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Visualization – Using Your Imagination to Enhance Memorization and Performance

by Andrew Shulman

I'm sure at one time or another, we've all had the experience of having practiced our latest solo piece, suite, concerto, to the point where we can play it from memory pretty well in our practice room at home, only to find that, as soon as we are in an unfamiliar situation, on the concert stage, in front of hundreds or even thousands of people, all our work goes out of the window and we are left struggling to get to the end without falling apart! Have you ever asked yourself why? Have you ever thought about whether there is a way to make the whole process of performing from memory easier?

The human being is blessed with something called the imagination. We can use it in many different ways. For instance, we can look forward to a vacation in a faraway country that we've never visited before. We could combine two flavors of ice cream and have a good idea whether they would taste good together. We can watch someone bungee jumping off the edge of a cliff and mentally put ourselves in their position, feeling the imaginary wind rushing past our face and watching the ground getting closer every second. But there's also something we can do as musicians that can make the performances we give so much better. That is, we can use our imagination to experience playing through our pieces in our headfirst. Without the instrument! And when I say playing through, I mean imagining every tiny detail of the performance, from tuning the instrument off stage, to walking on, to shaking hands with the concertmaster, looking at the audience, bowing to them, sitting down, preparing ourselves, nodding to the conductor to begin, and eventually actually playing the first note of the piece.

This process I call 'visualization'. You could also call it 'virtual realization' or 'mental performance', or whatever you like. The important thing is, you do it away from your instrument, and you do it in a calm, super-critical way. By that, I mean when you begin your 'virtual performance', you give yourself time to go back and correct 'mistakes' or 'miscalculations' which you will inevitably make when you begin using this technique. I not only encourage my students to do this at home when learning a piece of music, but also, in lessons, if something goes wrong, I often ask them to practice the passage in their head first, to identify where the problem lies, and to correct it 'virtually' before they try it out on their instrument again. Invariably the problem gets solved and no more 'physical' practice is necessary!

As an experiment, try this. It's a piece we've probably all played many times, “The Swan”.

Sit down in a comfortable chair. Turn off all distractions in the room. Late at night is often the best time, though you will find (if you do it properly) that your mind will be stimulated and get very tired at the same time! Close your eyes and visualize taking the cello and bow out of your case. Keep calm. Make sure your neck and head are not tense. Notice if any muscles tighten when you lift your imaginary cello with your imaginary arms. Imagine walking towards a chair placed just off stage. Sit down, calmly tune each string. Feel your bow in your hand. Hear the sound of the cello. When you are completely ready, walk on to the stage (make sure it's a stage you know well). Look out at the audience, acknowledge them, bow to them, and risk a smile!

Sit at the imaginary chair in the center of the stage by the piano, or on the soloists podium, and wait for the applause to die down. Notice any tension in your legs or arms or neck. Release the tension by allowing your muscles to widen and fill with air, blood flowing freely, tendons relaxed but ready for action.

Hear the first bar of the piano accompaniment wafting towards you as you place your 4thfinger gently on the fingerboard on G and bring your right arm slowly up in an arc to begin the first note. Feel the bow coaxing the string to vibrate at exactly the right moment for the sound to begin, your left hand beginning to vibrato gently just before contact. The sound is beautiful, so you connect your vibrato from your 4th finger to your 3rd in the same bow, without any bump or portato from the right arm. It's going so well, and there are contented murmurs from the audience who are relaxing into your sound! You feel the weight of your left arm dragging down on your 3rd finger as you head for the B in 1st position, just gently removing your 3rd finger at exactly the right moment for the B to sound, still vibrating, the bow ready to change direction with exactly the same bow speed to an up bow as you extend the 4th finger up towards the E and miraculously meet it at exactly the point where your up bow begins, not forgetting to vibrate 'between the notes' so that the legato is seamless. The up bow is now moving smoothly along, so you are ready to remove the 4thfinger and play the D with your 2nd finger, remembering to shape the sound of the 3 notes in the up bow slightly differently than the 'falling' of the first 3 notes you played as they are moving towards the next bar, with an 'oh so slight' crescendo towards the G as you roll your 2nd finger across to the D string for the last note of the bar which leads imperceptibly to the 1st note of the 2nd bar, and so on. It's hard, isn't it? And that's just ONE BAR. Notice while you imagine it happening, did you shift to the B perfectly? Was every note in tune? How was the string crossing from the D to the G? Smooth enough? Did the vibrato connect too? Did the speed of the bow remain constant from note to note, or did it make little accelerations and decelerations that didn't help the phrasing? If anything wasn't exactly as you wanted it, go back and do it again. This kind of practice will stay with you MUCH longer than physical practice and repetition alone. And you will find that when you actually try it out with your instrument you will feel as if you've done it before and it will seem very comfortable. One thing, though. It will take you much longer to complete a whole piece like this than with physical practice, perhaps 3 to 4 times as long as the piece itself. But it will stay with you forever, and be much more beneficial to your playing in the long run. You can call upon your memory of how it was to play this piece at this hall when you finally come to actually play the concert, and it will give you the confidence to know that you have already experienced this moment in your head, and therefore nothing will take you by surprise! Well, unless there's an earthquake in the concert. But you could even prepare for that! I have!

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