A case for mental practicing: How Oberlin taught me the power of mindful practice
When I was in high school I didn’t know mental practicing was even a thing. Violinists will understand when I say my early practicing was shaped by Meadowmount.
I have many fond memories of my time at the Meadowmount School of Music, in the middle of the woods with five hours of required practicing every day. And I mean that sincerely. I made wonderful friends that I still keep in touch with today.
The problem was, I never knew how to practice for that amount of time in a mindful way. For me, it was about the hours, not what I was accomplishing with these hours. I took that mindset with me when I came to Oberlin, and found myself injured two years later (check out my blog about injuries and health if you’re interested). Suddenly I couldn’t practice anymore. This was devastating. I looovve practicing. I didn’t know how much I liked to practice until I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like everything my life was geared toward had lost its center of gravity.
Obviously, I had to do something.
Crying and Netflixing (is that officially a verb now?) can only take up so much time. First, I decided to become a fitness model and go to the gym every morning. That lasted for about a week. Then I wanted to learn French and Italian, read Beethoven’s diaries and become a masterful bread baker. Spoiler alert: I did read some of Beethoven’s diaries; I can make a gorgeous ciabatta bread; and know how to conjugate “avoir” and “andare.” However, most importantly I decided to go on a quest of learning how to mental practice.
Step no. 1: I asked my teacher how to mental practice. He told me to segment a certain amount of time per day, divide up the pieces and play through them in my head, feeling the motions of playing as I was imagining them. A friend told me that I could also work on memory with mental practice. I was playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, and was trying to memorize the second half. I realized if I was playing through it in my head and couldn’t imagine a certain measure in my fingers, it was because I hadn’t memorized it. Then, I realized that by mental practicing I can memorize patterns.
For example, the last two pages before the cadenza in the Tchaikovsky concerto has a pattern that restarts every measure, and evolves continuously. I would think about what the landing note of each arrival point was, how it was different, and memorize the order of the different notes. The different notes were my anchors.
Next, I emailed Dr. Noa Kageyama. Dr. Kageyama is an Oberlin alumnus who is currently on the Juilliard faculty as a performance psychologist. He frequently visits Oberlin, gives several workshops centered around performance anxiety, and teaches private lessons. I was fortunate to have a few lessons with him and am a big fan of his blog. He has some amazing info on beating anxiety, effective practicing, and much more. Dr. Kageyama responded with a kind, informative, and thoughtful email containing these major tips:
- To avoid mental fatigue, pick tricky sections and do those for a short amount of time
- Dynamic imagery: this is where you pretend to hold your instrument (air violin) and engage in some movement as you simultaneously engage in visualization. The movement doesn’t have to be exact; it’s just to get you a little more into things.
- Observation/imagery combined: This is where you alternate between watching and listening to a phrase, then doing imagery of the phrase. Or doing imagery of the phrase as you’re watching and listening to a performance of that phrase.
- Alternating physical/mental practice: This is experimenting with doing a single physical repetition of a tricky passage followed by a handful of mental practice repetitions. Then another physical repetition. Then more mental repetitions, etc. So perhaps three physical reps, with five mental reps between each - like physical + mentalx5 + physical + mentalx5 + physical.
Lastly he shared a blog post about injuries with me.
Another cool thing, after emailing him, I went to his site a couple days later and found this blog explaining how to mental practice featured on his home page.
In October 2018, cellist Khari Joyner came to Oberlin as a guest artist and gave a recital and master class. I went to his recital, which was followed by a Q&A. Joyner is a very very very smart person. Not only has he been studying at Juilliard for a long time, and is finishing a DMA, he also has a math degree from Columbia.
During the Q&A I asked him if he ever practiced away from his instrument, and if he did, how he went about doing it. He said mental practicing wasn’t something he got into until later in his academic journey, and that now he uses down time, especially on flights, to mental practice. Ding ding ding went my thoughts. One of my chief problems with airports is that they don’t have practice rooms. If I was president, that’s the first executive order I would sign (that’s probably why I’m not president). Anyway, by having my music with me and mental practicing, I can take a practice room with me in my thoughts wherever I go! That sounded creepy, but you know what I mean.
After fall break, I was flying back to Oberlin with a connection from Seattle to Philadelphia and had time to kill. While my neighbors were reading their novels and watching boring movies, I got out my copy of the Elgar Violin Concerto and started mental practicing the final two pages. The stewardess looked a little perplexed, but that was OK.
While I was at Round Top Musical festival over the summer (still during my injured period), I learned how to use mental practice to learn ensemble parts. Confession: I’m not a superhero orchestral player. There are amazing species of people who walk into orchestra and can sight read anything, are always right, and always play with confidence. I ain’t one of them.
Before I started on this quest, I would take out my orchestra part and practice the first page. If I came to a notey couple of measures, I would realize that I wasn’t sounding coordinated, brilliant, or clean. Ideally everything I play should always sound coordinated, brilliant, and clean, so I would practice those measures until they were just that. Then I would go to rehearsal and play those measures brilliantly, cleanly, and musically. The rest of the piece... not so much.
The semester I got injured, I asked my chamber coach, who is in the Cleveland Orchestra, how he learns orchestral music so quickly and efficiently. He said he scans the music and brackets the parts he knows he can’t sight read, and practices those. That makes a lot of sense. There’s just one problem — he can count much better then I can. Now, I have a hybrid model of practicing orchestral parts. I listen to the piece with music first. Then I mental practice it once all the way through, making sure I understand the rhythms (even the um pa pa’s), then I finger the hard parts, and then I go practice the parts I know I can’t sight read.
The good news is, you can do the mental part while you’re eating, or even if you’re just taking a coffee break in the afternoon. So am I an orchestral superhero specie now? No, but I’m continuously getting better. On that note, my music is waiting for me in my back pack and it’s time to work on some Szymanowski.