Using visualisation techniques in playing, performing and teaching

Visualisation techniques have been used by sports people and sports psychologists for some time now to enable the tennis player or athlete, the golfer or cyclist to prepare for a match-winning shot or prize-winning sprint. The technique involves imagining an ideal scenario and positive outcome to achieve one’s goal. Musicians are now using similar techniques to create better results and more vivid, expressive music than physical practising alone can achieve. Visualisation techniques also have a role in coping with anxiety and can help create a sense of inner calm before a concert or important performance.

Shaping phrases

Use one’s mind’s eye, and ear, to imagine the shape and sound of a particular phrase, its arc and its conclusion. Picture the movement of fingers, hand and arm flowing through the phrase, hear the phrase internally, play the phrase in your head and only when you are completely comfortable with the “inner aural picture”, play the phrase on the piano. Listen closely, and note the physical sensations of playing the phrase (the pads of the fingers touching the keys, the flexibility of hand and wrist, the movement of the forearm, breathing). This information provides expert, personal feedback to enable one to play the phrase in the same way each time. Gradually, just as in repetitive physical practice, brain and body learn the sequence of movements and expected sounds to recreate the phrase, and the habit of visualising the music before one plays becomes almost intuitive. This kind of visualisation can also be done away from the piano: imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear, while in your mind’s eye imagine the fingers playing each note, tackling that tricky fioritura or complex passage, and shaping the music. You don’t even need the score to practise like this.

Colouring sound

A passage may call for a certain instrumentation – the brightness of brass, the warm sonority of woodwind, plucked ‘pizzicato’ strings, the lucid cantabile of the human voice. Take a moment to hear the sound internally, play it through in your mind – “imagine the sound” – and then play the passage. I use this technique very frequently in my own playing and teaching, and it never fails to amaze me how easily the sounds heard in one’s head can translate to the desired sounds on the keyboard. It reminds one that the imagination is a very powerful tool: the only limit to visualisation is the constraint of one’s imagination.

I use the above techniques widely in my teaching as I find that children of all ages, and adults too, respond to and enjoy calling the imagination into play. For young children, asking them to describe what they think a piece is about, what pictures or stories the music suggests to them (while reminding them that there is “no right answer” to whatever they suggest) can help them create a vivid or expressive sound in their playing. Many pieces for children have titles which go some way to stimulating the imagination, but within a piece there might be a certain chord or chord progression, a particular crunchy harmony or phrase for which one might create a personal aural picture.

Adult students often struggle to achieve the sound they desire, perhaps inspired by the sound of a favourite recording or pianist, and the frustration of not achieiving that sound can lead to physical tension. I observed at first hand the power of visualisation techniques at work when on a piano course with a friend of mine. The friend wanted to create a very smooth singing legato in a Mendelssohn Song Without Words. She could articulate, in words, exactly the kind of sound and expressive line she wanted but was frustrated by her inability to achieve this when playing. The tutor asked her to take a few moments to “hear the sound” and see the shape of the phrases in her mind before she played. The effect was immediate and quite incredible – that such a simple visualisation exercise could transform the sound so much and so effectively.

Relieving and mental physical tension

One of my teachers has a very simple but immediately useful exercise – to imagine the arms are supported on a hot air balloon. They are floating slowly upwards on a lovely warm cushion of air. When the arms are about forehead height, the balloon is replaced by a parachute which gently floats the arms and hands down into the keyboard. This creates a wonderful lightness and softness in the hands, wrists and forearms and provides the perfect position from which to play and create a good sound.

Another useful image is to picture the arms made of thick rubber bands, without bones, which can move freely. Children find this image quite funny and quirky.

If you are prone to physical tension when you play, first centre yourself at the keyboard, mentally and physically. Close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the first phrase of your piece – inhale and exhale slowly and as you do, float your hands to the keyboard, hear the first phrase in your head, imagine the movements you will make to play the first phrase, and only when you are ready, play the phrase. Continue to play while visualising effortless playing with a calm and focused state of mind.

In performance

Earlier this year I gave a concert to a music society in the home of a noted British pianist based in the north of England. The pianist and his partner were very welcoming when I arrived and immediately made me comfortable with cups of my favourite tea and a room where I could change and sit quietly to prepare myself ahead of the concert. The piano itself was a very beautiful Steinway D which had previously belonged to the Halle Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli and which had been played by some of my pianistic heroes, including Ashkenazy and Richter. I was pleased with my performance and received warm congratulations from audience and hosts afterwards. The entire experience was very positive and enjoyable. When I went to give a concert of the same programme some weeks later, I tried to recall the sensations, physical and emotional, I had felt while playing Andrew’s beautiful Steinway. I used these sensations to help me focus on the task ahead and to settle my anxiety. Recalling a successful previous performance can be very helpful in creating a calm and focused state of mind ahead of another performance. This may include recalling features such as the decor of the room, the light shining through a window, as well as our own physical and emotional sensations, moods or stories triggered by the music. Such stories or moods are personal to us and may have nothing whatsoever to do with the music, but they are our stories which enable us to bring our music to life with colour and expression.

Managing anxiety

Athletes are masters of “relaxed concentration” and the ability to imagine graceful movement and successful outcomes. We too can use visualisation techniques to launch a successful and convincing performance from the opening phrase to the closing cadence. In the (roughly) 24 hours leading up to a performance, make sure body and mind are rested, free of extraneous thought or activity. In the hour or so before the concert begins, when you are waiting in the green room, run a scenario something like this through your mind: picture yourself calmly walking across the stage. You pause by the piano to take a bow and acknowledge the audience. You sit at the piano and lift your hands to the piano to begin the first piece. All your movements are calm and relaxed, your mindset is positive and focused. You play the music through in your mind, always aware of your physical sensations. All the time, imagine you are calm and relaxed, free of tension in body and mind. Most musicians have their own personal strategies for managing anxiety, but calling on the imagination can be a surprisingly powerful tool. Whether you imagine you are walking barefoot through a cooling stream or dew-soaked grass or you are watching yourself play with movements that are effortless and graceful, using visualisation can be a very powerful tool when it comes to achieving your goals. It is said that the brain cannot differentiate between “intense visualisation” and reality. So if you close your eyes and play out the role or scenario in your mind of how you want to project yourself, imagining confidence, a vivid and expressive sound, deep communication with your audience, when you actually perform the brain will be relaxed and ready. However, it must not be forgotten that visualisation cannot replace the confidence that comes from hours and hours of intelligent, focused practising.

Inspiration from left-handed pianist NicholasMcCarthy 

Further reading

Proprioception and Visualization

This is not a post about how to transcribe piano music for a full orchestra, or ensemble, but rather some thoughts on how imagining certain instruments and visualising sounds can help shape piano music, creating an exciting and contrasting sound world.

I often remind my students that the piano can be “any instrument you want it to be”: a trumpet, a cello, a bass drum, shimmering violins, mellow woodwind, a pure soprano voice. And beyond, to the sounds of the natural world: rain dripping, ice creaking, birdsong, fluttering wings, sighing trees, a dog barking, a horse’s hooves. Some students just look blankly at me – and then at the piano. “It’s just a piano”, they seem to be thinking. “How can it be anything else?”. Others are quick to embrace this idea, and a short exercise in which we “imagine the sound” before we play can make a huge difference to the kind of sound produced. This exercise has been particularly helpful in two pieces I am teaching for Trinity Guildhall graded exams, Fanfare for the Common Cold (Grade 2) and Song of Twilight (Grade 3), about which I have written on my piano studio blog (see posts here and here). The piano is a percussive instrument: the sound it produces comes from the mechanical action of a hammer hitting a string, a set of actions initiated by the finger striking a key. The balance, timbre and quality of the sound is controlled by the pianist; the suggestion of other instruments comes from the imagination of the pianist.

A great deal of piano music naturally lends itself to “orchestration”, and you can easily hear within its measures the other instruments the composer had in mind: bright, shiny trumpets in the opening of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableaux Op 33 No. 4 (sometimes also listed at No. 7); tremolo strings in the repeated triplet figures in the exposition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, the ‘Tempest’, the purity of the human voice in many of Chopin’s work, and particularly in Schubert. Such effects are not only to imply other instruments, but also to help create atmosphere.

Sometimes, a piece is a direct transcription from an orchestral work, such as Bach’s D minor Concerto after Marcello BWV 974, which I have been studying. Bach obviously knew the original work and his transcription for keyboard retains many of the features and textures of Marcello’s original concerto, while also taking advantage of the textural and sonic possibilities of the harpsichord. One makes another leap of interpretation when playing this music on the piano: I don’t try to imitate the harpsichord because that is impossible, but there are certain textural gestures which suggest a harpsichord.

French composer Olivier Messiaen often includes directions in his scores to help the pianist imagine and recreate the sound he wanted: “xylophone” and “oiseaux” (birds) both appear in my score of the Vingt Regard IV. (Messiaen also annotated his scores with colours, but that is another blog post…..!)

I gave this post the title “Orchestrating Mozart….” because it is Mozart’s A minor Rondo K511 which has received the most detailed “orchestration” from me in the course of my study of it. This late work offers so many of the key elements of Mozart’s music in the microcosm of a piano miniature: the beautiful aria of the Rondo theme; later on, string quartet textures and articulation, solo violin and ‘cello, grand operatic statements, even trumpets and woodwind. With all these different sounds – coming together, answering one another, or playing solo – a most interesting and contrasting piece of music is created. This “orchestrating” of the music does not make it any more complicated to play; if anything, it has simplified the music for me, bringing what I hope is a purer, more ‘musically aware’ interpretation.

Alongside this orchestration exercise, it is always worth listening around the piece you are studying to set the music in context of the composer’s other works. For the Mozart Rondo, the following pieces are particularly helpful:

from The Magic Flute, Act II – ‘Ach, ich fühls, es ist entschwunden’ (Pamina)

Piano Sonata, No. 8 in A minor, K 310 – II Andante Cantabile

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K 485 – II Adagio

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in the Rondo in A minor, K511, for me the best performance of this work (link opens in Spotify):

Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511


“Die Bildung des Ohres ist wichtiger, als die der Hand.”

(“The cultivation of the ear is more important that that of the hand”)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)