Have you ever watched a concert pianist perform and thought, “Wow, how do they do that?” It’s absolutely incredible how fast and accurate a concert pianist’s fingers can be. So how do they do it? Years of dedicated piano practice actually changes their brain so it can send super fast signals to their finger muscles. This is why not everyone can sit down and play a concerto. Their brain hasn’t yet developed the ability to send speedy instructions to their fingers.
Even for a beginner, learning the piano (or any new skill) involves making changes in your brain. When you learn a new song, neurons in your brain start linking up to create a new set of signals to send to your fingers. The speed at which those signals are sent grows faster with consistent practice. But if so much of this learning is going on in your brain, is there a way to practice the piano without a piano? What if you just imagined yourself playing a new song? Would you get better at it?
The surprising answer is . . . YES!
Imagining yourself going through an activity is called mental rehearsal and it’s a powerful way to prepare for physical performance.
Science Says Mental Rehearsal Works
Scientists did an experiment in which one group of people practiced a finger exercise on the piano while another group of people imagined themselves practicing the finger exercise. The group who imagined themselves practicing weren’t allowed to touch the piano or move their fingers, only think about doing it.
After five days, brain scans of both groups showed new fine motor abilities had developed at almost exactly the same rate! It was as if the part of their brain responsible for movement couldn’t tell the difference between imagining playing the piano and actually playing it. Either way, their mental abilities were improving.
There was a difference when the group who had been mentally practicing actually played the exercise on a piano. After five days of mental rehearsal they were better at playing the exercise than people who hadn’t practiced at all, but they were only about as good as if they’d been physically practicing for three days. Then, and this is the exciting part, after only a single practice session on a piano, the people who had been mentally rehearsing caught up! They could play just as well as the people who had been practicing on a piano for five days.
So, in this experiment, mentally rehearsing for five days plus a single practice session on a piano was the same as practicing on a piano for five days. That’s amazing!
How to Use Mental Rehearsal in Your Own Music Learning
The concept that thinking about doing something prepares your brain to be able to do it is an exciting one. It’s been used in all sorts of performance-based activities, like sports and music, for decades. There are lots of ways a piano learner can use mental rehearsal to improve their skills. Here are a few ideas.
Practicing Without a Piano
If you’re traveling and don’t have a piano around, you can mentally go through a practice session. Imagine yourself practicing the piano, moving your fingers, feeling the keys, and hearing the sounds. You’ll get almost the same brain benefit, and when you can get back to the piano your playing skills will quickly catch up to where they’d be if you’d been physically practicing.
Even on days when you can physically practice, if you’re away from the piano and have a few minutes with nothing to do, don’t automatically pull out your phone. Instead, imagine yourself playing something you’re learning on the piano. It will stimulate your brain to grow its fine motor abilities, and you might surprise yourself by how much you’ve improved the next time you sit down at the piano to play.
Visualizing Great Piano Posture
Are you having trouble with piano posture? Take some time when you’re away from the piano to visualize your body in position. How does it feel when you’re sitting tall and relaxed, when your fingers are curved, when you use your arms and wrists correctly? If you mentally rehearse great piano posture it will be easier and more natural to use great piano posture every time you play.
Preparing for a Performance
Do you get nervous when you have to perform in front of others? Just like Olympic athletes and all-star NBA players visualize their winning performances, mental rehearsal can prepare you to play the piano for an audience. When you have a performance coming up, walk through it in your head. If it’s a recital, imagine yourself walking to the piano, introducing yourself and your piece, sitting down, taking a moment to relax, and then playing through your piece exactly the way you want to perform it. When you’re done, go ahead and imagine the applause as you get up and take a bow. Be sure to imagine the people watching you, even if they make you nervous. Mentally rehearse a successful performance, and it won’t seem so scary when you actually perform.
Develop a Better Practice Routine
Are you having a hard time sticking to your piano practice routine? Then imagine yourself sticking to it. Whatever time of day you’ve picked for piano practice, mentally rehearse looking at the clock, or getting home from school, or finishing your breakfast, and then walking straight to the piano. Think through all the things you’re going to do once you get there, like finger power, learning new pieces, and reviewing old ones. If you imagine yourself doing it, it will be easier to actually do it.
It Really Is All in Your Head
Your amazing brain is something you carry with you everywhere. Isn’t it great to know that you can teach it to do things, like play the piano, just by thinking about doing them? While it’s true that mental rehearsal can’t entirely replace time spent at the piano, it helps your brain grow and develop so that you can get more out of your physical practice sessions. Use mental rehearsal to practice the piano even when you’re away from the piano and watch your abilities take off!
If you’d like to learn more about using mental rehearsal for learning and self-improvement, check out this article by Dr. Joe Dispenza.
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