By Thomas J. West
Any good music teacher and most accomplished music students will tell you that repetition is a key ingredient in mastering any musical instrument. Repetition of a physical skill makes that skill become automatic. Often with my students, I use the analogy that learning to play an instrument is like learning to tie your shoes. When you learn to tie your shoes at the ripe old age of 4 to 6 years old, someone has to teach you the steps of the shoe-tying process. You have to follow that process step by step, and therefore one shoelace may take up to two or three minutes to completely tie.
Now, fast forward to today. How long does it take to tie a shoelace now? Can you do it without looking? And the big question: what is the difference between then and now? The answer is usually fairly obvious to most students: since you learned that skill you have practiced it nearly daily for years, subjecting yourself to hundreds of repetitions of the action until it becomes “automatic.”
We learn nearly everything we know how to do in a similar fashion. Babies are born with only a few genetic reflexes and parents literally teach them how to roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, make noises, and learn to speak. We do this same learning process over and over our entire lives.
But how does the brain and body get to the point where the skill being learned becomes automatic and mastered? The millions of neurons that make up the brain literally send electrical signals from one neuron to another in patterns that cause the skill to be performed by the muscles. The more often that sequence of neurons fire their signal, the more associated those neurons become with one another, forming a neural network, or neuronet.
The more a neuronet is fired, the more “hard-wired” that neuronet becomes. The muscles develop what seems like their own “memory” for the skill. This is the normal process that each of us does daily in our lives without a second thought.
Studying Mental Rehearsal
Neurologists have shown in clinical tests that a person can visualize in their mind’s eye completing a physical motor skill and can mentally rehearse the skill with significant effect on actually performing the skill physically. In an article in the 1995 Journal of Neurophysiology,  a research group showed that mental rehearsal produced significant results. Individuals participated in a five-day study of practicing the piano.
The first group memorized a short sequence of notes and practiced for two hours every day for five days. Another group did not touch a piano, but observed the first group being taught the sequence of notes until they had memorized the sequence. Then they mentally rehearsed their exercise by imagining themselves in the experience for the same length of time per day as the first group.
At the conclusion of the five days, researchers used modern scanning equipment to measure the amount of neural growth in the motor cortices of the brain. They were surprised to find that the group that did only mental rehearsal showed nearly the same expansion and development of neural networks that the participants who physically practiced. This kind of learning in neuroscience is called Hebbian learning.  The main idea of this type of learning is that “the nerve cells that fire together wire together.”
The Power of Imagination
Mental rehearsal is a real technique that can reduce the amount of physical practice time by a significant amount. The human mind’s ability to imagine something that isn’t there is at the core of every great invention, scientific discovery, musical masterpiece, and memorable sports performance. Before the body can do an action, the mind must first see the action being done.
What is true about this human ability, however, is that a person can only learn something through mental rehearsal if they already have knowledge and memory of the skill they are attempting to master. For example, you can’t become the next Tiger Woods by simply sitting in a chair and imagining you are 20 under par. You have to have developed the knowledge and physical skills necessary to play the game of golf at that level. Similarly, you can not play a musical instrument simply by imagining you sound great. Knowledge acquisition builds the neuronets that then makes mental rehearsal an effective method of mastering specific musical skills.
Imagination is something that most people in our society consider to be something reserved for children, daydreamers, and TV screenplay writers. “Imagination” is literally “the ability to form images in the mind.” If you can imagine it, you acquire the knowledge to sharpen that image, and you focus on it and repeat it, you can make that image a physical reality.
How to Mentally Rehearse
Arrange for a time and place with a minimum of distractions, just like you would for a traditional practice session. Sit comfortably in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and bring your mind and body to a relaxed state. Once you are relaxed, begin to visualize yourself as the active participant in the skill you are practicing. Perhaps it is a specific passage of music you’ve had trouble with, or perhaps a specific technique on your instrument you need to work on. It is critical that you see yourself performing the skill to be learned as if it were happening in the present.
If you experience any stray thoughts or “voices in your head” telling you that you are doing it wrong or any other negative comment, simply allow that thought to flow through and resume your mental practice. Repeat the skill you are practicing over and over for as many times as you can before you begin to lose focus. When you finish, open your eyes and smile. The smile is important, because it attaches positive emotions to the memory you just created.
When you get out your instrument and perform the skill you have mentally rehearsed, you will get amazing results. It is especially effective if you mentally rehearse for several days before attempting to perform physically. Like any other practice method, mental rehearsal is itself an acquired skill. It has applications far beyond the scope of playing a musical instrument as well.
If you try mental rehearsal and have great results with it, please contact me and share your story.
Visualization and imagination are the true language of our minds. Everything springs forth from imagery, including the written and spoken word. Imagination is the tool that many of us lose as we enter adulthood. Imagining what you wish to see happen literally helps you become that which you imagined. The reality of playing a musical instrument with great skill comes forth from inside of the mind of each player, not from the words of a teacher or the repetition of a demonstration.
Thomas J. West is an active music teacher, composer, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. He has eighteen years of experience as a concert band director, marching band director, jazz improvisation instructor, choral director, orchestra director, private instructor, and marching drill writer. Learn more about Thomas at.