Mental practice means to practice in your mind, rather than in the real world.

The main advantages of mental practice are:

1. You can do it anywhere.
2. You don’t need anything to do it.
3. Because you are imagining it all, you will not make any mistakes. In order words, you can imagine yourself playing perfectly.

The main disadvantage is that it is very difficult to do, since it involves controlling the mind to a certain extent, and the untrained mind is very rebellious. Also, for some reason, people who are very industrious physically – they may be prepared to spend ten hours doing finger exercises - are extremely lazy mentally (and of course physically lazy people, are even more lazy mentally).

Since mental practice is nothing more than practice done in your mind, there will be several kinds: you can practice sight reading, you can practice aural training, you can even practice finger dexterity and movement patterns in your mind. However each one of these aims must be carefully thought out (this is also mental practice) not only in terms of how you are going to go about it, but also in terms of what aims are you hoping to achieve.

Mental practice (I)
Regard the score as a map of the piano (it is: every line and space correspond to a key in the piano: the notes show you graphically which key to press and in which key to put your fingers – if fingering is supplied.

Now imagine you are in a strange town with a map of its streets. You must spend sometime mentally orientating yourself. You must interpret the information on the map in terms of the reality of the town (the map has deletions, distortions and generalizations that you must undo before you can find your bearings).

Likewise, look at the score and see it as a map of the piano. Mentally translate the diagram information on the score into the reality of the piano geography. The more proficient you get at this, the more your sight-reading (amongst other skills) will improve.

Do not worry about “hearing” the music at this stage. Your aim is purely visual information. You want to be able to look at the score and “see” (in your mind) the appropriate keys being depressed.

Once you can do that, try (mentally) putting your fingers in those keys.

This is difficult though, and mentally extremely tiring. So just like you would do with real practice, do it in small sections (just a couple of bars) and for a limited amount of time (10 minutes).

Be systematic: do not move to the next section until you mastered the one you are in. Plan the learning sequence so you know which bars you will be doing next. Choose an easy (very easy) piece (e.g. Burgmuller’s Op. 100) to learn the methodology. Don’t go to the piano until you have finished the piece in your mind.
Yes, if you need to actually touch the piano to figure out the fingering, then do so. Write the fingering in and then do it mentally with the fingering you sorted out at the piano.

However, unless you start doing the fingering in your mind, you will never be able to do it. It does not matter if the fingering you do in your mind does not work at the piano. This in itself will be a learning experience. Ask yourself why it worked in your mind, but not in real life. It points to a failure in your mental process. Use the experience to correct and fine-tune the mental process. As your experience increases your mistakes will decrease.

Also you must have guidelines to decide on fingering. Here are a few criteria for a start:

1. Use the fingering that will allow most comfort.
2. Use strong fingers on accented notes, weak fingers on notes that do not need so much emphasis.
3. Whenever possible, thumbs and little finger on white notes, 2-3-4 on black notes (although the thumb can be quite effective on black notes in certain positions).
4. Use fingerings that allow your forearm bones to be aligned with your fingers 3-4 or 5 (adjust the angle of the arm accordingly).
5. Look forward and backwards in the score before using a finger. An uncomfortable fingering at the present note may make your life much easier on a later note or in previous notes.
This method seems to help me a bit, and it prepares me for the next practice session.

It will get more easy and natural with experience. But there will always be pieces that you will have to work out the fingering in advance and keep changing it until you get it right (for you). The best example is J.S. Bach’s fugues.

The way to do it is to learn and master one step at a time. Once you have all the steps, something will happen and everything will gel, and you will find yourself being able to do it.

Think about reading. If you ask people how long it took them to learn how to read they usually answer “one year”, or some absurd answer like that. In fact anyone learns to read instantly. No one can learn how to read gradually. Either you can read, or you cannot. So what was that whole year at school for then? It was for mastering the isolated steps that make up the complex skill we call reading. You had to memorize the shape of the letters. You had to learn to join them in syllables. You had to associate the letters and syllables with sounds. Then as it usually happens, the four year old is having his/her breakfast and s/he says, “I can read!” The father stops reading the newspaper and says, “all right, read this headline then” and the child does! A moment before, s/he could not read, and then in an instant s/he can.

So keep working on the different components of mental practice and at some indeterminate point it will all come together.

Mental practice (II)
Open the score. Look at it. As you do so, “hear” the notated music in your mind.

This presupposes that you can actually decode musical notation into sounds. If you cannot, then you will have to work on it first of all.

This is the single most important skill in sight-reading, so it is worthy cultivating.

Consider two very different strategies:

1. Some pianists decode notation as position information in the piano: as they look at the score they “see” which keys to press. I described this in mental practice (I) and suggested it was a desirable skill to acquire.

2. Some pianists decode notation as sound, and then they play by ear what they are hearing as they scan the score. This is what I am describing here and I am suggesting that this is also a very desirable skill to acquire.

It is not a question of which strategy is best. Both are equally desirable. And if you work on both, then at some point they will gel into an integrated skill that will allow you to look at a score and immediately hear the sounds and know the keys.

However you cannot work on the integrated skill, you must work on its components separately and patiently wait until your unconscious mind integrates them.

So how do you go about acquiring this skill?

1. The main problem you will encounter is that the mind tend to fast forward, to slow down and to skip whole sections of the music. So you must make sure that as you go through the score the mental sound you hear are in real tempo, that is it should take you exactly the same amount of time to read the score as it would take you to play it. I know of only one way to ensure real tempo: use a metronome.

2. If you cannot hear anything as you look at the score, then you must train yourself to do so by listening to a CD of the piece as you read the score. There is an even better strategy though. If you have notation software that pays back the music to you, and that you can change the tempo, set the tempo to very slow and listen to it as you go through the score. The main advantage of slow listening is that it will allow you to hear all the details. This is your ultimate aim: to hear everything, all the minutiae of the score. Untrained people when they listen to music hear almost nothing. Most of the details bypass them. A fully trained musician should be able to write what he heard.

3. Start with simple pieces and increase in complexity as the simple pieces become easy. And I mean simple. My favorite to start this sort of work is Edna Mae Burnham’s A Dozen a Day.

4. Try also dictation: as you listen to a simple piece, write what you hear. Then compare what you wrote with the original score. Again notation software that can play back the music to you at a slower tempo will be an invaluable aid.

The beauty of this is that you can do it anywhere (a CD walkman, music paper, pen and the original score is all you need).

This skill is also deeply linked to memorizing music. So by doing this mental practice, you will be getting three bonus results: ear training, memory enhancement and sight-reading skills.

Here's an exercise you can try if you like (away from the piano of course) I'm also assuming you haven't done sight singing before.

1. Start with C major scale. It's easy. On manuscript using treble clef, write CDEFG. For now, don't worry about note values. Just work on pitch first, add values later. So, use semibreves to write your notes.
2. Now, sing or hum the notes, keeping your eye on the note as you sing them.
3. With this combination of notes, and using steps only - this is really important when you're first training your brain (which is what you're doing, so it can send the correct signal to the muscles so they know how to tighten your vocal folds) write on your manuscript - eg, CDEFEFGFEDCDEDEFEFGFGFD. In other words, steps going up and down, but always connected. (Add thirds, fourths etc later)
4. Sing your notes.
5. When you've had enough of this, now add values. In essence you are writing your own melodies. You can write in simple quadruple, compound duple, simple triple - anything. In fact, the more varied exercises you write for yourself, the more practice you're giving your brain, the easier it will be. It will also be easier for you to 'hear' music like what Bernhard is talking about. Just remember to keep these melodies in steps to begin with.
6. Now add the rest of the scale i.e. ABC. Repeat a similar process.

Give yourself at least two weeks every day practicing this easy level before you add larger intervals. Start with thirds. Be patient. Add fourths, etc.

This will keep you well and truly busy away from the piano, and will also benefit your musicality, and will help your sight reading skills for the piano.
I suggested treble, but you can do the exact same with bass.

Oh, it also doesn't matter that your singing 'C' is not concert pitch. It's the interval patterns that matter.

Mental practice (III)

The idea here is to delay piano practice as much as possible. So get the score and take several photocopies of it (you will be doing cut and paste later on).

1. Check out the score for repeated patterns. For instance, how many different rhythm patterns can you identify? For instance, Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28 no. 7 has only one rhythm pattern that is repeated 8 times. Get some music paper and write down all the rhythm patterns (don’t worry about the actual notes or chords, just the rhythm). Then practice these rhythms on a tabletop or in your mind. Use a metronome to start with, and once you feel confident try for a more natural pulse. Then join the several patterns and go through the whole piece rhythm alone.

2. Now check the score for melody patterns. Again isolate the melody and hear it on your mind (or sing it, hum it or whistle it).

3. Next look for harmonic patterns. Identify and name all the chords used. See if you can hear the chords in your mind. It is far more difficult to identify harmonies by ear then melodies, but it is definitely a learnable skill. If you do learn it you will experience great facility in improvising.

4. If the piece is counterpoint, isolate (rewrite) each voice and look for patterns in each voice separately. Think of this as getting to know intimately each piece of a puzzle before putting it together.

5. Once you know each pattern back to front, get familiarized with the parts of the piece that do not seem to fit any pattern.

6. Now put it all together. Look how repetitive these patterns are. Sometimes you will not have an exact repetition, but a passage that is exactly like another passage but written a third higher. Notice and familiarize yourself not only with the similarities, but also with the differences.

7. Now look at the question of strong and weak beats. As you go through the score, notice accents (and remember that you may accent a note not only by playing it louder, but by playing it slower.) Watch out for melodic accents as well as harmonic accents.

8. Mark cadences and repeated chord progressions. Notice dissonances and their resolutions.

9. Mark the key of each passage in the score, so that you can see straight away where the modulations are happening (now you know why you have to work on all those scales).

10. Examine the dynamic markings. Notice in congruencies amongst different accents (harmonic, melodic, dynamic, metric, rhythmic), since it is in these in congruencies that you will find the most dramatic moments in the piece.

11. Consider this: Which story does this music tell? Although some pieces are clearly programmatic, and the composer supplied already the story, many pieces are not. However it will be very helpful if you can come up with your own story for the piece. It will supply meaning for the piece, and learning something meaningful is always easier than learning something meaningless.
You can do all sorts of things.

1. You can cut just the bit you intend to practice to avoid the temptation to do more that you set out to do in a particular practice session.

2. You can use for memory work, for instance, but cutting out all the even numbered bars (which you play from memory) and living only the odd numbered bars (which you read). Later you reverse (cut out the odd bars and leave the even bars). Progress by going in threes, than in fours, and so on.

3. You can use it as a toll for analysis, by cutting out all the repeated sections, so you are left with only a few bars of the original piece to actually study, since the others will be repeats.

4. You can do games, like cutting all the bars, shuffling them and then try to put them in order (this will train your memory, but will also teach you a lot about the piece's structure and how the composer mind worked)


  1. Thank you for posting this. I'm actually in the need of developing my mental practice skills, and I haven't found a complete analysis of the aspects involved in mental practice until this article came to me. Now it's time to give it a try. :)

  2. Very great. I really needed this information.

  3. Thank you very much for this. Great informations.