VISUALIZATION: AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT IN DAILY MUSICAL PRACTICE

“The key to transform an apparent technical or musical problem lies in your mind, in a process of creativity where such goals are resolved effectively and powerfully.  Studying thus becomes a moment of true learning and enjoyment”   – THE CONSCIOUS MUSICIAN

A little bit of background

There are moments in life when we are faced with difficulties that can also be a wonderful doorway into new ways of seeing and appreciating both our personal and professional lives. This happened to me one sweltering summer in Switzerland, while I was studying at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana. Due to physical tension in one of my hands, I had to stop playing violin for a couple of months.  At first it was very hard for me to accept this situation, but over time and with the right therapy my hand healed completely. 

At this time I had the opportunity to reflect on the reasons for my physical tension when playing the violin.  Thus, in one of my moments of reflection I realized that every technical or musical problem is resolved firstly in the mind. This realization constituted a moment of awakening in my musical journey. At that moment, I closed my eyes and saw myself… PLAYING WITH TENSION! At the time, I didn’t understand the reason for this image, but I knew that it was the beginning of a dramatic change in my relationship with myself and with music. 

It is something that is both very simple and very complex. The fact that my teachers constantly told me that I was tense when I play had made my brain register this as the only fact of my playing.  It was a “normal” situation; so much so that my unconscious mind recreated this image of myself, which manifested itself physically. In this moment of revelation, I realized that if I wanted to play free of tensions I would need to transform my image of myself playing the violin, and thus resolve each challenge mentally before performing.

Throughout this phase of transformation, I had absolutely no idea of the power of the imagination and visualization, or of the scientific research that had been conducted on this question.  Nor did I know about the visualization techniques used by athletes before their sports routines.  There is now extensive scientific evidence demonstrating the power of mental images at a physiological level, and many sports  people speak of the visualization techniques they use prior to their competitions. One example is the tennis star Venus Williams. Just before her first tournament win at Wimbledon, her father told her to go out onto the court before the game, and imagine herself winning the match. She sat down on the court and quietly visualized the sensation of the match point that would win her the trophy. A short time later, she had that trophy in her hands, this time at the physical level and with a full stadium cheering for her victory. 

This is but one example of how athletes use visualization in their daily practice. Of course, they can imagine themselves winning a trophy, but they can also imagine themselves simply playing at the level they wish to achieve at that time.  This technique is known as Visual Motor Rehearsal, and is used both by Olympic athletes and by NASA.  It was introduced in the 1980s and 90s by Dr. Denis Watley.

Among the scientific research conducted on the topic is the theory of neuroplasticity.  Alvaro Pascual-Leone, director at Harvard-Thorndike Clinical Research Center, directed the following experiment.  In a laboratory, he taught a musical sequence to two groups. One of them had to learn the sequence by playing it and the other by imagining playing the sequence in their minds.  At the end of the experiment, he asked both groups to play the melody. The results were surprising. They discovered that mental practice alone produces the same physiological changes in the motor system produced by physical performance. And not only that; the level of performance of the group that only used the mental sound map was higher than the group that only used physical practice.

All of this opens a new perspective on playing a musical instrument. If athletes can use these techniques to get more out of their playing, why can’t musicians enter the world of images and visualizations and use them to improve their musical performance? Some techniques of this type are proposed below to help consider your daily music practice  from a “mental” point of view.

Visualization techniques applied to your music practice

Before exploring how to use all of the above in our musical practice, I’d like to invite you to carry out the following exercise, designed to develop your musical muscle.

  1. In a place where you won’t be interrupted, take a seat in a chair. Straighten your back naturally, without stiffness, and plant your feet firmly on the floor.
  2. Take some slow and deep breaths with your abdomen. Count out 4 beats on inhaling and another 4 on exhaling. 
  3. Now imagine that you are holding a fruit in your hands, such as an apple. Try to sense the texture and scent of the fruit. You can try this step with several types of fruit.
  4. At the end of the exercise, open your eyes slowly, stand up and walk around the room.

This simple exercise will help you to develop the capacity to sense and perceive physical sensations in your mind.  Done regularly, it will facilitate the following steps for your daily mental music practice.

  1. Take a few slow, deep abdominal breaths.  Go over your body mentally, relaxing each part of it through your respiration.
  2. Choose a passage from a musical piece you are studying.
  3. Imagine the sounds of the passage in detail, the quality you want to hear and the musical direction you want to take with it.
  4. Play the passage.
  5. Now, visualize yourself playing the same section with the technical and musical level you wish to achieve.  You should do this from the perspective of your performance to the audience – NOT as if you were observing yourself from outside.  Carry out this step at least 3 times.
  6. Play the same passage again.
  7. Make a note of your reflections at the end of the process.

 Using your mind this way in your daily practice will keep repetitions from becoming mechanical, transforming them into conscious and effective repetitions. Never repeat something without knowing why you’re repeating it. Resolve it first of all in your mind. 

This type of study takes time before you will see definite results.  Remember that you are training your mental-musical muscle. Once you make this kind of technique part of your daily routine, you will start to see wonderful results in your musical performance and the value of its application for every aspect of your work as an artist.

This post is also available in: Spanish

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