is important information for us to remember when we are working on memorization. Listening to recordings can be very useful for memorizing-just be very careful to choose a recording that is musically accurate and do not attempt to imitate the singer’s tonal quality when you sing it yourself-you want to sound like you, not a bad imitation of Renee Fleming or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau!

As useful as mental practice is there is a big caveat to be aware of-a musician’s level of aural skills greatly impacts their ability to use mental practice effectively, as shown by a study that looked into the use of auditory and motor feedback of pianists during music learning. During the trials sixteen pianists sight-read and then memorized short musical passages under four different conditions: Normal PP, Motor Only MP, during which the pianists moved their fingers on a keyboard but the auditory feedback was muted, Auditory Only MP, during which the pianists sat in stillness and listened to auditory models of the music, and Covert MP, during which the pianists sat in stillness and imagined the sound of the music mentally. Additionally, the researchers conducted tests to determine the subjects’ aural skills levels. Performance of the memorized passages showed that Normal PP produced the best results while Covert MP produced the worst. The subjects who displayed strength on the aural skills test were affected the least when auditory feedback was muted, showing the correlation between strong aural skills and ability to create auditory feedback mentally during MP (Highben and Palmer). This correlation between strong aural skills and the efficacy of MP in pianists shown in these studies suggests a musician’s skill level can affect their ability to use MP effectively. In fact, proponents of the use of MP insist that musicians should strive to actively employ their analytical and aural skills training during MP (Connolly and Williamon). Yet another reason to ace your theory and aural skills classes!

As these studies show, the efficacy of MP has been proven in a number of different situations with a variety of types of musicians. This information becomes especially useful in instances when limitations are put on the amount of time a musician is able to physically practice, due to an injury or other circumstances that limit PP time. For musicians struggling with issues of fatigue or overuse due to a busy performing and or teaching schedule, MP techniques like silent analysis and score study, the use of auditory models, and mental imagery can be a useful tools for learning and memorizing without expending any physical exertion (Freymuth).

In a study of the use of MP strategies by collegiate cellists, McHugh-Grifa found that a majority of the students had been instructed in some form or another of MP technique in the past, and those who had not, “expressed surprise at how effective it was and regret that they had not been introduced to it earlier” (McHugh-Grifa). Music teachers have the responsibility of teaching their music students how to practice effectively and efficiently so that they are able to achieve their performance goals. Instruction in the use of MP techniques is an important component of this.

Try It For Yourself...

First of all it should be noted that MP efficacy improves with the skill level of the performer, for the simple reason that the more advanced a performer is, the more experience he or she has of the kinesthetic/motor, visual, and auditory feedback of making music to draw upon during the creation of mental imagery for use in MP. That said, I think it is useful practice for young singers to try out and develop over time as they become more skilled musicians. The key is to try out different forms of mental practice to find what works for you. Score study, with or without listening to a recording, can be an excellent way to try out mental practice when you are needing to rest your voice or have already sung enough for the day but need to work more on memorizing music.

Once you have a piece memorized and are getting ready to perform it for the first time, visualizing yourself performing can be another great way to employ MP. Research shows that adopting an internal perspective during visualization of a task is more effective than using an external perspective (Romero and Silvestre). For musicians, this means visualizing performance from the first-person perspective of performing, rather than picturing oneself onstage from an audience perspective. Despite this, Freymuth suggests that visualization from an external perspective could still be useful to some performers as a tool for readying themselves for a performance (Freymuth). Visualizing oneself performing from the audience’s viewpoint can help a performer place the performance in a larger context and could help calm nerves.

The consensus among experts is that MP should never replace PP under any circumstances, except perhaps during recovery from injury, but rather that it should be used to supplement and inform PP. In her book, A Soprano on Her Head, Ristad describes how alternating the use of PP and MP during a practice session can show a musician exactly what they need to work on. While working with a piano student in a lesson, Ristad asked her to mentally play a passage that she was having difficulty physically playing using what she calls her “feeling sense”. “Feeling sense” is Ristad’s name for the kinesthetic feedback one receives while playing. After the student had done so, Ristad asked her if she was able to play the passage cleanly in her head. The student admitted that she wasn’t able to do so. This informed her that she needed to go back to the score and work out what was going wrong. Ristad explains that this type of MP can provide musicians with information about how well they know the music they are working on. Only once you can mentally hear the music exactly how you want it to sound will you be able to play or sing it in this way. By creating an idealized aural image of the sound we want to produce, even if the sound is beyond our reach technically at that moment, helps us create goals for ourselves and can motivate practice and improvement. Once we are able to play or sing the passage in the desired way, mental repetition of the idealized version can help solidify the experience (Freymuth). This idea once again underscores the need for strong aural skills because, as was discussed above, the more fluent a performer is in their musicianship skills, the better poised they will be to take advantage of the benefits of MP using audiation.

The efficacy of Mental Practice techniques in improving music performance has been proven time and again in studies of musicians. These findings provide performers and teachers alike with important information that when properly applied can help musicians achieve their goals in a healthy and efficient way. Give mental practice a try as you prepare for juries, recitals and auditions, and experiment to find what works for you!

Gavi and I outside Aspen this summer


Bernardi, N. F., Schories, A., Jabusch, H., Colombo, B., & Altenmuller, E. (2013). Mental Practice in Music Memorization: an Ecological-Empirical Study. Music Perception, 30 (3), 275-290. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.uncg.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=14&sid=411f3de6-150c-4c03-943c-c203e2bbef36%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4207&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=85754794&db=a9h

Coffman, D. D. (1990). Effects of Mental Practice, Physical Practice, and Knowledge of Results on Piano Performance.Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 187–196. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3345182

Connolly, C., & Williamon, A. (2004). Mental skills training. In Musical Excellence: Strategies and techniques to affect performance (pp. 221-246). London: Oxford University Press.

Freymuth, M. (1994). Mental Practice: Some Guidelines for Musicians. American Music Teacher, 43 (5), 18-21. http://www.benjaminbreakingbarriers.com/uploads/AMT_1994.pdf

Freymuth, M. (1993). Mental Practice for Musicians: Theory and Application. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 8 (4), 141-143. http://www.benjaminbreakingbarriers.com/uploads/Article_for_MPPA.pdf

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McHugh-Grifa, A. (2011). A Comparative Investigation of Mental Practice Strategies Used by Collegiate-Level Cello Students. Contributions to Music Education, 38(1), 65–79. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24127177

Ristad, E. (1982). A Soprano on Her Head. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Romero, K., & Silvestri, L. (1990). The role of mental practice in the acquisition and performance of motor skills. Journal Of Instructional Psychology, 17(4), 218. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.uncg.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=8&sid=411f3de6-150c-4c03-943c-c203e2bbef36%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4207&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=9607242161&db=a9h

Rosenthal, R. K., Wilson, M., Evans, M., & Greenwalt, L.. (1988). Effects of Different Practice Conditions on Advanced Instrumentalists' Performance Accuracy. Journal of Research in Music Education, 36(4), 250–257. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3344877

Ross, S. L.. (1985). The Effectiveness of Mental Practice in Improving the Performance of College Trombonists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33(4), 221–230. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3345249

Theiler, A. M., & Lippman, L. G. (1995). Effects of mental practice and modeling on guitar and vocal performance. Journal Of General Psychology, 122(4), 329. Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.uncg.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=7&sid=411f3de6-150c-4c03-943c-c203e2bbef36%40sessionmgr4002&hid=4207&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=9512241313&db=bth

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