We’ve all experienced the grind of the daily commute, often time spent curled and tensed up, gripping phones, waiting for claustrophobic journeys to end. It feels as though time is getting away from us, slipping through our fingers while we mourn all the things we really want to do. In the UK, people spend the equivalent of over a year of their lives commuting. God help us. But what if I told you, if you really wanted to, you could use this time to improve your piano playing?
Utilising Time Away from the Piano
Al By tapping into the phenomenon of sensory motor learning, we can do just that.
l human movement takes place via sensory motor systems. Sensory motor learning is our bodies’ uncanny ability to improve and refine movement and actions simply by thinking about them – namely through visualisation. Guided visualisation or imagery is purposely rehearsing a skill, routine or performance in your mind’s eye to program your body for success.
Visualisation is a technique that has been used by sports psychologists and coaches for many years. Visualization in sports, or mental imagery, is a way of conditioning the brain towards successful outcomes. The more you mentally rehearse your performance, the more it becomes habituated in your mind. Athletes who use visualization can eliminate some of the unknowns that create anxiety. Perhaps those unknowns are a bit like ours, those “I sometimes get this bit right and sometimes wrong” bits.
Guided visualisation reinforces neural pathways.
Michael Phelps’ coach puts a big chunk of his success down to the ‘videotape’ of a perfect, victorious race, right up to the medal being hung around his neck. He plays it in his mind morning, noon, and night. That’s a little different – a kind of manifesting, confidence-boosting type of visualization although the principle is essentially the same. What we’re interested in is more along the lines of what sports coaches and, for example, Feldenkreis practitioners use to help their clients reprogram their bodies for healthy, balanced, optimal movement by visualising specific movements and actions rather than more general outcomes such as “winning”.
How could visualisation be productive in addition to actual practice you ask? Well, it turns out that visualised practice is actual practice. Somewhat surprisingly, when we visualize or imagine any action or movement, the same neurons and brain regions are actually stimulated as when you physically perform those same actions, just not to the exact same extent. Cue science-y bit:
“Neural structures originally implicated in performing certain functions, e.g., motor actions, can be reused for the imagery of the virtual execution of that function (Agnati et al., 2013)… [s]ome neuronal systems can have two capabilities: to perform a function and to create in the internal theatre of the subject (Baars et al., 2003) the virtual performance by the subject of that function.”
So, in other words, if I practiced a given few bars once at the piano and then once away from the piano by visualizing, the mind will have practiced twice even if my fingers have only acted once. This is precisely because the very same neuronal systems in the brain and nervous system are functioning the same way in both cases and reinforcing those neural pathways.
You may have heard the story of Andrew Garrido, who learned to play on a paper piano. He got all the way to grade five practicing on a ‘piano’ drawn on pieces of paper, imagining the feel of a real piano, and hearing the sounds in his head.
Research in neurophysiology has shown that that when a high level of muscular effort is exerted, it becomes impossible for the brain to make the clear sensory distinctions needed to improve the body’s neuromuscular organisation. It stands to reason then that a lack of muscular effort while ‘performing’ the same action might accommodate the brain’s enhanced ability to improve neuromuscular organization. Or, more simply put, it can help the brain to learn how to do it better, more efficiently, more fluently.
To ensure that learning isn’t foggy, our conscious mind always has to be right there with us rather than lagging behind our fingers, which are so often working through muscular memory alone. There are countless stories of pianists practicing while reading a book or watching TV but this is really quite limited in its usefulness (and imagination in more ways than one!) since this is merely drilling the muscle memory.
Now, muscles do do a kind of remembering of their own, but only the conscious mind really has the capacity for knowing in a complete sense. One without the other simply doesn’t work. That’s why our knowing is so often something that encapsulates an element of chance. That’s why even with lots of practice and hard work, there can be passages that we only get right sometimes. That’s why so often when we make mistakes or slips when playing – particularly when performing or in an exam situation where the pressure is on – we have no idea where we are and have to go right back to the beginning. Do you find it difficult to begin in the middle of a piece?
Vision is one of the senses that greatly affect how we learn to move and perform manual activities such as piano playing. The sub-cortical area of the brain allows for the direct visual control of movement. For the most part, it operates outside of conscious awareness. It is done without thought. Thinking through the process actually slows down the reaction time but this heightened kinaesthetic awareness improves both vision and movement.
So, in order to take advantage of the body’s ability to improve through sensory motor learning, it is necessary to give the brain an opportunity to be ahead of the game. Know the piece away from the piano, know its patterns and structure, seek out, confront, and eliminate areas that are not as familiar as they should be. This might mean slowing down playing to a snail’s pace (remember, thinking process slows down reaction time), but it can also mean getting away from the piano altogether and visualising practice in order that the muscular memory is bypassed completely.
Here is where perhaps a little courage is required. Work such as this inevitably reveals unknown unknowns: elements of a piece of music that we didn’t know we didn’t know. Bummer. But it also means that we can wipe them out. It is absolutely necessary to know what it is that’s required in order to be able to visualise it in the mind’s eye. This practice forces us to really know what it is we are trying to do. If you really know a piece, you can visualise and hear yourself playing it, even without the tactile prompting of the keyboard.
Aside: Piano playing, patently, is not a visual practice. And we must be careful not to judge any playing or technique based on looks. Too often, piano technique is understood in visual terms with little regard for physiological implications leaving countless people suffering with pain and fatigue or just quitting altogether, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
Visualisation or mental imagery therefore is more than just a strictly visual experience. When athletes use visualization, they not only see the action unfold but truly feel the event take place in their mind’s eye. It is a multi-sensory experience. Emily Cook, veteran American freestyle skier and three-time Olympian says: “You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.”
Multi-sensory visualisation (imagining, essentially) can be tricky, especially the first attempts. When we visualize playing the piano, it must be in the most vivid detail possible with a calm state of mind. See the keyboard with absolute clarity. See your fingers, hands, and arms moving freely to the exact places you want them to. But don’t just see yourself play, hear yourself play. Imagine how the piano feels under your fingers, feel the emotions evoked, use as many senses as possible. Your videotape may have to proceed (unbelievably) slowly as the imagined experience may be blurry at first, but as you visualize yourself clearly completing each movement freely, effortlessly, and with absolute clarity and precision while hearing the music you’re making, your imagined playing will quickly come into focus.
As a result of the slowness and focus required, visualisation also happens to be an extremely mindful, calming, and meditative process. Visualisation not only improves your playing and confidence but is also beneficial to your wellbeing – perhaps that’s one of the reasons you’re taking piano lessons in the first place?
Have a go and let us know how you get on.
Till next time,