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Mindfulness and Music – Enhance Your Practice with Visualization

The various pedagogies, methods and traditions used to teach music all have some things in common. Underlying the ideas and instruction in these methods is the notion of mindful intention. What is deciding how to hold and instrument, place your fingers, move your hands, and bring shape to a piece of music but applying intention to your actions? Viewed through the lens of today’s mindfulness practices, traditional music methods can be said to teach students what to focus on and how to be aware of various musical elements.

The main elements of mindfulness we will explore as it applies to music include: visualizing/mental imaging, focused listening, body awareness, and mindset. We will explore how these elements can improve your musical memory, musical pattern recognition and allow you to efficiently learn and process new technical skills by combining them with the proper mindset. This post is meant to be an introduction to these concepts and to help you begin applying them to your music practice and performance.

Visualizing/Mental Imaging

The human mind is a powerful tool and can be harnessed for almost superhuman feats if you know how it works. One of the most powerful examples of what the mind is capable of can be found with the memory champions. These normal people have developed methods and techniques to perform extraordinary memorization accomplishments. One of the most useful concepts from these folk is the idea that our brains are wired to grasp images, patterns, and visual queues fairly easily and quickly. (For more information about the memory techniques and competitions, check out the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer) We can apply this concept to music in many different ways. For example, when I was studying guitar as an undergrad, my teacher would have me put my guitar away in order to focus on the written music. I would review the sheet music with as much detail as possible, including dynamics, left hand positions and shapes, right hand fingering, etc. and then try to recall the image of the sheet in my mind as clearly as possible. This way, I could practice recalling the music in my mind without my guitar while on the bus, while driving, while walking or any other activity that didn’t require my full attention. I could also recall the image of the music and follow along while listening to the piece to help reinforce the sound with the image. After even just a week, I noticed I could play most of the piece from memory without many slips or stalls. In essence, I was practicing without my instrument in order to memorize the music! While you cannot use this as the sole way to practice a piece, you can use it as a way to reinforce your time with the instrument and solidify the music in your mind. Even better, bring in the mental image of how it physically feels to play the piece while going over the sheet music in your head, and you are now reinforcing the physical act of playing along with memorizing the music.

Visualizing Chords: A Beginning Method Example

At the beginning level, I often introduce the concept of mental imaging to my students. It starts with the understanding that visual cues (written notation, TABs, chord diagrams and scale charts) are all there as guides to help communicate and represent a sound coupled with an action (playing the sound). For example, if you are learning a new chord for a song, the following procedure helps you ingrain it:

1 – find a visual diagram or chord diagram of the left hand shape for the new chord; think of it as a shape on the paper; make the shape with your left hand; observe the shape on your left hand and view it directly and through your peripheral vision; view yourself making the chord in a mirror;

2 – close your eyes and imagine the look of the chord in your left hand; notice the physical sensation of the left hand shape – are your fingers touching? are your knuckles touching,? does it feel bunched or spread out? where? is it hard or easy right now? Notice the strings each finger is on. Is it a thicker or thinner string?

3 – squeeze the left hand shape hard for 2 seconds and then release with your finger tips still touching the strings; do this repeatedly for 5 times; each time you squeeze, make note of the sensation of holding that shape

4 – strum the chord with your right hand multiple times; play the chord arpeggiated; sing along as your arpeggiate

5 – note where the 1,3 and 5 are in the shape from bottom to top and vise versa; ;

6 – Take of your left hand and shake it out to relax it; before putting it back on, think of the chord shape in both diagram images and physical sensations; imagine yourself making the chord in your mind;

7 – place the chord on as fast as you can;

8 –   fit it into the context of the song you are learning – what are the particular finger movements from the preceding chord and then to the proceeding chord? are there any common fingers or frets? what is the lead finger for the movement? how can I make this simple?

9 – practice the changes in both directions; practice the changes and motions in your head – imagining in as much detail as possible, the feeling or physical sensation of making the shapes and motions.

This whole process should take about 5 to 10 minutes and will require complete immersion and focus. The good news is that it is fun and engaging, and if you do it consistently every day, then you will reap the benefits quickly. Whew!! That is an intense sensation and it will probably leave you a little drained as you start this practice, but after a while, you will notice that this practice will actually invigorate you and you will want to continue with more practice. I suggest leaving the instrument for at least 10 minutes before starting another session. This leaves time for the new information to seap into your brain and subconcious. When you do come back, try to recall the new shape without the aid of any written visual material. Try to recall the context of the chord and play through the changes, again without written materials. Remember, the written materials are there as an aid and require another layer of skill to practice in order to read the music, diagram or TAB fluently. In other words, you will find it faster and more rewarding to learn to play the chord rather than learning to read the chord. Eventually, with the same practice as above but with a little more emphasis on using the written material as a cue for the action of making the chord, you will learn to associate the visual image with the physical act of playing.

Now try applying this series to a new song you are learning. Take note of any mistaken fingerings, especially when trying to recall the chords. Then, move that finger or fingers to the correct place and play the chord; then move it back to the incorrect shape and play the chord and then back again to the correct shape and play the chord. This technique of ‘sandwiching’ the mistakes between the proper way will help your brain remember and establish the correct version.

In the next post in the series, we will explore more about visualizing and mental imaging in order facilitate memorizing and learning and then introduce the concept of a learning mindset.

I would love to hear if this concept works for you. Please leave a comment about how you used it to learn a new chord or song. Keep strumming!