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What role does mental preparation play in piano technique?

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.

Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States

Mental attitude, to use Jefferson's term, is crucial to learning the piano. I tell my students, if you can hear it, then think it - you can do it! The brain has to be fully engaged before any amount of physical repetition produces results.

There has been quite a bit of research in sports psychology on the topic of mental preparation. Several studies have asked the question: what makes the difference between success and failure? A report on the 1996 Olympics suggested that one factor common to successful athletes was that each consistently followed a plan encompassing both physical and mental preparation.

How can this work in your own studio? Involve each student in developing his or her own personal plan for successful performance. This will involve a complete piano technique, in the broad sense of the term. Accuracy (in every parameter), tonal control, interpretation, and personal expression are all part of a winning formula.

1. What state of mind works best before a performance? Confident, relaxed, happy, high energy - which feeling leads to the best performance? Research suggests that the answer is not the same for every student.

2. How can the student get into this mental state? Will she visualize herself accepting a medal, to build confidence? Will she stare at other students to make herself nervous?

3. What should be done ahead of time to ensure an effective performance?

a. Specific goals. These objectives might be as simple as "keep a steady tempo" or "play without memory slips" or as broad as "create the musical image of a ruined temple." Research suggests that successful pianists have a goal list that has both specific and general objectives.

b. Self-talk. Teach students to monitor their own state of mind and to give themselves advice. This should be positive, motivating, and instructive.

c. Audiation. Can your students hear the sounds they wish to produce? I tell them, if you can't hear it, you won't play it.

d. Visualization. Help students mentally rehearse their performance, from specific gestures to walking on stage.

e. Performance cues and strategies for concentration. It is not really possible to totally concentrate 100% of the time. Help students identify the places that require total focus, and practice cueing it.

How do you achieve this? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall - practice, practice, practice. With strategies for mental preparation in place, your success will be ensured. 

The brain is the most powerful muscle

 by Jennifer Hayghe

Your fingers don't have a mind of their own! Mental preparation is as important as the physical training involved in playing the piano, and it is sometimes the most important aspect of problem-solving and overcoming technical obstacles. How many times do students say, "I drill and drill and I STILL miss that passage!?" Without the right mental preparation, all the drilling in the world isn't going to fix a particular spot. That said, physical preparation cannot be neglected under the assumption that simply thinking through a passage will produce results - there always needs to be some sort of muscular memory, which IS developed through repetition. But your muscles always need help from the most powerful muscle - your brain.

Mindful practice

Mental preparation is an incredibly important part of practicing technique. I assign my students a technical routine that I expect them to practice every day. I stress that this is the only time they will have to work on the physicality of playing the piano, without having to concentrate on memory, reading, interpretation, or pedaling. Mindful technical practice is a must to develop new habits, break old habits, and improve dexterity. Concentrating on the physical motions and reactions needed to produce certain technical elements (scales, arpeggios, double notes) in a "pure" technical setting will help enormously in creating a more automatic response to these same elements in repertoire.

Mindful practicing and drilling is also essential to developing technique at the piano. Drilling passages or trouble spots will develop physical memory, but mental involvement in the repetitive process is necessary to efficiently create new habits and successful outcomes. I teach a very effective way to drill while maintaining concentration,whichIcallthe"5Time(or10Time) Game." The challenge is to drill a particular excerpt 5 (or 10) times in a row perfectly; anytime the passage is not executed accurately, the drill must start over from the first repetition. This causes the pianist to be mentally engaged in every repetition, since a slip in concentration will require the entire process to begin again.

A classic example of a situation in which thinking will overcome a physical issue is ascending arpeggiated passagework in which one note, usually played by the thumb, is often missed. The thumb has to cross under and is the anchor for a new hand position. When drilling alone does not fix the issue, a simple analysis of whether the thumb is jumping too far (overshooting the "target") or not far enough (undershooting) is crucial. Simply doing the opposite, purposely undershooting when your tendency is to overshoot or vice versa, will often fix the issue and create more successful results in repetitive drilling. Again, physical drilling is necessary, but a careful thought process will produce a positive outcome.

All the muscles in our fingers, wrists, and arms respond to impulses sent by the brain. Often, technical issues stem from complicated passages that need to be made intellectually clearer. For example, I often recommend that students mentally regroup passagework outside of the way it is beamed so that sequences and/ or patterns are clearer and easier to follow. Simplifying the signals sent from the brain to the fingers can often make tricky passagework considerably easier.

A mental plan

A mental plan is also necessary in technically mapping out a performance of a complete work. Particularly in more virtuosic or "athletic" works, the player needs to pace their physical exertion and be sure to breathe regularly. As we get caught up in the work we are playing, we frequently forget the physical act of breathing, which is necessary to provide oxygen to muscles to prevent tension. Simply planning moments to breathe and concentrating on conserving energy and using efficient body movements will create a much more comfortable performance. Preparation involving a mental map of the actual performance is equally as crucial as preparation involving physical repetition and drilling.

The mental process involved in practicing technique, drilling passages, analyzing a specific problem, and simplifying a complicated pattern is crucial in identifying "tools" to facilitate playing. Careful mental analysis and approaches to problem-solving are needed to put together a toolbox of solutions for various technical problems. A well- thought-out plan for performance is a necessity for overcoming technical obstacles. In every aspect of practicing and performing, mental preparation is absolutely as important a physical preparation in developing piano technique and creating a successful performance. 

Mental preparation is the key to producing beautiful sounds

by Irene Peery-Fox

Technique is musicianship and musicianship is technique. In over fifty

years of teaching, that is my conclusion. Without proper technique one is unable to express the music correctly, no matter how much one feels it. The reverse is also true. When a student plays something very musically it is because he or she possesses the technique, or the tools, to be able to express it properly. How does a student prepare technically in order to achieve the kind of technique needed to be a dazzling performer? I would say that there are two ways: one is by playing and practic-
ing technical exercises at the keyboard. The other is by mental preparation. Practicing technique mentally is what I will address. 

Being able to produce many tone colors and various different sounds at the keyboard is one kind of technique. Before a student is capable of producing a certain type of sound, that particular sound must be heard in the ear. Once the quality of sound is mentally perceived, the fingers and arms will do what is needed to produce that sound. The famous pedagogue Josef Lhevinne, in his book on technique entitled Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, stated that pianists can actually think moods and conditions into the arms and fingers, and emphasized that technique is worthless if it is simply the work of the hands. In other words, mental preparation is the key to producing beautiful sounds.  

Attach the fingers to the ears

Technical evenness may be produced via mental practice. The ear must 'hear' evenness in order to produce it. Listening very astutely will achieve the results far sooner than any amount of finger drills. Practicing scale and arpeggios endlessly without hear- ing whether or not the sounds being produced are the desired legato, staccato, or portato, are musically shaped and even, or have the correct sound, accomplishes nothing. Working for balance between the hands, making one hand a different dynamic or a different articulation, requires a mental sound first; the best technical procedures will then follow naturally. The correct sounds must be in the performer's ear beforthe keys are touched. Beautiful technique is achieved by the fingers being attached to the ears.

Most students have a daily technical regime. As this regime is practiced, the student should mentally prepare for the execution of each task to be performed. The goal should be to practice the technique as if it were being performed in a piece. The entire attention should be focused on what the ears are telling you and on what the body is doing. Here are some suggestions for the mental preparation of practicing scales: 

1. Before beginning to play the scale, mentally prepare by thinking about how your hands should look when you play a scale. Imagine the rounded hand holding a ball with the wrists at a level high enough to allow the thumbs to stand and play on the sides by the nails, leaving enough room under the hand for erosing.

2. Imagine how your arms need to be held in order to lead up and down the keyboard in a smooth line and a relaxed manner.

3. Align your wrists and arms so as to alleviate any cramped twists in the wrists.

4. Think of how your fingers will feel, with the firmness in the tips, and how your arms will feel relaxed and heavy. 

5. Finally, imagine the sound you're going to make. You may want to think of making different sounds and colors for each scale you practice. Have the sound in your ear before your fingers come in contact with the keys. You may want to create a very legato sound with slightly overlapping tones. For dynamics, you might choose a crescendo to the top of the scale, followed by a descending diminuendo. Hear this sound in your ear before moving a muscle. Then don't release that inner imagery until you've completed the scale. The surprise will be that your fingers will produce what your ears are demanding.

Some students burst into practicing scales without thinking or hearing first and then the scale is uneven in sound and rhythm, and without shape and smoothness. This type of mindless practice usually yields very little in the way of results. The lack of proper practice and mental preparation is then evident in the performance of the repertoire. 

Irene Peery-Fox with prize-winning student Lindsey Brinton.

Mental imagery solves technical problems

Technique is not measured by how fast or loud one can play. The ultimate goal for a pianist is not merely to play the notes but to create a musical, artistic sound from the beginning to the end of a performance. Being able to do this is defined as technique. Pre-hearing exactly what sounds and technique you want the listeners to hear in a musical sense is what will achieve this final goal. If the pianist has a clear image or idea of how he or she wants a passage to sound, he or she will be able to discover the technical way to accomplish it. Mental imagery can be used to solve technical problems within the piano repertoire.

While a student at Juilliard, I performed the Zwei Konzert-Etuden by Liszt. There was a passage in the first etude, Waldesrauschen, that frightened me. The left hand leaps in measures 71-78 made it almost impossible to hit all the right notes consistently (see Excerpt 1 on page 47). After hours of physical practicing and repetition, in desperation I began thinking about different ways my left hand could 'feel' as it tried to execute the passage. After a lot of mental experimentation I began trying a few of the things I had been thinking about. I finally discovered that by making my left hand extremely relaxed, almost like a dead weight, I could almost let it fly automatically to the 5th fingers and it would strike the notes accurately and rebound back to the correct chords. I trained myself to begin preparing mentally one page in advance of those few measures of music so that when I arrived at the critical part my hand would do what I had imagined.

Excerpt 1 "Waldesrauschen" from Zwei Konzert-Etiiden by Franz Lizst, mm. 71-78

It worked without fail. Mental practice solved the problem. I had a similar experience when teaching a student Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. The student froze (out of sheer exhaustion) on the double octaves on the last page, which are measures 15, 17, and 19 from the end (see Excerpt 2). The performance of the entire piece was magnificent except for those few measures. I offered the student suggestions of working in rhythms and accents, and in different tempos, plus I taught other ways to practice technically to solve the problem, but to no avail. Finally I a signed her a way to prepare mentally for the passage. 

Excerpt 2 Hungarian Rhapsody No.6. by Franz Liszt, mm.205-210

While studying the passage away from the keys, I discovered that by thinking of the double octaves as if there were a pause on the first octave of each group, along with a small gesture of the wrists on the same octaves, it simplified the passage by mentally breaking the larger phrases into smaller segments that could be performed flawlessly. The physical struggle was over. Preparing mentally as the passage approached enabled the student to make it to the end of the piece technically perfect and without fatigue. Lindsey Brinton, the student referred to, won the 2008 National Junior Miss Competition performing the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.6.

In conclusion, I believe that good technique is essential to being able to play artistically. Therefore, learning to develop technique in the most efficient way is necessary, and mental preparation is the key to achieving this goal and creating beautiful performances. 

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