State of Mind: How Musicians Can Leverage the Benefits of Mental Practice

By Rebecca Fischer | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

Pulling is an action I associate with the creation and recall of art. I pull the bow across the strings of my violin, conjuring up emotional worlds I am bringing to life, sometimes in a familiar way, sometimes in a way I have never yet expressed. The deeper the sound I need (for passages like the opening of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto or Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 130), the further I reach into myself to pull that sound out into the world. It is both a physical act and an emotive release. Similarly, when I am in creation mode—writing music or essays—I am pulling a bit of myself out onto the page.

In memorization work, trying to recall something that is just beyond my reach requires mental pulling and tugging as well: What is that next chord? What clues can I find to reconstruct the passage, to get me back on track? Mistakes are combatted with endless repetition. We panic for the solution so we overdo the response. In playing a passage over and over, we reassure ourselves that the repetition is enough, that the music will stay in our bodies and minds. 

And repetition can assist in committing a piece to memory, building up kinesthetic and aural memory. But it’s not the only way. When I was in college, some friends and teachers suggested mental practice. I didn’t know exactly what this was, and for some reason did not ask for enough explanation. It sounded hard, I was tired, and I already had too much on my plate. I was an organized person—I would figure it out! I assumed mental practice was the kind of thing more experienced players added to their already honed skills and routines. It was extra. Perhaps when I was in graduate school or beyond I would feel ready to attempt mental practicing. This was not something I was going to do now.


As a student, I took practice and study breaks in New York City’s Riverside Park, heading out for long runs and walks to enjoy the fresh air and the wonder of the changing seasons. I would hear my repertoire as I ran, and would automatically align the music with the rhythm of my steps. If I paused at a stoplight, the music continued in my head. I came to rely on these outings for renewed perspective. I even chose slower paces for slow-tempo music. If I was concentrating intently, I would sometimes move with the music, gesticulating with my head or arms a bit with the musical line. It was New York—no one minded.

One day I was explaining what I deemed to be an eccentric running habit to a friend, when I suddenly realized that I had been engaging in mental practice all along. What had eluded me as a mysterious practice technique reserved for the artists I revered was, in fact, just working on music away from my violin, away from the printed page. 


In my body, free and outdoors, the music felt fresh and open. I came back from that exercise ready to take on a piece, with a new phrasing idea or a structural revelation. And my memory recall, paired with a physical motion and a new outlook, was significantly improved without too much obsessive drilling on my instrument. My violin practicing became more purposeful afterwards. 

Mental practice even helped bring my performances to new levels. If from my seat in a practice room I could envision the environment of a future performance—including the venue, the audience, the way I wished to present myself onstage, how I felt while playing, and the character of my sound—I was many steps closer to achieving a fulfilling performance experience. Why had it taken me so long to figure this out? Why had I been so resistant?


These days I mentally practice in all sorts of places, at all sorts of times. Sometimes it is with music in hand, other times without. Sometimes it is while moving—like running on the street or dancing to solo Bach—and other times it is while I’m still: sitting in a library, at a desk, looking out of an airplane window at 35,000 feet. Mental practice in collaborative settings can be fruitful as well: taking a few minutes to individually hear the music before playing again, even moving together without playing, makes ensemble direction more cohesive.

All of this is mental practice. Nothing too fancy, nothing too arcane. And we don’t have to wait until we’re lofty, untouchable performers in order to practice in this way—every student can do it. Young people who regularly engage in a small amount of mental practice are the most thoughtful, engaged musicians; they own their pieces in a unique way, and they have more fun onstage. In fact, through regular mental practice we move nearer to the accomplished artists we admire. The act of pulling out our creative ideas in various ways, of making sense of what we are working on from multiple perspectives, in turn pulls us closer to the music we love.