Mental Practice is NOT Mental (It's Very Useful)

Tutor no longer registered
Trombone By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Trombone
Last updated: 30/08/2009
Tags: advice (general), trombone

Practice is a problem. There are a very, very select few who have been granted the inestimable gift of actually enjoying practising - those few I have to (grudgingly) worship. I certainly enjoy it when it's going well, but if it's going badly, my required 3 hours of technical exercises feel like I'm jamming my head into a blender.

Us brass players, though, we have another issue to contend with. After a certain point, our lips, pathetic from exertion, simply sulk a 'no', and that's the end of it. Pushing on after this point is at best fruitless, and at worst genuinely damaging. So how do you cope with these 2 lurking demons; that is, the mental and physical aversion to practice that the vast majority of us face after a while?

The answer is both simple and, unfortunately, vastly undervalued; the idea of 'mental' practice. The basics of this involve reading through the part you have to learn, picturing yourself playing it, and picturing where you may have problems, trying to work through them mentally. This gives you a great chance to work through difficult rhythms (for example) away from the instrument, which is a fantastic tool for your practice; the idea that the instrument can provide an unnecessary hindrance to working through such things sounds defeatist, but is in fact obvious. This method of practice away from the instrument also vastly reduces the amount of time it takes you to genuinely learn a piece of music; that is, to be able to play it either without the part, or to glance at the part only occasionally, really giving you the chance to perform and to get to know the music. A famous pianist once, on a long train journey to a concert venue, learned the entire concerto he was to play from memory, having never seen it before. Many of the players at Guildhall, some of them internationally-known performers, share their time between mental and instrumental practice, rather than hammering away at things in our practice rooms.

Bullet points!

  • Read through the part at least a few times before you pick up the instrument and try working on it. It's much easier to start learning to play a piece if you already have an idea what it's supposed to sound like.
  • If your lips/fingers/vocal chords have gone, put down the instrument (or just stop for singers). There's no point pushing yourself past where you can physically go that day. Read the part, work out the rhythms, picture yourself playing the tricky section you've just done, and physically rehearse what you need to do without the instrument.
  • Singing through the part is about the best thing you can do for your practice. If you've internalised the music to that level, making the instrument play the notes you can already hear is easy as anything.


Jon Roskilly



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