In a post detailing the best ways to practise, you wouldn’t expect us to even consider not using your instrument, but sometimes life gets in the way of you strumming your Guitar or being able to carry your grand Piano around. This post is all about imaginary practice, practising without your instrument, or being as Mozart said, “swallowed up in music…speculating, studying, considering.”
Hack your brain to practise for you
When it comes to the practise of anything, a musical instrument especially, the brain and its powers of imagination are exceptionally interesting. Imagine playing a song. Right now your brain is very nearly using the same synapses, firing the same neurons as if you actually were playing the song. Imagine a steady 4/4 rhythm. Right now you are using the same area of your brain that controls your body’s movement. Mind, body and music are intimately connected, and you can use this to your advantage.
A famous study was conducted that took two different sets of beginner pianists, asking one set to physically practise a sequence of notes, the other to imagine playing and hearing that sequence. After five days, the results saw the imaginary group reach the same standard that the physical group had attained at three days, suggesting unequivocally that it had, although not as big an effect, a tangible one nonetheless.
Vividly visualise playing an instrument or singing a tune. Really focus on how your fingers might move, how your breathing might change, and how each part of your body might feel making those actions. If the tune you are imagining is too fast, simply slow it down. Paint a bright picture in your mind’s eye of what the melody would sound like if you played it that way. Then, when you get home, try it out for real. You might find it sounds nothing like it should, but you might find that you’ve finally nailed that section you’d been working on. A common complaint with beginner musicians is that their fingers don’t seem to do what their brain wants them to. This is partly a muscle problem, but it’s also because you are asking your brain to make neural connections that are unfamiliar. So make them familiar, use your brain to ‘test out’ these new finger-movements and see if things get any easier.
You don’t have to rely on the power of the mind over the body to practise without your instrument, you can always work on some music theory when you’re sitting on a train journey. Perhaps try to recite the notes of the fretboard. If you’re a visual learner perhaps sketch out some piano keys and try to identify some chords. There is also a vast number of helpful theory books that you can read (the Playbook series (http://www.musicroom.com/se/id_no/01107700/details.html) is a great pocket-sized reference guide), or chord dictionaries that would be helpful to memorise (http://www.musicroom.com/se/id_no/010517/details.html). But don’t let things get too boring! Try to find inventive ways of testing your own theory knowledge. You could also try composing purely in your head. Try to come up with a melody or a chord progression that sounds fine in your mind, then try it out when you get home. If it sounds bad, don’t worry, but it’s great to get creative with your methods of composition, instead of sticking to the same routine.
Something essential that you can easily do without your instrument is exercise. Whether it’s practising breathing or stretching your fingers, it’ll all be beneficial. String players could use an innovative invention like the Varigrip (http://www.musicroom.com/se/id_no/0700214/details.html), or simply squeeze a tennis ball. Practising rhythm is also something easily done that doesn’t require any equipment or even thought. It could be as simple as getting used to tapping your foot along to any music that’s playing, or finger-drumming along to different time-signatures in your head, preferably without irritating those around you! Another thing you could do is to train your ear to the music you’re hearing. In which key was that song in the coffeeshop? What note was that bird singing? You might find that this is frustratingly difficult at the outset, but keep at it, you’ll eventually not be able to stop noticing notes and rhythms all around you.
Obviously we’d never dream of suggesting you should stop practising, but in unavoidable, otherwise boring situations like commuting on the bus or sitting in a waiting room, these are some extra suggestions that might help, if only by getting to you be more like Mozart. Comment below and let us know how you practise when you’re away from your instrument.