Practising in Your Head

Those lovable boffins have been at it again. It seems that “scientists at Cambridge” have established that a lot of the creative process occurs for musicians when they aren’t even touching their instrument. This story was presented recently by BBC News in the final “kitten up tree” slot and pegged around the notion that there may be something in the art of air guitar after all.

Well, as a hack from way back I can see why they chose the catchy angle, but I’m classier than that, so here’s a picture of a small furry animal air-conducting Mahler…

I do love these “scientists have just” stories (they sometimes make me wish I’d chosen a different path in life). On the same day, we had the revelation that it’s possible to create a rudimentary lightsaber 1/10th of a millimetre in length which lasts for nanoseconds in a carefully maintained vacuum chamber with the aid of several tonnes of lab gear and megawatts of power. Fascinating stuff, but we’re still a long way from Jedi-related crime statistics in our inner cities. (Sorry, that should probably read “Sith-related”.)

In this instance however, “they” really could have saved the research grants. No shit, Sherlock. We all practise mentally – we can’t help it. We carry music in our heads all the time and there is a strong wiring between what goes on in our heads and the physical actions related to our chosen instruments. Of course we have to practise, but a nice long think about music can be worth much more than hours of arpeggio exercises.


I’m not the only pianist who is occasionally caught making slight involuntary hand movements while listening to a performance of a piece I know well. In addition, while I know jazz standards in a generalised harmonic context, I also know them in the usual keys as much by association with the physical shapes my left hand usually takes to make the voicings.

And I’m a very rusty hack guitarist at best, but some part of my brain can still project my ghost arm around a ghost axe in a certain way to fret a barred 7th chord. I play rudimentary bass too, and my “astral” right hand sometimes gets going when I hear stumbled triplets. Ba-pa-pa dum. I’m using “I” a lot here, but I don’t regard myself as remarkable in this. We all do it.

“Just” thinking about music is a vital part of every musician’s life. Nobody could, or ever should, practise for every waking hour, and as my new pal Trish has pointed out, it’s very important to take some time off. Don’t worry about your chops decaying over a couple of weeks, and you’ll be a better musician when you come back, refreshed and reinvigorated.

I’ve been through many phases when I’ve deliberately practised or composed in my head while in the shower, feeding the cat or walking to and from work. It’s very good for ear training too.

I recall Miles saying something about this in his mother****ing autobiography. Reflecting on his time as a jazz-obsessive, sitting bored at the back of the class at Julliard, he said something like: we’d hear a door squeak and our hands would go to the valve position for the tritone.

Anyway, thanks scientists for raising awareness. With your painstaking research at the University of the Bleeding Obvious!

Here’s a young Rowan Atkinson doing Beethoven (without a piano):

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Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings
11 comments on “Practising in Your Head
  1. Yeah! Nothing beats air piano… except perhaps for that cute rodent air-conducting Mahler.
    Seriously, that video made my day.

    I like brainy explanations about why stuff works the way it works but it is pretty infuriating when the only answer they come up with after the “extensive research” is general knowledge, it makes me feel like I should have gotten those scholarships instead ;)

    • Jason says:

      It’s great fun, isn’t it!

      Hope you’ve also seen Rowan “playing the keyboard part” to Chariots of Fire:

      This just in from the scientists… extensive research has revealed that bears inhabit forested areas and don’t have indoor plumbing…

      • bahahah that’s awesome!
        I know a clarinet player who did fall asleep in a performance, I wish I remembered the piece, he only had to play a couple of notes in the first movement, the other 3 movements he decided to take a nice nap.

        • Jason says:

          Poor guy! Would the composer/arranger have been a bedroom merchant who’d “scored” an epic cinematic piece by continually chucking the same five chords at 100 strings, 8 horns, an army of Taiko drummers and half the population of Finland going “eee-waaaaah- HOH!” by any chance?

          • Which soundtrack is that? Sounds like a masterpiece…
            I’m not sure when taiko drums became the norm for intense scenes but I hate how it’s been so overused!

            It wasn’t that unfortunately, I think it was a romantic work, it was a major composer too so it was a bit of a bummer to find out about that kind of orchestration… clearly not that shocking though because I can’t even remember which piece it was :p

            • Jason says:

              Shocking. Grumble grumble grumble. Don’t care how major the composer, if your Clarinet II spends most of the night counting or sleeping, you’ve got a problem sunshine! I think it was Berlioz who said: “give em something to do or send em to the pub” (I paraphrase, of course).

              Very curious about this piece now. Do ask your friend when you get the chance Billie.

              Ah! A thought occurs – could it have been Chopin? His talents were many, but they extended only gently into the realm of orchestration…

  2. I interviewed a potential piano instructor for my music school recently. He spent last summer working lots of hours on a garbage truck. He was worried about the amount of practice time he would lose, but the money was really great. He told me that the job actually gave him lots of time to think about music and playing, and that thought process became a valuable part of his practice. “Plus, you can do lots of solfege on a garbage truck!”

  3. Jason says:

    Here’s Stephen Hough in the Telegraph with some useful thoughts on the hands-on side of practising:

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