I remember when I first began my bachelor’s degree in performance and technology at the London College of music four years ago. It was an exciting, thrilling and intriguing time for me. I was marked by a sense of joy and fear simultaneously as I foresaw in my minds eye, the expectation of piano competitions, extravagant and difficult repertoire and the strain of academic rigor and thorough research into the contexts and historical backgrounds behind the music to be studied.
I still remember being absolutely horrified at my first piano lesson in the university when I was first told that I would have to memorize my pieces. I had never memorized music before this point, to be honest; I had not memorized much of anything at all prior to this point… even my friend’s birthdays. I was totally reliant upon the wonder… and lifesaver of social media, namely, Facebook’s birthday reminder function.
My piano professor provided a step by step process which required one to look at the score analytically, to look away and perform what was ascertained from the score with the eyes shut, picturing the hand movements, fingerings and notes in the mind and if necessary, to play the physical movements on ones legs with eyes still shut. You are then to return to the score and repeat the process, followed by a rendition, when comfortable, of playing the memorized material on the piano with the score hidden. Once performed, check the score to note how accurate or inaccurate the performance of the memorized material was. If inaccurate, the whole process was to be repeated (1).
Upon initial practice, this was an efficacious methodology but it was just too tedious and mathematical. It required enormous concentration span and focus. Over time, I began to just rely upon the score and muscle memory to ensure that material was assimilated in time for my concert assessments. This was to my own peril! I found over the three years of study, that, avoiding the wisdom of my professor caused me to fall prey to an enormity of unfaithfulness to the score (tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony) and caused huge confidence issues in live performance. As a result, I had to change the way I practiced and learn and develop the technique that I was shown in the initial stages of my pedagogical studies.
What is Visualization?
To visualize in piano practice, is when one imagines the act of playing the instrument in the minds eye, with the eye closed (Piano-ology. 2017). It has been argued that visualization, in this context, is more effective than vision alone. David Eagleman, neuroscientist of Stanford university, California, has provided two illustrations that help us to understand the limitations of the visual sensory register; “When you’re walking along high ridges on top of mountains, the reason you may experience vertigo is that the detail of the surroundings doesn’t change much in your visual field. In effect, you’re walking along ridges with your eyes closed” (Eagleman. 2017. pp.97). Imagine that! Your brain essentially switches off its full power and considers all scenes to be the same. Doing that in your practice would be detrimental! You would miss out so many notes and dynamic shadings... To sleep would be more productive! Let me mention one other illustration, which emphasises the fallibility of reliance upon the natural eye- Troxlers Fading optical illusion
(Psycaedelic Information Theory, 2017)
“If you stare at the fixed point in the image, the images on the periphery disappear after a short time. This happens because the sensory system ASSUMES that the edges of a scene are less important than where you are focussing your eyes” (Eaglemann. 2017. pp.99. Emphasis added). This matter of ASSUMPTION has ruined many a new piece that I have learned, because it has caused me to miss notes out, play inaccurate rhythms, of which all are the foundational building blocks that characterise the essence of the composers intention and particular feel for that piece. In other words, I formulate something foreign to the piece of music that I am going to play. Here, we have no room to argue for subjective interpretation- There is interpretation and then there is just plain heresy when we forego the details of a score.
Visualisation, as a technique, will remove the limitations of the natural visual register, enabling us to see many things at once.
Visualisation is not constrained by time- it enables us to see what has happened, what is happening and what will happen and how to achieve that future happening by means of the imagination.
Visualisation enables us to clearly see what the hands are doing. Piano-ology argue, “Our hands are not fast enough to guide our playing.”
How to practice visualisation?
Try to apply it to the memorization process when learning a new piece. See my professor’s guidelines in the Genesis section of this article marked- (1).
Imagine a full 88 key piano before you, find middle d and play a D major contrary motion scale for one octave. Try to feel the pressure of the keys in your mind, try to notice your finger on the specific notes as you play them. It might interest you to do that until comfortable and then to try with the eyes open to see if your d major contrary motion scale has improved.
Go to a café, close your eyes and imagine yourself playing your pieces- visualize yourself in a concert hall- try to hear the loud crowd, the coughs, your attire, the bodily posture you are proposing, the weight of the keys, the nervous shakes you might have, the dynamic, colour and tones that you would like to produce in your performing. This is effective for combatting anxiety in performance!
Take note of passages in your practice that you struggle with physically and commit to only playing those passages in ones mind- This will highlight any erroneous note learning, ugly and non- ergonomic finger patterns and completely overthrow all fear toward that particular section that can so easily become no mans land if one does not face up to their fear in a logical and strategic manner.
I do hope that this article has been stimulating and wish you all the best as you apply this wonderful and liberating technique of visualization!