Mental Rehearsal Can Work For You, Pt. 1

When preparing for an upcoming performance performers work diligently by practicing and rehearsing.  As we’ve talked about before, musicians spend the majority of their time in the practice room or in rehearsal rather than on the stage and can be more readily characterized as practicers rather than performers. You would think that would make us experts at practicing.  However, many musicians don’t take advantage of an incredible type of practice—mental rehearsal—that can enhance your current practice habits.

What is mental rehearsal?   Technically speaking, it is silent practice.  It is the act of imagining your practice or performance without any physical movements or sounds.  Some call this type of rehearsal—visualization or imaging—to make a picture in your mind.  Some of the synonyms of the word visualize include to anticipate, to call to mind, to conjure up,to envision, to foresee.  All of these describe the process of mental rehearsal.  One thing to remember though, mental rehearsal or visualization is not only about seeing your ideal practice or performance in your mind.  The most effective mental rehearsal is all about experiencing your ideal practice and performance as vividly as possible using all of your senses.

Mental rehearsal or mental practice is by no means a new concept.  Musicians have used their mental skills to learn music, to improve their skills, to anticipate challenges, and to program their minds and bodies for the type of performances they want to give.  Two famous examples come to mind.  In his autobiography, internationally famous concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein recounts how he learned Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain by reading the score on trains and playing the first rehearsal from memory.  Another example is of violinist Fritz Kreisler.  Kreisler was well-known for his aversion to practice and often claimed that playing the violin was something that happened more in the brain than in the hands.  Kreisler described learning entire concertos while his violin remained in its case.

Mental rehearsal can supplement your physical practice in a variety of pre-performance and post-performance ways:

When Learning Music and  In Practice
  • Silently read through a new piece to hear and feel yourself play or sing it accuarately and confidently
  • Break up your physical practice by short periods of imagining yourself performing a certain skill as you just drilled it.  This gives your body a rest while your mind is still fully engaged in mental practice.
  • In a rehearsal, the accompanist could play while you play or sing along in your head—imagining the way you really want to hear, feel, and see yourself perform that particular section or the entire selection.
  • When memorizing, it is very helpful to practice recalling in your imagination.  Having already committed something to memory, it is always good to vividly recall a difficult passage or a complete section.  This is especially helpful if you have ever had any trouble with injury from repetitive stress or strain injury, are just fatigued or for singers, you have laryngitis.
Preparing for Performance as part of a Pre-Performance Routine
  • Mental rehearsal is a great way to transition into your role as performer by mentally rehearsing the centered, calm and confident you who is ready to begin your performance.
  • As part of your pre-performance routine, mental rehearsal can help you anticipate potential challenges and program in a coping response.   You will want to identify your unique mental and musical challenges that may include worrying about who’s in the audience, being nervous about making mistakes, fearing embarrassing yourself, worrying about memory slips or difficult passages in your music.  Visualizing yourself being faced with one of these fears or worries and successfully using a pre-planned coping response to deal effectively with each challenge will help you feel confident and ready for anything.
  • When you are out on stage and ready to begin,  you can take a moment to imagine a calm, yet energized confidence and the ease and beauty of your first few phrases.  Singers can use this moment, and many do, to imagine the scene and to fully embody the character and essence of the text they are about to sing.
Reviewing a Past Performance
  • Mental rehearsal is an effective way to reinforce and add to your confidence after a particular successful or peak performance.  After the performance (within 24 hours), take a few moments to silently review your performance and recall the feeling and sounds of the most successful parts.
  • After a performance, we usually don’t need to be reminded to mentally rehearse all the sections or phrases that didn’t go as well as we wanted.  We tend to do this whether we want to or not!  However, it is important to learn from these mistakes or challenges by mental reviewing these sections after performance.  This can help you identify the source of the problem or issue and determine the best solution.  This is like the anticipate and cope strategy above.  Once you’ve identified the solution, mentally rehearse your past performance and change history in your mind by making the correction in your imagination.

In  Mental Rehearsal Can Work for You, Pt. 2. , we discuss the basic steps to incorporating mental rehearsal into your practice and performance preparation.  We’ll also talk a little about some studies that have shown how much we all use mental practice and rehearsal one way or another already and how it can really work for you.


Works Cited

Cohn, P., & Allan, D. (in press).  The relaxed musician:  Mental preparation for confidence performances. Orlando:  Peak Performance Sports.

Freymuth, M. (1999).  Mental practice & imagery for musicians:  A practical guide for optimizing practice time, enhancing performance, and preventing injury. Boulder:  Integrated Musicians Press.

Hodges, D., & Sebald, D. (2011). Music in the human experience:  An introduction to music psychology.  New York:  Routledge.

Rubinstein, A. (1973).  My young years. New York:  Alfred Knopf.


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  1. Great article. Very clear steps to practice and work on. Like everything it’s all about taking action. There are so many great ideas, strategies and plans out there. We just need to take action. One little step at a time, on an ongoing basis. Keep up the good work.

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Paul, thanks for your comments. You are so right about taking action and it starts with one step. Isn’t it Lao-tzu or Confucius who said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” We are infinitely more capable than we often imagine. Hope to hear from you again. Take care.

  2. Thank you so much dear Dr.Allan. I was trying to imagine myself before performance as you suggested me in one of your emails. But, to be frank, there were much more details in your last article. I will try to apply all these important details.

    • Dr. Diana Allan says:

      Simin, I am so glad that you found the article on mental rehearsal helpful. Mental rehearsal, like other skills, must be practiced. The more you practice visualizing your ideal performances, the more this kind of practice will work for you.

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