Using Visualisation In Violin Practice and Performance

Updated: March 7, 2014

 

“To rely on muscular habit, which so many of us do in technique, is indeed fatal. A little nervousness, a muscle bewildered and unable to direct itself, and where are you? For technique is truly a matter of the brain.” Fritz Kreizler, violinist and composer 1875 -1962

Visualisation, the process of creating compelling images in the mind, is one of the most valuable tools for learning and integrating skill, building confidence and achieving success, yet we constantly underuse it in our lives and our violin practice.

Visualisation accelerates the learning of any skill by activating the power of the subconscious mind, focussing the brain by programming the reticular activating system - the filter which mediates information and regulates brain states - to seek out and use available resources, and by raising the level of expectation, motivating a better result.

Scientists have found that the same regions of the brain are stimulated when we perform an action and when we visualise performing that action: If you vividly imagine placing your left hand fingers on the fingerboard of your violin, your brain activates in exactly the same way as if you were actually doing it – your brain sees no difference between visualising and doing. This research is used to great effect to help stroke patients reactivate muscles that have lost their facility: It has been found to be possible to build strength in a muscle that is too weak to move by simply repeatedly imagining the movement.

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The process of visualisation, which was initially dismissed by many as unfounded, is described in W Timothy Gallwey’s 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis.

“There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realize. It is similar to the process we all used, but soon forgot, as we learned to walk and talk. It uses the so-called unconscious mind more than the deliberate "self-conscious" mind, the spinal and midbrain areas of the nervous system more than the cerebral cortex. This process doesn't have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen. 

Visualisation simply makes the brain achieve more. Sports psychologists and peak performance experts have been popularising the technique since the 1980s, and it has been integrated into almost all mainstream sports and performance coaching, success programmes and business training.

Athletes using guided imagery and mental rehearsal techniques can enhance their performance by creating mental images to intend the outcome of a race. With mental rehearsal the body and mind become trained to actively perform the skill imagined. Repeated use of visualisation builds experience and confidence under pressure, maximising both the efficiency of training and the effectiveness of practice. This principle applies to learning anything new. According to Jack Canfield, in his 2004 book, The Success Principles, Harvard University researchers found that students who visualised tasks before performing them, performed with nearly 100% accuracy, where those who didn’t use visualisation achieved only 55% accuracy. This is also true when applied to the process of learning the violin, both during practice time and performance.

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“Fortune favours the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur, chemist and microbiologist, 1822 - 1895

Most of us are familiar with the idea of reading ahead in the music, or of hearing a note or pitch before playing it. Visualisation - not only conceiving of a phrase before playing it, but vividly imagining the sound, how it feels, where the fingers will fall, how the hand will move in a certain shift and even how the performance will go - is a much deeper way of mentally absorbing and preparing the information. It is also one of the best ways to rid your practice of monotonous repetition and develop awareness of your musical actions.

 

Visualisation in Practice

It’s all very well knowing how great visualisation can be, but how do you go about it? What happens if you close your eyes and don’t seem to be able to see anything?

There are two different ways of visualising, depending on your brain type, both of which are absolutely legitimate. Some people are what psychologists refer to as eidetic visualisers. When they close their eyes they see things in bright, clear, three-dimensional, colour images. The majority of people, however, are noneidetic visualisers. This means they don’t really see an image as much as think it. THIS WORKS JUST AS WELL!

Before we look at how we can apply visualisation techniques in violin practice, let’s look at an example exercise from The Inner Game of Tennis, in which the aim is to hit a stationary target with a tennis ball:

“Place a tennis-ball can in the backhand corner of one of the service courts. Then figure out how you should swing your racket in order to hit the can. Think about how high to toss the ball, about the proper angle of your racket at impact, the proper weight flow, and so forth. Now aim at the can and attempt to hit it. If you miss, try again. If you hit it, try to repeat whatever you did so that you can hit it again. If you follow this procedure for a few minutes, you will experience what I mean by "trying hard" and making yourself serve. After you have absorbed this experience, move the can to the backhand corner of the other service court for the second half of the experiment. This time stand on the base line, breathe deeply a few times and relax. Look at the can. Then visualize the path of the ball from your racket to the can. See the ball hitting the can right on the label. If you like, shut your eyes and imagine yourself serving, and the ball hitting the can. Do this several times. If in your imagination the ball misses the can, that's all right; repeat the image a few times until the ball hits the target. Now, take no thought of how you should hit the ball. Don't try to hit the target. Ask your body, Self 2, to do whatever is necessary to hit the can, then let it do it. Exercise no control; correct for no imagined bad habits. Having programmed yourself with the desired flight of the ball, simply trust your body to do it. When you toss the ball up, focus your attention on its seams, then let the serve serve itself. The ball will either hit or miss the target. Notice exactly where it lands. You should free yourself from any emotional reaction to success or failure; simply know your goal and take objective interest in the results. Then serve again. If you have missed the can, don't be surprised and don't try to correct for your error. This is most important. Again focus your attention on the can; then let the serve serve itself. If you faithfully do not try to hit the can, and do not attempt to correct for your misses, but put full confidence in your body and its computer, you will soon see that the serve is correcting itself. You will experience that there really is a Self 2 who is acting and learning without being told what to do. Observe this process; observe your body making the changes necessary in order to come nearer and nearer to the can, Of course, Self 1 is very tricky and it is most difficult to keep him from interfering a little, but if you quiet him a bit, you will begin to see Self 2 at work, and you will be as amazed as I have been at what it can do, and how effortlessly.”

You can already see how this same exercise might be applied to practising a particular shift or bow stroke, any specific element of your piece that requires a certain physical movement to gain a result.

 

Visualising in Violin Playing

  • Visualise the piece you want to mentally rehearse. Hear the piece in your mind and see your fingers moving. Although it is very challenging to visualise an entire piece, divorcing the muscle memory from the other aspects of performance is extremely valuable. It can enhance memorisation and avoids the fingers going into autopilot. Remember that when you rehearse using only visualisation, the regions of the brain involved with movement are still active. You can practice this way with or without the music in front of you. The concentration required is extremely focussed, so start with small sections of music. If you get to a point where the visualisation fails, don’t be tempted to pick up the violin to get through that spot. This is probably the part that needs most practice, and if you can’t visualise it, persevere until you can.
  • Visualise both from outside and inside. Create a mirroring experience by seeing yourself playing the passage of music as though you are looking at yourself. See yourself enjoying it and playing with confidence. This mirroring is what makes it easy to play a phrase that has just been demonstrated by a teacher. Use videos on YouTube or recordings of your piece. Mime. Also visualise from the inside - what you would see from where you are. How does your hand move on that shift? Where is the bow in your eye-line? How do you want to feel when you play this phrase?
  • Take the musical expression of a phrase and imagine a face on the wall - one of those big drama masks with a happy or sad face. Play your phrase of music. How does the face on the wall look? Does its expression match the emotion the music needs? Play the phrase again with the desired emotion in mind. Repeat the phrase until the music creates the right expression.
  • If you have problems with posture and self-consciousness, try visualising the sound coming from the centre of your sternum. Voice and expression are difficult concepts, and it’s easy to get caught up with the idea of the violin being an external thing. Visualising the sound from your chest will allow your shoulders to open and connect you more deeply with the tone of your instrument.
  • Visualise the performance. Imagine what it will feel like, what it will be like to be on stage. Imagine yourself as though you’re really there. More importantly, imagine the feeling of success. See yourself walking onstage confidently. Visualise your entire performance as many times as you can. Capturing this image before you go on stage can play a critical role in building your confidence and creating a successful experience.
  • Think ahead of your hands. This method of visualisation deals with the mental preparation of the left hand.  The hand doesn’t need to be watched while you play, but looking, or rather thinking ahead to where it will be next, is very effective. Try practising a shift, imagining vividly where your hand will move next. Take the exercise from The Inner Game of Tennis and adapt it.
  • Take time to practice your visualisation of a piece, a phrase or a shift without the violin or bow in your hands. Removing the tactile stimulus of the instrument helps focus the brain on the kinaesthetic elements of the visualisation.

Here are some more practice and performance ideas from The Musician’s Way, A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness by Gerald Klickstein, 2009

 

Mental Imaging in Practice

  • When learning a new piece, use imaging to simulate your execution and instil a vivid mental map before you play. For example, to absorb an unfamiliar phrase, instrumentalists might move their fingers in the air as they vocalise. When you image, create a multisensory experience and make your imaginary playing as realistic as you can: hear the music in your mind, register tactile and movement sensations, connect with the expressive shape of each phrase.
  • As you play, perceive the musical gesture that follows the one you’re executing. Always think, feel, hear, and sense ahead, but do so easefully, trusting in your mental map.
  • To help solve problems, use imaging to try out permutations of fingering, phrasing, and so forth. For instance, to unravel a thorny passage, a string player might imagine touching the fingerboard with her left hand and run through various fingerings.
  • When memorising, depend on imaging to solidify your mental record of a piece. In the practice room, for instance, you might imagine a phrase from memory 2-3 times before you attempt to execute it without the score. Later, to maintain your memory, you could image an entire piece or section.

 

Mental Imaging in Performance

  • Backstage, employ imaging to bring yourself into performance mode. If you’re nervous, let’s say, you might shore up your self-assurance by recalling one of your top performances. Then, in preparation for your entrance, mentally hear your music and mime the playing actions. Get into character. 
  • After your entrance, use imaging to set the tempo of a piece and ready your first phrase.
  • As you perform, image ahead, release effort, and unleash your emotions.

 

Mental Imaging and Creativity

  • During downtime, such as when you’re riding a train, playfully hear music in your head: generate compositional ideas or novel turns of phrase.
  • When seeking new ideas, you can use imaging to consider possibilities for programming and staging – see yourself as an audience member taking in your show.
  • To overcome barriers, envision yourself playing with optimal ease and soulfulness. You might even visualise yourself performing as one of your musical heroes or imagine yourself tossing off tricky passages with aplomb. Use imaging to stoke your enthusiasm for making music.”

 

Start using visualisation in your practice. You will find you achieve much better results and increased confidence, you can practice at antisocial hours of the day or night, you can save tired muscles, and you will develop a much deeper, intuitive understanding of the instrument and the music. Visualise, imagine and mentally prepare at least as much as you physically play. As you practice visualising it will become easier to integrate it at speed and under pressure.

Visualisation is counter-intuitive in a culture where we are taught to try, try, try again, but it is without doubt the single most powerful practice technique that most of us don’t use!

“If you cannot visualise what it is you wish to become, then the brain doesn’t have the first clue how to get you there." Chris Murray, Author of The Extremely Successful Salesman’s Club

 

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