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How to Practice When Away from Your Instrument

So Much to Practice, so Little Time…

It seems we are always running out of time. As musicians, we might be so busy making ends meet and handling the challenges of daily life that we find it difficult to put the dedicated time in the shed to practice at all, apart from on the gigs we play (sometimes much to the dismay of everyone else in the band). We spend most of our time putting out fires so to speak, dealing with the things in life that are urgent and important, and the things that are urgent but not necessarily important. When, then, do we find the time to work on what we know is important but not immediately urgent?

What about those days where you literally don’t even have time to sit and practice your instrument?

Could there be a way to effectively work on something we want to develop whilst away from our instrument?

The answer is yes. Lucky for us, we are born with a fabulous ability to visualize in our minds. We can fully recreate experiences of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and feeling and manipulate it at will. We hear all the time that athletes use these kinds of visualization techniques to aid in their performance, and we can too. Legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius used to practice mentally, working through arrangements and lines on his bass. He would spend time recreating the musical experience in his mind.

Obviously, there is no substitute for practicing with your instrument, but this mental practice can be equally useful if executed in the right way. You will still be developing connections in the brain related to your musicality and creativity. It’s useful though, to go into this kind of practice armed with the right know-how. Just like we can practice for real ineffectively, we can also waste our time with this kind of practice if we don’t do it correctly or with the right intention.

For the sake of a little fun visual experiment, try out the following:

(You might want to read this section first and then try it after, as you may want to close your eyes.)

Sit or lie comfortably and take a few slow deep breaths to relax yourself and use the moment to notice any tension in your body and let it go with exhalations.

Imaging in your mind's eye that you are in a large room. The floor, walls, and ceiling are bright white so much that you cannot see where the floor ends and the walls begin.

Looking down you see a red sphere in your hands, about the size of a tennis ball. Take a moment to examine it. What's the texture like? How deep or bright is the colour? Is it soft? Is it solid? Does it smell of anything? Describe it in as much detail as you can. Remember there are no right or wrong answers here. It can be anything you like.

Now we are fully acquainted with this mysterious object, choose one attribute about it. In this example, we’ll use its shape, but it could be any detail you used to create it. Consciously and deliberately, begin to alter and manipulate it in whichever way you chose.

If we choose to play with the shape, watch the sphere slowly start to morph into a cube at your will, then a pyramid and then a cylinder, or whatever. Have fun with this for as long as you like. Let your creativity go wild. Let that red sphere turn into a giant pyramid that you can climb all the way to the top of, or split it into multiple bits and use them as bricks to build something else entirely. Really, the limit is only your imagination, just think of all the things you can do with only changing the shape.

This is not only a fun and creative way to pass the time during those dull moments stuck on a commute, it is also helping you to develop a very specific mental muscles: your visualization skills, your memory and recall, your creativity and focus, and your ability to be comfortable in a truly creative state, which for some people is actually quite difficult to do without judging themselves.

If you have trouble with this at first that’s okay. Some people, like myself, are not particularly visual people generally and can find it difficult to visualize clearly. This is something you can practice and develop yourself. It’s a very useful skill that you can also apply to other areas of your life so it’s worth investing a little bit of effort into. Got that big audition coming up? How about using your visualization prowess to practice how you’re going to ace that situation.

How does this apply to practicing our instrument?

We can use the same visual prowess we used with the red sphere to imagine ourselves playing our instrument (or singing) and manipulate that also and actually turn it into a learning experience.

Our minds aren’t all that good at telling the difference between something that’s happening in reality and what’s imagined. Your consciousness has the ability to rationalize what you are experiencing and know that it is real but your unconscious mind doesn’t and sees them as the same. 

Here are the steps for a productive visualization practice:

  • Set a timer. Set your intention. Have a clear and specific idea of what you want to practice. Say it out loud like a statement or declaration: “I am now practicing X.”
  • Mentally put yourself in your favourite space to practice. If it’s one you already know or if you want to create the ultimate practice space you can do that too.
  • Do the practice. Be sure to see every movement for what it would be like in real life as if you are seeing it, hearing it, and feeling it for real. The key to this becoming a worthwhile endeavour is the focus on the detail.
  • Be ok with whatever comes up. Enjoy the experience. If you get distracted, that's okay too, just re-focus and re-center without judgment. If you get frustrated, notice that too and let it go.
  • Add repetition. Only use this time to focus on one specific thing. Go through it over and over, you are literally reinforcing the neural pathways to doing that action for real.

Don’t just see yourself blasting through a load of fast, nondescript exercises. Again, be very specific, focus and fully experience the detail. Say for example, “I am practicing this one lick over a major 7 chord,” and experience yourself doing this slowly and feeling the change of every muscle, thought, sound, and moment. Imagine you are learning, because you are! This is where the meat of the practice lies, don’t rush it.

This practice session is no different to a real one because if you spend all of the time hurrying through material like you might do in your regular practice, then it’s likely this effort will get you nowhere fast, perhaps like the results you might be getting in your real practice. That said, you can also allow yourself the joy and fulfillment you get from a satisfying practice.

This is a type of practice in itself and to be able to practice effectively just in your mind also takes dedication and practice. There are other ways of using visualization techniques to develop yourself such as dealing with performance anxiety and setting up career goals, but the focusing with these techniques will be slightly different. But as with all of them, it takes practice to be able to practice from that space! If you are really struggling with visualization then practice the first exercise with the red ball and build up complexity from there. I can’t stress enough the importance of developing this as a skill. You’ll realize the profound difference it can make in your life, and you can notice that you do this all the time anyway when you’re not trying. That’s what your dreams and memories are, unconscious visualizations, you just don't normally do it consciously.

To Review and a Few Tips:

  • Be very goal specific, and keep it simple.
  • Create a suitable place/environment for you to be in inside your mind's eye.
  • Focus on the change in movement and sound, use the musical knowledge you need to apply.
  • If you get distracted by random thoughts or sidetracked, when you realize it, just bring yourself back to what you were doing, without judgment.
  • Be consistent. Like regular practice, this practice works cumulatively. Meaning just doing it once won’t do much for you other than perhaps be a bit fun. This applies inside and outside the experience.
  • If you have difficulty visualizing the thing you want to practice, then simplify it (view it statically first, then build it up) or practice something simpler until you build up the visual skills to work on more complex material.
  • If it’s a song/piece you're learning, listen to it repeatedly during, see yourself playing along.
  • If it’s sight reading, visualize the notes and sounds they create as you play through it.
  • You can revisit your previous practice routine to help solidify it.
  • Keep it light, positive, and fun! It’s not the place to give yourself a hard time. It should be a pleasurable experience!
  • This is a cumulative practice. Don’t expect massive results with only trying it a few times. It needs developing.
  • It’s not an excuse to not actually pick up your instrument when you can!
  • Above all, have fun with it!

I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments and/or questions on this topic. Feel free to get in touch.

Nick Sterling

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