“Music Is 90% In The Mind”
It’s not all about finger dexterity, speed and technique – but much more about how you think.
I can honestly say that 90% (or more) of my music practice over the years, has been done away from my instrument – in my mind.
It’s been done in waiting rooms, on train rides, car journeys, in bars, on walks, bike rides, while watching films, and so on.
And relatively little development has happened while sitting at the piano.
‘Instrument practice’ vs ‘thinking practice’
Most musicians practice at their instrument a lot more than I ever have.
I used to think that my lack of instrument practice was a weakness, and that I lacked discipline.
However, I now realize that I wasn’t valuing the thousands of hours of ‘thinking practice’ I’d been doing all along.
And although both types of practice are needed – I believe that thinking practice, when done right, is even more valuable than instrument practice – here’s why:
Your instrument is a huge set of distractions
When you practice at your instrument, your brain is trying to do a dozen things at once:
You have to find the notes. In both hands. Decide which fingers to use. Maybe you’re reading music. Playing rhythms. Keeping in time. The key signature. Your technique. Dynamics. Pedaling. Emotion – the list goes on.
And unless you’re clear on exactly what you are practicing, you can end up being unproductive. It’s easy to switch back and forth between different things – two minutes on one thing, two minutes on another – but you never practice one thing in depth.
On the other hand, when you practice in your mind, you’re able to practice one thing – with complete focus – and no distractions.
My top 3 brain exercises:
So what ‘thinking exercises’ should you practice?
Almost anything in music can be practiced in your mind. But there are 3 practices that I think EVERY musician should practice:
#1. Recap in your mind: Very simple – whatever you learnt recently, remind yourself of it while you’re alone somewhere. A new chord voicing, a new scale, a new jazz lick. This is especially important IMMEDIATELY AFTER you learn something.
– If you met with a piano teacher – when you leave the lesson, spend a minute to recap in your mind the key things you learnt. – If you learnt something on youtube – spend a moment recapping what you just learnt in your mind. And don’t just skip to the next suggested video (that’s a sure way not to remember anything).
#2. ‘Interval arithmetic’: Intervals are everything in harmony. As a jazz pianist, or composer, you are constantly measuring out intervals, all day long – What is the interval pattern to that scale? What is the interval pattern to that chord voicing? What is the interval pattern to that new thing I want to memorize?
The quicker you can measure intervals from any given note, the quicker your playing will be. You’ll be able to map out scales and chord voicings in a split second.
So the ‘interval arithmetic’ exercise I swear by is this – in your mind, jump around the notes on the piano by every possible interval – like this:
‘C’ – up a maj 3rd – ‘E’ – down a 4th – ‘B’ – up a 5th – ‘F#’ – up a min 3rd – ‘A’ – up a tritone – ‘Eb’ – and so on.
It takes some work up front to practice this, but it will pay off every time you play music in future.
#3. Ear Training: 50% of my thinking practice is ear training. I transcribe every piece of music I hear by ear. It’s a habit.
Ear training is nothing to do with refining your actual ear, or your ability to hear. Ear training is actually brain training.
If you’ve never practiced transcribing by ear – start like this:
Choose a melody you want to transcribe (start with melody only – chords can come later).
Sing the melody back to yourself, in slow-motion, and try to identify the interval between each melody note.
Most melodies will never jump beyond a 5th, so there’s only 6 intervals that commonly get used:
half-step, whole-step, minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, 5th
Assign a starting note for the melody (e.g. ‘C’). Then map the series of intervals out starting from that note.
Finally, when you have an answer, go to your instrument and test that theory.
Important: Do not transcribe music sitting at your instrument. Your instrument removes the ‘thinking practice’ that is essential to your development as a musician.
Don’t worry if you make lots of mistakes to begin with. I was the same – I had no ‘god given talent’ at ear training when I first started. You just have to get stuck in, and you’ll find that you learn something new from every song you transcribe.
The beauty about ‘thinking practice’ is that you don’t have to set aside time to do it. It’s there whenever you have a moment of down time.
Each of these exercises can be practiced anytime away from your instrument – in a waiting room, during a tea break, in the shower, while traveling, etc.
I hope you enjoy this new type of practice, and I’ll talk to you soon in the next post!