September 23rd, 2011

Visualizing Musical Progress

By Eric

Visualization can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. Everyone from professional athletes to ballet dancers have used this simple, but effective technique throughout training and competition to reach their peak level of performance. The simple task of mentally preparing for challenges and envisioning success can transform and drastically improve your musical performance.

In Visualization for Jazz Improvisation, the idea of using visualization to cultivate the techniques involved in improvisation were discussed. Once you’ve explored the benefits of visualizing chord tones and progression, don’t stop there. The technique of visualization can be used to positively affect every aspect of your playing and performance. Below are four more ideas for using this technique to improve your total musicianship.

Visualizing your sound

As a musician, your sound is one of the most important aspects of your playing. Whether you play classical trumpet, folk guitar, or jazz piano, your sound is the first thing that reaches a listener; and it’s the one aspect of your musicianship that can speak directly to the emotions of the listener.

However, contrary to what most people think, your sound does not come from the mouthpiece you use, the instrument model you play on, or the etudes that you study. Yes, these factors can influence your sound, but the origins of the sound you produce run much deeper.

It’s the concept of sound in your mind, the sound you hear in your head, that determines what is going to come out of your instrument.

Even before you work on long tones or any other sound exercises, “your sound” is already determined in your mind. The recordings that you’ve listened to, the players that you’ve admired, the concerts you attend all contribute to a mental picture of the sound that you’re going to produce on your instrument. If you’re not happy with the sound you have right now, instead of looking at external sources, study the sound inside of your mind.

Start by visualizing your ideal sound on your instrument. Put on a recording of your favorite player, someone that you wish you sounded like. As you’re listening to the recording, close your eyes and imagine that it’s you that is playing; visualize what it would feel like to produce that incredible sound and ingrain it into your mind. The next time you pick up your instrument, recall this sound and feeling and I guarantee that your sound will have a new energy to it.

Visualizing to overcome barriers

We all have areas in our playing that give us trouble and certain aspects of our performance that we wish were better. Maybe you are struggling with finger technique or you’re having a hard time producing an articulation. Or you find yourself thinking: “If I only had a screaming high range I would be able to…”

Many times, without our even knowing it, these troublesome areas of our playing are defined in our mind as “hard.” Before we even play a single note on our instrument, we create this mental barrier that immediately stops our progress. We become tense, our breathing becomes labored, and we lock up mentally foreseeing this difficult task that we must endure.

Instead of going in everyday expecting an uphill battle, try something different. Envision those difficult techniques not as sources of fear and dread, but as being effortless and easy.

Start with a calm and relaxed breath, releasing any tension in your body. Now in your mind’s eye visualize yourself sitting down at your instrument or picking up your horn. Take a deep full breath as you would while playing your instrument and assume the position as if you were about to play a note.

In your mind, visualize yourself effortlessly performing that previously difficult finger technique and easily producing those impossible high notes. Feel the ease in your body and hear the sound of those notes clearly in your mind. If you are a wind player, blow the air forward as if you were actually playing your horn. Or, if you are a pianist, drummer, or bass player, bring your hands up and imagine that you are plucking a string, striking a key, or hitting a cymbal as you focus on that visualization of effortlessness.

By doing this simple visualization exercise, you can facilitate a surprisingly positive change in your playing. Now this is not to say that achieving these techniques won’t take any practice or time to develop, but removing a negative mental barrier can be the difference between attaining your goals and endlessly struggling with a difficult technique.

Correcting bad practice

Sometimes the hardest days as musicians are when our practice is just not going well. Those days in the practice room where nothing seems to be working and the simple act of getting through an etude is turned into a painful struggle.

Before you bash your instrument against the wall and storm out of the room screaming in frustration, take a second to put things into perspective. It’s inevitable that once in a while we’ll all have days like this and learning to overcome them can turn a frustrating day into a productive session.

When you do encounter days like this, put everything down and get out of the practice room for awhile. Go outside, take a load off, and close your eyes. Try to remember the last time that you played when everything felt great, where playing was effortless and fun. Now focus on exactly what made it this way:

  • How did it physically feel to play that way?
  • What did it feel like as you were breathing?
  • Recall the calm, confident mental state that you were in.
  • What key words or concepts were you thinking about as you played this way?
  • Remember the ease with which the notes were coming out and the excitement you felt.

Now with those ideas firmly planted in your mind and body, come back to the practice room. Imagine that you are entering the room for the first time that day. With those memories fresh in your mind, return to your instrument and instead of frustration and tension, aim for relaxation and focus.

Visualizing effortless performance

Performance can be an exciting and rewarding experience.  And, as we all know, it can also be one fraught with nerves and trepidation. The situations that we perform in as musicians run the gamut from casual backyard parties to nerve-racking auditions. Regardless of the atmosphere, our goal is to be calm and confident in any performance that we give.

However, this is a hard task to achieve, especially when the stakes are high. This is where visualization can be priceless. Before any performance that you might have use the technique of visualization to mentally create a great performance. As with the other exercises discussed above, follow the same techniques: picture your self on stage, take a calm and confident breath, and hear the focused sound of your first note all the way to the final note.

Each step of the way visualize effortless playing and a calm and focused state of mind. When the performance time arrives and you feel some nervousness creep in, recall that visualized state of success and go in with confidence. The same concept applies to an improvised performance. Visualize your sound, your articulation, hear the melodies and chords to the tunes on your set list, and picture yourself playing creatively over those familiar tunes.

Visualization can transform your performance, but remember that the best bet for a solid performance stems from the confidence of hours and hours of practice. Whether you are performing in a concert hall, playing standards in a club, or putting in time in the practice room, use the techniques described above to visualize your peak performance.