The Mind in Practice

The passion and desire that impel us toward music will energize our practice for a lifetime—but we still have to know what to do

By Tom Heimberg

Practice is the only way to learn the viola, or any other human skill. The passion and desire that impel us toward music will energize our practice for a lifetime—but we still have to know what to do. Since we spend tens of thousands of hours of our lives practicing, we do ourselves great good by learning to make our practice more effective, more efficient, more graceful. The better we understand how to practice, the better we will do it.

“It all begins in the brain!”

—Luciano Pavarotti, about singing (in private conversation, 1972, in the days when you could get anywhere near him)

This article is a technical exploration of practice. Practicing is a skill that can be learned and cultivated. Throughout our studies, good teaching brings order and method to our work. Using example, explanation, description, and encouragement, the teacher helps us find our way toward knowing and doing what needs to be done. By following instructions and imitating good examples, we discover how the teacher does this, and we make that ability our own. We learn the craft of practice; we become our own instructors.

The collective teaching experience of the past has bequeathed us a rich legacy of potent practice devices to aid this self-instruction. Modern studies of skill acquisition and body awareness have further deepened our understanding of the conditions in which learning happens, revealing new ways to shape our work. But first we will address an often-overlooked truth: Practicing is not mindless repetition. True practicing is done with attention and alertness. So let’s start by considering the most important component of any practice session—the mind of the practicer.

One of the deepest and most important mysteries of human existence is the relationship between private mental experience and what we call “the outside world.” We know such a relationship exists: when hungry, we can find food. We can make plans that sometimes work. And yet our busy, turbulent thoughts range from dreams to distraction, from obsession to absentmindedness. Fragments of melody, scraps of conversations, memories, dreams, reflections—these make up the hubbub of our minds.

Practicing is a skill that can be learned and cultivated.

The miracle in all this ferment is that the mind (our consciousness) can sometimes take control of itself—when we remember to let it do so. Out of the rush and welter of our daily concerns, we can direct our minds and use them as fine instruments. We can take charge with purpose.

Two uses of the mind are essential for quality practice: calm self-observation and precise, intentional action. Like themes in a sonata form, these two mental dynamics wind around each other throughout every practice session. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Calm Self-observation

Calm self-observation is the ability to sense and attend to one’s own behavior and action with interest and acceptance, and without judgment—like a wise teacher: alert, patient, and kind. The act of observation is not an occasion to praise ourselves when we like what we see, nor to beat up on ourselves when we don’t. It is not a reverie about thoughts and feelings, nor an unthinking reaction to stimuli. Calm self-observation is caring attention given to our actions and movements as we make them.

Here is a thought-experiment to perform even as you read these words. You may already be aware of your surroundings—the light you’re reading by, fragrances in the air, the sounds around you. Now extend your attention further. While continuing to read, notice the angle of your head, the relaxation or tension of the muscles around your mouth, the lift or hang of your shoulders—feel the depth of your breathing, the lie of your fingers, the posture of your whole body in its balanced interaction with gravity. Attend to those senses that tell you about your body’s position in space. Don’t try to change anything for now. Don’t move or shift or stretch; just observe.

And notice, too, that by this act of observation you have changed your experience of the moment. You have heightened your sense of yourself as a presence. Such moments of self-awareness are precious in themselves. They are also opportunities to be open to learning, and to the changes that learning brings.


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Precise Intentional Action

Observation alone is one important use of our minds—making our actions intentional is another. Observation lets us take stock of where we are, but to get something done we must act. By practicing, we build a bridge between our thoughts and our actions. We do this by complementing self-observation with precise, intentional action.

A major goal in practice is to get from one note to another accurately—with the least possible confusion and effort. To ensure this precision, we must anticipate what’s coming. When practicing, we do this by creating a conscious pause between deciding on an action and physically doing it. During that pause, we mentally rehearse what we are going to do: we feel the movements before we do them; we hear the sounds before we make them.

After this imaging, we act, and observe ourselves during that action. We observe both the musical task at hand (knowledge of results) and how it feels to do that task (kinesthetic feedback). Then, after acting, we compare and contrast the actual experience with what we imagined. With each successive trial, we try to imagine the action more clearly, and we try to make the details of what we are doing more accurate. Little by little, we bring the mental image and the physical experience closer together.

Here is another thought experiment to do as you continue to read: imagine that you are raising your right arm into bowing position to play on the C string (for violists). Don’t move, just imagine the gesture. Mentally feel the sensations in your shoulder and elbow, feel the weight of your arm, notice your body’s change in balance. Now do the action— and observe yourself doing it. Did the image match the motion? Had you remembered the feeling of your chest expanding? Had you anticipated whether your wrist would hold your hand up or let it hang?

Which did you prefer, the plan or the reality? Was the motion more tense than you wanted? Was the image less clear than you’d like? Try again. Let your conceived action and your real action clarify each other. Make your image of the motion clearer; bring your movement closer to the idea.

This four-step sequence—imagine, act, observe, adjust—is the living heart of good practice. It is a slow-motion variant of what happens when we perform music. In performance, we think ahead, we play in the present, we listen behind (to what we just played), and we make adjustments. and all at once! No wonder performing can be confusing—if we let it be. By slowing down to work in clarity, we help ourselves dispel that confusion before it happens. By thinking about our playing during practice, we train ourselves to know what we will need to think about—and not think about—when we perform.

The Cognitive Phase

According to one psychological schema, the learning of skills occurs in three phases: the cognitive phase, the associative/repetitive phase, and the automatic phase.

This knowledge helps us clarify our planning. We can use these phases as a structure for our work, though we must always remember that in actual practice they do not occur in a steady, progressive sequence. They continually intertwine and double back on themselves. In the cognitive phase of skill learning, the player develops an idea of the skill to be practiced. The teacher draws up a lesson plan, a player studies a piece away from the instrument, or some musicians (Rostropovich is one example among many) memorize the music before even picking up their instruments.

For those who might not belong to the silent memorizing group, work done during this phase can include many other activities. It is valuable to study audio and video recordings of the piece to be learned, or of other pieces by the same composer. Attending lessons of more advanced players studying the same or similar pieces is also a way for students to get a preview of the work. Anything that starts to get the music into the player’s mind—the sound of it, the look of it, the sense of it—helps him decide where to begin.


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The Associative/Repetitive Phase

In this phase we pick up our instrument (at last!). The guiding rule for this phase of learning is to move slowly, lightly, and carefully, with precise but gentle gestures. Strong exertion makes subtle observation more difficult. There will be time enough to speed things up, to practice performing, to play for other people. Right now, we are training our nonverbal movement centers—and we want to train them right.

Healthful repetition is the beneficial side effect of mindful exploration. Each time we repeat any fragment of music, we can find ways to play it more efficiently, to make it more expressive and more accurate. Thus repetition and renewal refresh and revitalize one another. Our preparations have shown us what to work on and how to work on it. Now we make connections with what we already know and build the music into our very being.

There are ways to keep this sequence varied and engaging. Every book dealing with technique offers page after page of possible variations to practice; we should all be accustomed to changing (intentionally) the rhythms or bowings of demanding passages.

We can also add physical variations: after playing a passage several times with normal posture, play it standing on the left foot—a good test of how arm motions affect balance. Since our movements often occur in blocks guided by the eyes and the dynamics of the head-to-neck relationship, we will learn something by altering those blocks. And certainly the passage should be played with eyes closed, as a test of memory.

Contract the moving muscles as little as possible; relax the others as much as possible. Always seek to release unnecessary tension. Remember that mistakes and accidents are our friends when they happen during practice. They show us what to work on. They help us focus our attention. We need to welcome them hospitably, not angrily.

The Automatic Phase

This is the phase in which patterns and movements have become so familiar and so ingrained that we can do them without thinking about them. This doesn’t mean we should stop thinking! We can continue to build our abilities into ever-larger units.


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Through years of careful practice, every efficient and graceful motion adds to our repertoire of actions and our ability to play without thinking about playing. We develop an inner template of playing, to which we can always add more: technical patterns, musical pieces, increased understanding.

The ability to summon up our interest and sustain our attention is what keeps us loyal to our work. It is how we stay vital and engaged. The simplest change of routine can often bring a practice session to life: those who are accustomed to practicing seated should stand up. Those who stand should sit. Those who always start scales climbing up from the lowest note should start at the highest note and descend.

In Praise of Practice

I think of practice as a series of opportunities for success. Opening the door to the practice room is a success. Opening the instrument case (often the hardest part) is a success. Tuning is a success. Getting from one note to the next is a success.

These small successes encourage our practice and nourish our learning. And it is wonderful to have a practice in one’s life. Practice connects the days and gives them a core of enduring meaning. Musical practice is a lifelong activity that trains the mind, the body, the expression of musical emotions, and even one’s sense of self.

Please take this quick overview as an introduction, and as an invitation to go further. Practice is an activity in which each of us can find our own ways and carve our own personal understandings. All sincere efforts have value, so go forward, and gather deep gratifications.

This article is excerpted from Making a Musical Life by Tom Heimberg (2006, String Letter Publishing).