Mental Practicing: Why is it Important?

For those who are in my teaching studio know mental practicing has been a common topic across the board for almost all of my students this summer. Which is why I think it would be good to write a little in more detail as to what some of the elements that I find import for mental practice.

What got me started with mental practicing was after I was diagnosed with cubital tunnel in one of my elbows. I was forced to go from 4 hours of practice a day to about 30-45 minutes. Which worried me, because I was in the middle of my undergrad at the university of Utah and still needed to be an effective player.  This is when I very first learned about the idea and importance of mental practicing. Since then I have learned it is a part of practicing that we should all incorporate into our daily practices.

Some of these elements I would like to discuss over the next several posts are the following:

What is mental practicing and why is it important?

Meditative practicing – both in general practice and before a big performance

Score study

Air Guitar (bass) practice

Listening to what you play – the advantages of listening to yourself perform, and multiples of records of the same piece.

Once each of these sections are written, please visit the hyperlinked topics for my full thoughts on each subject of mental practicing. For this post, I will focus on the first topic, why we mental practice in addition to physically play our instruments.

As I mentioned above, I got my start on the subject, because of an injury I received from incorrect practicing. Specifically, I started having a lot of elbow pain to the point of having a ping pong ball sized knot just above my elbow. This is where I learned a I have a common repetitive use injury for bass players call cubital tunnel. My doctor being aware that I was not able to just stop playing my instrument for it to go away, helped me begin the process of a soft tissue injury healing. Through this process I was able to become a lot more self aware of what my body is doing and feeling. As I worked with my doctors, I knew that I would not be able to continue practicing like I once was. This worried me a lot, because I was still in the middle of fall semester. I had chamber groups, orchestra and my own private lessons I needed to be preparing for. Around this time I read my first introduced to the idea of mental practicing and why it was just as important as physical practicing.

So, let us define mental practicing.

Mental practice refers to use of visuo-motor imagery with the purpose of improving motor behavior. Visuo-motor imagery requires the use of one’s imagination to simulate an action, without physical movement. It has come to the fore due to the relevance of imagery in enhancing sports, surgical performance, and music.

But, why is it so important for doctors, musicians, and athletes to work through this visuo-motor? I believe with each of these activities a main similarity is the mountain of mental blocks. In my teenaged years, I experienced these blocks both as a musician and as an athlete for my high school cross county and track teams. To my advantage, I had coaches who would help me through different aspects of mental practicing to convince my brain that I could do the task at hand, and I would do well.

Similar to my experience in high school, ultra marathoners have extremely strong mental stamina when it comes to their sport. Specifically, ultra runners say, if you are able to run a marathon, you could run 100 miles. Where I have not personally, put this to the test, I do believe this to be true, with one understanding. The mental preparation required for running 100 miles is very different than 26.2 miles. The body does have the endurance to run that length, it is a different endurance to convince your mind, that it is actually possible to complete that distance.

I think the example of the marathoner vs. the ultra marathoner follows closely to my experience with solo performing. I am aware, that I am completely capable of solo performance. Compared to the other types of performing (ie. orchestral and chamber), I have done through out my career as a bassist, solo performance happens far less frequently. For me, orchestral playing requires the same stamina as what a marathon of 26.2 miles. It is comfortable and familiar. Contrasting to solo performing, which requires the same amount of physical practicing effort, but more mental strength to perform as well as I do in an orchestral setting.

What can we do to fix the situation of infrequently solo performing, to execute effectively like we do in orchestral settings? This is where the importance of mental practice comes into the mix. Of course, the more time spent performing in a solo, will help the best. However, in preparation of the task through mental practice will help a long to way. (I should also note, that mental practice is not only important in solo preparation for any type of performance). Through incorporating effective mental practice techniques there will be less time shedding and more time on color or emotion in the performance.

A prime example of this, would be an Organist. I was recently discussing this with a dear friend of mine, David Fox, (who is an excellent organist in the greater Salt Lake City area). He described how many organist, will use the study of mental practicing in preparation for their time with their instrument. As many of us can imagine, it would be very difficult for musician like David to arrange time to practice with beautiful organs found in many churches and musical halls. This means that David will spend a lot of time mentally preparing for his time when he is able to sit down with his instrument.

Of course, he will still spend a full practice time, (if the space allows), with his instrument. The difference, is that David has spend a good amount of time thinking about some of the obstacles, or environment he is trying to convey a head of time. With some of these key components thought about a head of time, he is able to have a far more effective time with his instrument. Even though, I am not an organist, as a bassist, I am able to take these same principles into my practice time. Being more effective with our time in the shed/practice room will negate time, but also frustration in learning new pieces or techniques.

Specifically, here are some of the elements to think about to prepare for time with your instrument/mental practice: how the music should sound, what period is the this composer from, what are the different articulations, are the difficult shifts that I need to be mindful of, what are the key signatures, what is performance tempo, are there difficult rhythms, is there anything in the music I am unfamiliar with, and anything else that may need your attention once practicing. In the end we will be able to sit down with our instruments and have a lot of the “battle planning” figured out. We can then work on making sure our bodies are able to execute what we have first figure out in our heads and be better performers more efficiently.


For more information, please be sure to check for the other article to come! These will be covering some of the more specific techniques of mental practicing, rather than just what to think about and some of the importance of this tool to use while practicing. Lastly, be sure to join the discussion on my FaceBook and Instagram pages.