Mentally Practicing Away From Your Instrument

When you play guitar, bass or keys long enough, you begin to develop a mental picture of your instrument. You can imagine it as if it’s in front of you now, or as if it’s in your hands. You can imagine the layout of the frets and strings, or the layout of the keys. You can feel all of the detailed movements that your fingers have learned through practice, and you can hear the corresponding sounds in your mind’s ear. After you’ve played for a while, you naturally form this three-way mental model of the instrument, techniques and sounds, without even trying. You might not think about it. You might not even really notice it.

Many of the world’s best instrumentalists have described how they practice mentally, away from their instrument, based on combined visual memory, muscle memory, and memory of sounds. In Guitar Player Magazine interviews, many of the best guitarists of all times, such as Chet Atkins, talked about the importance of mental practice. This doesn’t apply only to guitar, or only to modern music. Even though musicians have been talking about it for centuries, music methods never talk about mental practice.

Your mental model of the instrument forms naturally, and unconsciously. But once it does, you’re using it in your playing every moment that you play, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not. It’s your mental model, your subjective impression of the instrument, that guides your hands, not the instrument itself. None of this should sound strange. Every object we encounter in real life forms a corresponding image in the mind. It’s the image we experience, and it’s through images that we interact with the world. That’s another way of saying we only know reality through our subjective experiences. This goes back to Kant, Hume and Western Philosophy 101.

When you play, you’re comparing your mental model of your instrument to your real-time experience of playing the instrument. As you improve your playing, you also solidify your mental model of your instrument.

As far back as the classical era, musicians have talked about how they purposefully developed their ability to practice mentally. They have said that it’s an important part of their overall practice routine. A number of successful modern musicians have said in interviews that one of the reasons they got good, maybe one of the reasons they got the gig and the other guy didn’t, is because they developed a conscious routine of mental practice, and maybe the other guy didn’t.

As humans, we naturally tend to visualize things which are familiar to us. This applies to writing music. Several classical composers complained that finished, written music formed in their heads faster than they could write it down. It wasn’t just Mozart. Many classical composers got musical ideas during late-night walks, or dining in restaurants – in other words they wrote music away from their instruments. Sometimes they imagined new music so completely that they played it correctly for the first time without having to practice it.

There is one important detail regarding auditory memory as it relates to mental practice. How is auditory memory supposed to work if we don’t have perfect pitch, or a reference pitch? Without perfect pitch, or a reference pitch, how are you supposed to “hear” notes on this “instrument of the mind?”

The answer is that you mentally stipulate a starting pitch, then use your sense of relative pitch to assign imagined pitches to imagined keys or fret positions. Or you assign an imagined sound to an imagined chord shape. If your mental model is complete, then everything falls into place.

It’s exactly the same for piano as for guitar, or any other instrument. You don’t need perfect pitch to practice mentally. You just need a well-developed sense of relative pitch. You might just have a very clear memory of how to play a particular piece, and what that piece sounds like as you play it.

Now let’s combine practicing away from the instrument with the concept of reading by ear. Put those two together and it means that you can figure out parts on your instrument by ear, away from your instrument. That also means that after a while, every auditory memory you have can inform your playing, in real time, even if it’s music you’ve never played before.

For advanced musicians, just hearing something can have an immediate effect on your music and your playing, whether it’s something you’ve ever actually practiced or not. When your playing is informed by a wide variety of styles, the result is a more sophisticated playing style. This goes back to the importance of exposure to a wide variety of music. For modern musicians, the creative battle to produce good music is won or lost in part by what they’re able to draw upon in the moment.

As an ear-trained musician, there are some guitar parts which I can play just from hearing them, once I solve for the key. I can figure out some parts instantly, even though I’ve never practiced them and never worked them out. It might as well be osmosis. I’m not unique in this regard. This is a common ability among rock players. It’s how most modern musicians work.

Ear-training is usually tied to technical ability. Your ability to play by ear is partly determined by your technical ability on your instrument. Ear-trained musicians might not be able to play everything they can hear. You can only play to the limits of your technical ability. But if your ear is highly developed, then you can usually decipher just about anything you are technically capable of playing.

Non-musicians listen to music for entertainment. But when you’re an ear-trained musician, music isn’t just entertainment anymore. It’s raw data. You’ll see for yourself that a trained ear is never idle. Whenever you’re around music, your trained ear is continuously generating fleeting images of chord shapes and note-orders, whether you want it to or not. Once your ear learns to associate sounds with shapes on the fretboard or keyboard, you can never completely turn it off again. For many people, their sensory model of their instrument becomes so detailed that they start to dream accurate instrumental parts in their sleep.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug