One of the studies presented at the 2011 International Symposium on Performance Science was conducted by the Department of Music at the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the University of Oldenburg’s Department of Psychology, and used fMRI to investigate the ways mental imagery may improve performance. Study of elite musicians has demonstrated the efficacy of “mental practice”, and other research has established that many of the same neural regions are employed during both imagery of musical performance and actual performance. Research has also shown that there are, however, a number of differences in the functionality of the brain during imagery and performance. In this study, both advanced piano performance students and professional piano performers were asked to memorize a new portion of piano music for a single hand using both mental imagery and physical practice on a keyboard. The musical excerpt used in the experiment was designed to be easy to memorize while still challenging the pianists’ motor coordination.
Subsequently, the pianists were scanned with an fMRI, during which they were asked to imagine the music and how it would feel to perform it. During the next scan, participants were asked to imagine the music while physically moving their fingers as if playing the selection on a real piano. The two scans were then compared, revealing interesting similarities. During both mental and simulated performance, similar motor regions and regions in the inferior parietal lobe were activated. As expected, the primary motor cortex was only activated during simulated performance. Interestingly, during imagined performance the middle frontal gyrus (MFG) was activated bilaterally, whereas during simulated performance it was only activated on the left side. This difference was interpreted as representing a shift in level of certain cognitive processes in mental practice versus performance. This led to the hypothesis that the middle frontal gyrus is the location where the brain processes musical imagery, and could be monitored to measure the efficacy of mental practice.
The findings of this study were presented at the 2011 symposium at the University of Toronto in addition to the findings of various other studies under the theme of “Imagery and Performance”. Another study, led by Philip Fine at the University of Buckingham’s Department of Psychology, endeavored to understand what musicians understand the terms “mental practice” and “score analysis” to mean. The study surveyed sixty-five performing instrumentalists in Europe and explored professional musicians’ use of the score throughout the stages of learning and practicing. Responses were extremely varied, however several themes were present in the respondents’ answers. While respondents agreed that detailed score analysis was helpful in understanding the direction of and composer’s intentions for a given piece, they tended to agree that score analysis was less practical than mental practice. The majority of the respondents preferred mental practice away from the score using “inner hearing” and visualization of movements when preparing for a performance.
As a classical vocalist, I find the idea that mental practice could be as effective as physical practice particularly intriguing. The voice has a limited amount singing it can sustain each day without injury or deterioration, even with the best technique. Compared to instrumentalists who able to practice ceaselessly for hours on end, a singers’ capacity to physically practice is quite limited. For this reason, if mental practice proves to be nearly as effective as physical practice, the practice time available to singers during each day will be greatly increased. Many vocal teachers and coaches are already proponents of using mental practice for text memorization and character preparation for performance. Perhaps the use of mental practice could be expanded to include practicing technical vocal skills as well.
As this fMRI study demonstrated, mental and physical practice causes the brain to react in a similar fashion. If, as the study’s conclusion posited, the middle frontal gyrus is a neural substrate for musical imagery, then future studies could monitor activity in that area to determine the most effective modes of mental practice. In combination with the research conducted at the University of Buckingham’s psychology department, which seeks to define mental practice according to musicians, this could lead to new understandings of the most efficient and effective methods with which to prepare for performance.
This research would be extremely useful in the field of vocal pedagogy, as instructors strive to teach their students the best use of their physical and mental practice time. Perhaps future research will show that technical vocal skills can be improved through focused imaginary practice. This way, vocalists may be able to increase the number of times per day they are able to “sing” particular vocalises or pieces, and thus turn new skills into new habits in fewer days.
Having reviewed these studies in light of their potential implications for the field of vocal pedagogy, I would like to know how other musicians see this research affecting their process of learning and practicing for performance. Are there techniques which instrumentalists could learn more efficiently using mental imagery? Could mentally “playing” a piece in a focused manner help musicians memorize their music more effectively?
Davidson-Kelly, Kirsteen, Sujin Hong, Janani Dhinakaran, Joseph M. Sanders, and Calcum Gray. "An fMRI study of expert musical imagery: To what extent do imagined and executed performance share the same neural substrate." Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2011. Ed. Aaron Williamson, Darryl Edwards, and Lee Bartel. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Academi, 2011. Print.
Fine, Philip and Anabela Bravo. “Rehearsal away from the instrument: What expert musicians understand by the terms ‘mental practice’ and “score analysis’.” Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2011. Ed. Aaron Williamson, Darryl Edwards, and Lee Bartel. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Association Européenne des Conservatoires, Academi, 2011. Print.