The power of mental practice

Rodin’s The Thinker indulging in some mental practice

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems: he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol; and he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Next week I’ll discuss Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol. This week I want to address the issue of learning the new plan. Alexander’s solution? Mental practice.

Mental practice defined by Alexander

“I therefore decided to confine my work to giving myself the directions for the new ‘means-whereby’, instead of actually trying to ‘do’ them or to relate them to the ‘end’ of speaking. I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them…” [1]

To Alexander, the key component of this stage of his practice was that he was ‘giving directions’ without attempting to do them. He wasn’t speaking. He stood in front of the mirror and observed himself, but did not speak. There was a lot of work going on, but all of it was mental!

So how should we adapt mental practice for our purposes?

  • Mental practice is away from the activity – away from the instrument or the sports equipment;
  • Mental practice involves going through the ‘directions’ or steps in your protocol;
  • You do it regularly and often, just like practice on the instrument.

How do I know I’m doing it correctly?

I think it’s important to point out that, just as there isn’t really one right and true way of sitting, there almost certainly isn’t any one right and true way to do mental practice. Exactly what you do, just as with sitting, is likely to be entirely contextual. To take a musical example, at the beginning of learning a piece you are likely to be looking at specific bars and running through them in your mind to make sure you remember the correct fingerings or articulation. Towards performance day, however, you are likely to be visualising standing backstage in your performance outfit, waiting to go on, walking out, and beginning to play the notes.

It’s also important to remember that mental practice is a skill that you need to learn, just as (physical) music practice is a skill. Initially, you may find that you struggle to maintain your focus on your practice for very long. If you keep trying, however, you will find that this kind of Alexandrian thinking becomes easier to sustain, and time will pass without you noticing!

The power of mental practice: a story.

 A few years ago I worked with a musician who had injured themselves, and was using a combination of physiotherapy to deal with the injury and Alexander Technique to deal with the muscular tension that had helped to create it. The musician was in the final year of their degree, but at the beginning of the year could only play for a few minutes without intense pain. But they needed to learn the repertoire for their final recital.

Our solution? Mental practice. I worked with them to improve their mental practice skills; the musician would do only a few minutes of practice on the instrument a very few times a day, but would supplement this with plenty of mental practice and score study.

The outcome? The musician did well in their final recital and got their degree.

Mental practice works. It gives you the experience and grounding in your new protocol that it won’t feel totally unfamiliar in comparison to your old unhelpful way of going about things. Give it a go.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.41.