The Benefits of Mental Practice

by Keith Thomas, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Keith Thomas, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Keith Thomas

When I was a young musician, I would experience pain from playing too long, with too much pressure. The pain in my arms was the natural result from playing many hours a day with bad technique and posture. As I got older, my technique improved but I was still wearing myself out. I needed a lot of practice time to learn the large amounts of music I had to perform, and to bring it to performance level. I didn’t know how to learn music without banging away at it for hours on end behind the cello.

That is, until my teacher in college told me about mental practice. If you’ve never heard of mental practice, please do a quick Google search for “mental practice music”. The number of scholarly articles, journals, and personal blogs about the subject is staggering. Mental practice is exactly what it sounds like; it is imagining in your mind that you are playing your instrument. You can do this in a lot of different ways. Is a certain measure or line of music causing you trouble? Take the problem measure and go over it slowly in your mind several times until you feel it’s perfect. Now go ahead and try to play it on your instrument. Odds are it will have improved.

This is because whether you play something physically or mentally, the mind processes it the same way. MRI scans have shown that the same areas of the brain are triggered whether a passage of music is played physically or simply thought of in the mind. As an added benefit, mental practicing can prevent the bad habits or wrong notes that get built into our muscle memory when we practice physically. By putting the brain back in control of the body, you can save precious practice time.

This idea of mental practice is not unique to musicians. Many elite athletes and performers of all kinds need a safe place to rehearse the mechanics of their craft. Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, right before their Super Bowl game against the New Orleans Saints, said the ratio of mental to physical practice for their team was 6:1.

I can’t recommend mental practice enough as a tool to musical excellence. If you’d like to try it, here are a few tips:

Just like in physical practice, don’t try to mental practice the music quicker than you can comfortably. Enjoy learning the music calmly and stress free.

  1. Start with small chunks of music (maybe a bar or two) and add on more as you go.
  2. Repetition is great. If something is difficult, mentally practice it as many times and you can. Through repetition, difficult things become easy.
  3. Sometimes when you mental practice, the time flies. Other times it can be like watching grass grow. When you feel like you’re ready, try physically practicing what you just rehearsed in your mind.

Here’s a scholarly journal by one of my colleagues at Rice University, a violist and neuroscientist, on the topic.



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One Response to “The Benefits of Mental Practice”

  1. Marlene Metz Hartzler - Mental Practice - Marlene Metz Hartzler Says:

    […] Practice for Musicians,” “Mental Practice Makes Perfect,” and “The Benefits of Mental Practice.” I also recommend the book The Inner Game of […]

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