Guided Visualization for Pianists
There is ample evidence that mindfulness, meditation and visualization can boost focus and motivation, and decrease stress, anxiety and rumination (persistent negative thoughts). UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC) has numerous classes and free resources, and there are hundreds of such videos on YouTube. Yet there are no guided visualizations specifically for pianists. The audio below is my contribution to the genre, with specific suggestions about how a peak practice and performing experience feels, and how to summon the wise you: the you that stands back, away from the thought and the emotion, and just listens and watches. That part of you stays calm, no matter what you are playing, where you are playing or for whom you are playing. Some meditation practices call this “witness consciousness.”
If you are ready to listen to the visualization audio, skip to the bottom of the page.
What to do about negative thoughts
“I should know this by now…I never get this part right…I don’t have enough time to prepare…I knew that would happen…I can’t memorize…can’t concentrate…can’t get rid of negative thoughts…” Think of a few phrases of your own. The next time you practice, watch for them, and just listen to them ramble on, as if you were a journalist taking notes for a story. Don’t get mad or upset at them. They may contain some truth, but what really gives them power over you is their finger-wagging judgment.
During one practice session, plan to keep a mental–or even actual–scoreboard. Every time you have a fearful or belittling thought while at the piano, add a point to the minus side. When you get a vote of confidence from yourself, add a point to the plus side. Don’t intentionally change your thought patterns at first, just keep score.
Tallying your thoughts will help to keep them conscious. When you have a good idea where and when your negative thoughts surface, you are ready to play the mental What If? game.
This game is simple and effective. Find a disturbing thought. Perhaps you are frustrated because you are learning a piece too slowly. Ask yourself, “What if I could learn this quickly? What would it feel like for my mind to be working so fast? What mood would it put me in? What would I be thinking about? How would my fingers be moving?” Describe the scenario with as much detail and emotion as you can. Hear the music, and feel and see the keys and movement of your body. When you go back to practicing, keep your mind trained on those thoughts, senses and emotions. Shut out any lingering frustration the way you shut out distracting sounds when you are reading a good book.
When you imagine the end result, your mind and body can figure out how to get you there. Ideas will come to you as your creative voices, previously drowned out or blocked by your internal nag, are given a chance to speak up.
We are all conditioned through repetition. Like it or not, we often end up believing what we have heard the most, from our inner voices as well as those around us. What we feel to be the truth may just be an arbitrary groove, dug deeper and deeper with each reiteration. Simply recognizing that fact can bring relief.
Even so, developing new reflexes will take time. Be patient if negative thoughts return. Listen to them without emotion, as if they bore you. Then ask them if they are finished, and imagine your desired end result, imbuing it with a lot of happiness and enthusiasm. Fake it if you have to! Gradually you will diminish the dark, limiting thoughts and phase in the exciting, alive ones.
You can speed up the reconditioning process by listening to this guided visualization. It will help you to counter negative thoughts and motivate you before practice or a performance. It can be played when you are lying down, sitting comfortably, taking a walk or doing work around the house.
My own experience is that negative thoughts can surface with increasing intensity as an important performance nears. I have also discovered that as these inner voices repeat themselves over and over in practice, they can become attached to the passages being practiced. Once programmed, the simple act of playing the passage can evoke the negative thought.
In such a situation, try playing the audio in the background as you practice. It will peel off some of the negative overlay, and allow helpful, liberating thoughts to attach themselves to your music instead. The process of reconditioning should help you relax as you practice, too.
The guided visualization audio and scripts
Below are two sample scripts: one in the first person (I) and the other in the second person (you). The audio visualization below is my reading of the “you” script. You can use this as often as you like. But you may feel even more empowered if you record the “I” script in your own voice.
Use some, all, or none of it. Go off on your own tangents. Change it as much and as often as you like. It is your recording, for your ears alone, and no one knows better than you what your concerns, convictions and goals really are.
Enjoy your music making, and may your inner voices be your best fans!