Say it Play it

Much of my teaching is based on visualisation, a technique I learnt from my first teacher as an adult pianist and one which I use daily with my students and my own practising and playing as a way of engaging and stimulating the imagination to produce music which is expressive, vibrant and personal. (Read more about visualisation techniques here)

Of course, it’s all very well being able to visualise the sound or movements one wants to make at the piano, but sometimes – often! – you may think you know what you want to do in your head, but it may not be that evident in your playing.  A way to make this more explicit is the ability to articulate our intention for a certain phrase or section or entire piece by describing it out loud.

This can work very well with students where the teacher poses the question and the student articulates his or her thoughts about the music. I do this a lot in my teaching, asking students to explain what they feel the music is about (for them) and what they want to say in it. It works for both children (regardless of age) and adults, and the results are surprisingly positive and often quite colourful. For example, I was working with an adult student the other day who was having some trouble with the semi-quaver runs in the final movement of Beethoven’s Op 14/1. She said she felt they were uneven and that she wanted the notes to “trickle” down the keyboard. After she had said this, she played the same run and it was transformed: immediately the notes were more even and there was a distinct sense of them trickling down the keyboard towards where I was sitting. And in a lesson with a teenage student, who is working on a very atmospheric impressionistic piece, I first asked her to describe to me what she felt the piece was about and to then try and put that description into the music. The results were impressive: her verbal description was very detailed, not only focusing on the broad narrative of the music but the details of individual sections, such as the rising quaver triplets which she felt were “the rolling waves” and the sustained notes in the bass which were “a foghorn or far away tolling bell” (you can hear the piece she was describing at the end of this article). It seems that the more detailed the description, the more vibrant the resulting music.

Psychologists have known for some time that words help us make abstract or fuzzy concepts clearer and the act of describing the action, sound or image out loud seems to make our ideas more concrete and fix them in our working memory. The action is also useful if you are having trouble finding a note, or landing on the correct note in a jump. Anticipate the note in advance by saying it out loud – “I need to land on E”, for example. Or for a tricky fingering scheme, say the finger numbers out loud just before your fingers land on the keys. It also works for rhythmic issues (count out loud) and harmonic progressions. These are all aids to memorisation too.

In addition to reinforcing memory, articulating our intentions and thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task in front of us more carefully and consciously. Putting our thoughts into words thus becomes a powerful tool to aid productive practising.

Sometimes we can act like our own teacher or coach, encouraging us as we play. I admit to doing this quite a lot! Practising the piano can be a lonely activity and being able to encourage yourself through verbal feedback is a very useful activity. So if I play a passage well, I might say to myself (out loud of course), “Yes I liked that” and examine why and what I liked about the passage (also stated out loud). We can also act like our own personal conductor, encouraging the “orchestra” (oneself at the instrument) to “crescendo here”, “pull back here”, “big orchestral sound now” and so forth. Conversely, one can tackle the inner critic with a conversation out loud: I berate myself when I play badly (“Oh that was dreadful! What did you do that for?”) and then examine what happened and how I can put it right (“try playing that slower/more quietly/louder” etc). This turns the negative self-talk into a positive learning tool, thus making practising more enjoyable and productive.

Picture this

Using visualisation techniques in playing, performing and teaching

Visualisation techniques have been used by sports people and sports psychologists for some time now to enable the tennis player or athlete, the golfer or cyclist to prepare for a match-winning shot or prize-winning sprint. The technique involves imagining an ideal scenario and positive outcome to achieve one’s goal. Musicians are now using similar techniques to create better results and more vivid, expressive music than physical practising alone can achieve. Visualisation techniques also have a role in coping with anxiety and can help create a sense of inner calm before a concert or important performance.

Shaping phrases

Use one’s mind’s eye, and ear, to imagine the shape and sound of a particular phrase, its arc and its conclusion. Picture the movement of fingers, hand and arm flowing through the phrase, hear the phrase internally, play the phrase in your head and only when you are completely comfortable with the “inner aural picture”, play the phrase on the piano. Listen closely, and note the physical sensations of playing the phrase (the pads of the fingers touching the keys, the flexibility of hand and wrist, the movement of the forearm, breathing). This information provides expert, personal feedback to enable one to play the phrase in the same way each time. Gradually, just as in repetitive physical practice, brain and body learn the sequence of movements and expected sounds to recreate the phrase, and the habit of visualising the music before one plays becomes almost intuitive. This kind of visualisation can also be done away from the piano: imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear, while in your mind’s eye imagine the fingers playing each note, tackling that tricky fioritura or complex passage, and shaping the music. You don’t even need the score to practise like this.

Colouring sound

A passage may call for a certain instrumentation – the brightness of brass, the warm sonority of woodwind, plucked ‘pizzicato’ strings, the lucid cantabile of the human voice. Take a moment to hear the sound internally, play it through in your mind – “imagine the sound” – and then play the passage. I use this technique very frequently in my own playing and teaching, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the sounds heard in one’s head can translate to the desired sounds on the keyboard. It reminds one that the imagination is a very powerful tool: the only limit to visualisation is the constraint of one’s imagination.

I use the above techniques widely in my teaching as I find that children of all ages, and adults too, respond to and enjoy calling the imagination into play. For young children, asking them to describe what they think a piece is about, what pictures or stories the music suggests to them (while reminding them that there is “no right answer” to whatever they suggest) can enable them create a vivid or expressive sound in their playing and helps them understand that playing music is about communicating their personal vision to others. Many pieces for children have titles which go some way to stimulating the imagination, but within a piece there might be a certain chord or chord progression, a particular crunchy harmony or phrase for which one might create a personal aural picture.

Teenage students also respond to visualisation. A number of my students are also string players and I ask them to imagine how they might bow or articulate a certain passage and to then try and recreate this on the piano. This is particular useful when teaching music by Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven and Schubert (and their contemporaries) for so much of their piano writing is influenced by and reflects string writing.

I also ask students to suggest words which describe the music – not musical terms but other adjectives which spring to mind when considering the piece. Sometimes a student might writer these on the score as an aide memoir. One of my students had an remarkable clear personal narrative for C P E Bach’s Solfeggio which in turn allowed her to play the piece with great variety of expression. For more on descriptive words inspired by music see the wonderful Musical Adjectives Project conceived by Dr Gail Fischler.

Adult students often struggle to achieve the sound they desire, perhaps inspired by the sound of a favourite recording or pianist, and the frustration of not achieving that sound can lead to physical tension. I observed at first hand the power of visualisation techniques at work when on a piano course with a friend of mine. The friend wanted to create a very smooth singing legato in a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. She could articulate, in words, exactly the kind of sound and expressive line she wanted but was frustrated by her inability to achieve this when playing. The tutor asked her to take a few moments to “hear the sound” and see the shape of the phrases in her mind before she played. The effect was immediate and quite incredible – that such a simple exercise could transform the sound so much and so effectively.

Take time before you play to “imagine the sound” – you may be surprised by the results!

Relieving and mental physical tension

One of my teachers has a very simple but immediately useful exercise – to imagine the arms are supported on a hot air balloon. They are floating slowly upwards on a lovely warm cushion of air. When the arms are about forehead height, the balloon is replaced by a parachute which gently floats the arms and hands down into the keyboard. This creates a wonderful lightness and softness in the hands, wrists and forearms and provides the perfect position from which to play and create a good sound.

Another useful image is to picture the arms made of thick rubber bands, without bones, which can move freely. Children find this image quite funny and quirky.

If you are prone to physical tension when you play, first centre yourself at the keyboard, mentally and physically. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the first phrase of your piece – inhale and exhale slowly and as you do, float your hands to the keyboard, hear the first phrase in your head, imagine the movements you will make to play the first phrase, and only when you are ready, play the phrase. Continue to play while visualising effortless playing with a calm and focused state of mind.

In performance

We know that being well-prepared, knowing that we have done our practising, thoughtfully and mindfully, can go some way to allaying the anxiety of performance. Visualisation can help too. Recalling a successful previous performance can be very helpful in creating a calm and focused state of mind ahead of another performance. This may include recalling features such as the decor of the room, the light shining through a window, as well as our own physical and emotional sensations, moods or stories triggered by the music. Such stories or moods are personal to us and may have nothing whatsoever to do with the music, but they are our stories which enable us to bring our music to life with colour and expression.

Sometimes it is helpful to “channel” a musician whom you admire. I used this technique with one of my students who was preparing for auditions for the junior departments of some of London’s top conservatoires. She was, understandably, quite anxious so I asked her to imagine she was her favourite violinist (Nicola Benedetti) and to think “what would Nicola do?” ahead of her performance. We talked about aspects such as good preparation but also stagecraft, poise, deportment and greeting the audience/audition panel.

Managing anxiety

Athletes are masters of “relaxed concentration” and the ability to imagine graceful movement and successful outcomes. We too can use visualisation techniques to launch a successful and convincing performance from the opening phrase to the closing cadence. In the (roughly) 24 hours leading up to a performance, make sure body and mind are rested, free of extraneous thought or activity. In the hour or so before the concert begins, when you are waiting in the green room, run a scenario something like this through your mind: picture yourself calmly leaving the green room and walking across the stage. You pause by the piano to take a bow and acknowledge the audience. You sit at the piano and lift your hands to the piano to begin the first piece. All your movements are calm and relaxed, your mindset is positive and focused. You play the music through in your mind, always aware of your physical sensations. All the time, imagine you are calm and relaxed, free of tension in body and mind. Most musicians have their own personal strategies for managing anxiety, but calling on the imagination can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Whether you imagine you are walking barefoot through a cooling stream or dew-soaked grass or you are watching yourself play with movements that are effortless and graceful, using visualisation can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. It is said that the brain cannot differentiate between “intense visualisation” and reality. So if you close your eyes and play out the role or scenario in your mind of how you want to project yourself, imagining confidence, a vivid and expressive sound, deep communication with your audience, when you actually perform the brain will be relaxed and ready. However, it must not be forgotten that visualisation cannot replace the confidence that comes from hours and hours of intelligent, focused practising.

Inspiration from left-handed pianist NicholasMcCarthy

Further reading

Proprioception and VisualizationPerformance anxiety and pressure relievers