Often I will memorize a piece before I even start singing it. I just did that with a piece ... I memorized it first and then I started to practice it, which worked very well for me, because then my voice and brain knew where the music was going to go. Barbara Hannigan


Mental training and the use of imagery can be used throughout the learning and performance process. Each stage of learning can benefit from mental training: for preparing for practice or performance as well as gaining self awareness, do exercises in meditation and relaxation; exercises for setting goals and intentions and boosting confidence and motivation; methods for acquiring motor skills and learning and memorising repertoire, as well as exploring and deepening musical ideas; making playing more efficient by reducing muscle activity and practice time helps to recover from and avoid injury; having exercises to practice performing can reduce performance anxiety and knowing how to focus during performing helps ensure musical and technical clarity and proficiency and a convincing performance.


This model illustrates mental training categories in a hierarchy. Meditation and relaxation can be considered a good foundation for all other forms of physical and mental practice. Setting goals and intentions, planning practice, practicing, preparing performance and performing can all benefit from being in a centered, relaxed ‘here and now’ frame of mind. Each category is discussed in the following subchapters on this page.


Meditation and relaxation exercises are beneficial to bring one into a good physical and mental state. Learning motor skills, memorisation and performance preparation can all benifit from the right physical and mental balance. Learning and performance work best if you are in a ‘relaxed state of alertness’. There are many types of relaxation exercises that musicians can incorporate into their routines and some can be done mentally – by scanning the body in your mind and noticing tension and imagining it draining away (see the relaxation exercise in the next chapter). Meditation is a practice that has been around for thousands of years and has many forms. A current popular movement involving meditation is ‘Mindfulness’. Since many musicians are involving themselves in mindfulness meditation and there is growing research on the effects and benefits of mindfulness, it is worth describing it in more depth.

Relaxation & Meditation 


Since its introduction by Kabat-Zinn (1996) and perhaps in part due to its endorsement by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (1975), mindfulness has rapidly become a popular research subject in Western psychology. In recent years, the use of and adaptation of mindfulness techniques in the western world has also acquired great popularity in fields such as sports and performing arts. 

For musicians, the use of this practices canters and explores topics such as awareness training, mindfulness meditation and visualization, breathing and relaxation, emotion and thought regulation among others. These exercises can be extremely beneficial for the music student, teacher and performer. 

There is compelling evidence that mindfulness can facilitate wellbeing (Brown & Ryan, 2003), direct towards a flow state, which allows for heightened creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), reduce stress, give rise to self regulation processes, enhance and prolong the use of focused attention, and reduce performance anxiety (Diaz, 2018). Applying such concepts into the musician’s daily practice and performance preparation seems relevant. Mindfulness can be a base for an expansion of our awareness and insight into a practice habits and conscious and unconscious behaviour and, as well as of the self and the ways we relate to our environment and musical practice.

5 characteristics of Mindfulness Meditation

What is mindfulness?

Generally defined, mindfulness is a moment of passive presence of mind in which a person is totally aware of the current state of his immediate environment, body and mind without being distracted by thoughts, memories, fantasies or strong emotions; without thinking about or evaluating these perceptions (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Bishop et al., 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2003). Mindfulness involves a self-regulation of attention where the person focuses on their immediate experience so that an increasing perception of mental processes in the present moment is possible: an orientation to experience characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance (Bishop et al 2004).

What distracts people from being mindful? 

Most of the time, the mind is wandering, thinking about past experiences, the future, or dreaming, so that one is no longer in the present moment and not able to perceive the environment in a pure, clear and objective way. It is estimated that around 60,000 thoughts subconsciously cross the mind of each person each day. Unconscious thoughts can influence one’s state of mind and even trigger physical reactions. If the mind thinks about some upcoming work, for example, the body may show stress reactions such as rapid heartbeat and tension (Kabat-Zinn 2015).Due to this unconscious but constant activity in mind and body, the individual can get into a kind of ‘autopilot’ mode which can cause a certain loss of control over themselves and their process. The individual can then experience the physical symptoms without knowing their cause.In addition it is difficult to for the individual to perceive themselves and their environment clearly and objectively.

Mindfulness Meditation Practice in Music

Meditation training does not mean to do a recurring exercise and hope for a result. Rather, training means being "conscious and intentional" in the here and now. (Kabat-Zinn 2015)

In Mindfulness Meditation Practice (MM), the meditator learns to perceive his thoughts as well as their physical reaction and their body in context with the environment. The meditator regulates his attention and makes a conscious response to what appears instead of just reacting to it. He creates a space between what is happening and his mind and emotions, in order to have the opportunity to decide how to react. It is practicing controlover one's own being. Control does not mean suppressing or ignoring thoughts and feelings. It means perceiving them with all their potential. 

An example: A musician goes on stage and feels his heart beating and thinks "Oh God I'm so terribly nervous". This reaction to his accelerated heart rate can easily result in feeling totally overwhelmed by stress hormones and an inability to find any way out of it. 

With MM Training the starting point would be to perceive (in a neutral and un-evaluative way) that the heart is racing and that certain thoughts are arising. The next steps would be to create space between the emerging feelings and the thoughts, to accept them fully and finally to decide how to react to them; for example to concentrate on the piece and the music and to not give an attention to the thoughts.  

According to Kabat Zinn, 5 characteristics play an important role in Mindfulness Meditation: non-judgment, acceptance, letting go, compassion for oneself and curiosity. 


Being totally mindful means being totally aware of the present moment without getting caught up by judgement, opinions, likes, dislikes, analysis and ideas (Kabat-Zinn 2013). Judgemental behaviour limits the ability to noticing everything that may happen in the present moment and its full capacity. The goal is to become a neutral observer and think as objectively as possible about what is happening (Kabat Zinn 2013).


„Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present“ (Kabat Zinn 2015). When you don't automatically judge your experience, you can see it with bare attention and without any distortion. Acceptance doesn't mean to take a passive attitude toward things and to abandon personal values – it is not about giving up, being soft, being complacent or ignorant; rather it means to have a clear view of what is actually happening versus a mind full of self-serving judgments and prejudices.

Letting go:

Often people minds seem to hold on thoughts, feelings, situations and experiences that prevent them from being totally aware of what is happening in the moment. Letting go means to have the opportunity to focus on you want to focus on by letting go of all unimportant and distracting thoughts as well as uninvited emotions. It is not denial but it is an active choice to not investigate things that cannot be influenced. Once you are conscious of the irritation, you can accept it without identifying with it and then you are in a better state to decide what to do with it.

Compassion for oneself:

Compassion for oneself means to look at oneself with kindness and without judgement; to be able to look on and observe oneself as neutrally and objectively as possible. With a compassionate attitude, you are able to neutralize emotions so that they don't have the chance to disrupt your balance and you can refocus on what you want to focus on. This attitude also invites you to approach mistakes or failures as good/informative and as an opportunity to improve. When you view yourself with kindness, you are better able to see things as they really are. 

Having compassion for oneself does not mean to close your eyes to your own failures and mistakes. It means to know about them, to neutralize your emotions and to accept mistakes – as well as the successes.


Curiosity helps you to access the really subtle things that are going on in the present moment. Without curiosity, improvement is difficult. A child learning to walk is naturally curious about during their attempts and will finally work out  - with trial, error, motivation and curiosity – how to walk. 

These 5 characteristics are key to being able to be totally aware of the present moment. A musician can thus learn to take a step back and to observe with consciousness. One can realize that each feeling (e.g. anxiety) and thought (e.g. I’m going to have black outs), are just „passive events in the mind rather than an inherent aspect of the self or a valid reflection on reality“ (Chang, 2011; Bishop, 2002).  

Mental training can help boost motivation and enhance confidence. The importance of being aware of and consciously steering your thoughts was mentioned in the previous section. Having positive beliefs about your own potential and ability to learn (self-efficacy) has a profound influence over your development. Studies on mindset (Dweck, 2008) and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), have confirmed that if you have an open mindset and high self-efficacy you are more likely to succeed.  People with an open mindset believe that success is not dependant on innate talent but upon effort, and that ability and talent are not fixed. Self-efficacy is a term that refers to your belief about your ability to learn and accomplish new things. An open mindset and high self-efficacy can be cultivated and strengthened even if you are not naturally confident and optimistic. Instead of reacting to a difficult task by thinking ‘I can’t’, learn to think ‘I can’t yet’!



Confidence and Motivation  

Closed mindset

“I cannot deal with failure.”

“I don’t learn from mistakes.”

“I avoid challenge.”

“I worry about what others are thinking.”

“I believe having to use effort means I don’t have talent.”

Using imagery exercises can enhance motivation. Your motivation determines how hard you are willing to persist in order to obtain something. It is important not only to be highly motivated, but intrinsically motivated – to be motivated from within. Playing music becomes its own reward. Musicians can also be extrinsically motivated – for instance by the satisfaction from playing well, receiving attention, praise or applause, or by passing an exam, winning a competition, or earning money. Motivation is linked to how enjoyable it is to play, how important playing well is and what it will bring, as well as what it will cost. Giving deep consideration to questions like “What moves me?” “Why do I play music?” and “What is my message?” helps when you need to find motivation during difficult times.

The main influences to intrinsic motivation are: your attitude towards yourself, your beliefs about your ability to learn, your expectations and your autonomy: the feeling that you are the agent of your own success.  

The use of affirmations (which under the term ‘positive self-talk’ plays an important role in sports psychology) can help us reprogram or strengthen our belief systems as well as to reach our goals. What we believe about ourselves and about our capacity to grow and to succeed has a profound effect on what actually happens.

Open mindset 

“I learn from failure.”

“I enjoy challenge.” 

“I don’t worry much about what others are thinking of me.”

“I believe that skill and success are based on effort.”

Working with goals, intentions and challenges benefits from rich multi-modal imagery. It helps to make sure your goals are SMART (see below).

Deliberate practice depends on intelligent goal setting. Goals are also an essential ingredient to experiencing the ‘flow-state’ where you are totally engaged in the activity of music-making. Take time to make long, medium and short-term goals. Establish clear intentions at the beginning of each practice session, as well as for each performance. Visualise vividly your goals, intentions and challenges before embarking on them, as well as choosing relevant intentions and focus to use whilst practicing and performing.

The most effective goals are specific, meaningful, achievable, realistic and time-related (SMART). In addition, making sure that your goals are challenging (just out of your reach) ensures that you are engaged and motivated, and not bored. When making long-term goals, first attain a meditative and centred state, free of stress and immediate concerns. 

Setting goals, intentions and challenges

SMART goals

S pecific: Clear and detailed

M eaningful: Relevant and important to you

A chievable: Based on what you can already do

R ealistic: Achievable given the conditions (e.g. time and resources)

T ime-based: Know by when you want to achieve your goal

Skill acquisition & Memorisation

By practicing mentally you are activating the same mechanisms as if you were actually making the movement.  For this reason you can train without your instrument. Mental practice can be effective, but most trainers agree that the combining mental and physical practice brings the best results. Mental training helps to practice without bringing muscle fatigue, and can prevent injury or help in recovering from injury. 

When imagining practicing, you can imagine yourself in your own body, or watching from the outside. Use all your senses: imagine what you want to sound like, as well as how it can feel (imagine it feels easier), and create a vivid image. The ability to imagine improves with practice.

Explore and strengthen your musical Intention

Before you play:

  •       Imagine vividly the sound you want to hear. 
  •       Work with metaphors or create a story or narrative for the piece.
  •       Imagine how easy it can feel to play a difficult section.
  •       Imagine you are explaining something very important to a child.

External focus refers to focusing on your intended goal or result – your desired sound, phrase or musical effect. Many players tend to focus on how they are using parts of their body and attempt to direct their physical movements consciously. If your conscious mind is focused on the sound you want to hear, and you can imagine it in vivid detail, then the part of your brain that is responsible for motor learning will find the right movements more quickly and more exactly. When performing or when under pressure the tendency is to think more about directing the body – resulting in a worse performance. 

Keeping the focus on the imagined musical result means you are focusing on the music and not yourself – thus freeing your body to supply the most elegant and accurate movement. This reduces the risk of error and also the risk of performance anxiety. External focus is beneficial not only to experienced players but also to beginners, or when you are learning something new.

External Focus

Great pianists speak about imagination and a singing approach

To prepare a performance, audition or exam, it is useful to use mental rehearsal. This involves playing/singing through a piece in your mind. Make sure that is as detailed and close to the actual scenario as possible. Try the PETTLEP framework (below).

Performance preparation  

PETTLEP framework  (Holmes & Collins, 2001):

hysical: Adopt the same posture, wear the same clothes, hold your instrument in the same way as when you actually perform

nvironment: Do the imagery in the same or similar environment as the performance, when possible

ask: Imagine the exact task that you are preparing 

iming: Imagine playing the music in real time (not slower or faster)

earning: Imagine playing at your own skill level

motion: Imagine the emotions that belong to your performance – both your own and those connected to the music

erspective: Imagine yourself as though looking through your own eyes, but also try looking as though from outside

How professional performers use mental practice

During performance focus needs to be on the task: your music. Imagining what you are about to sound like or ‘say’ in the very next moment involves anticipatory auditory imagery: anticipating what is about to happen. Focussing on the desired result whilst playing ‘primes’ the (unconscious) part of your brain that controls your movements thus ‘informing’ your body how to move. Conversely, imagining making a mistake makes it more likely…

Before a performance, you can decide what your intention for that performance is, and like with goal setting it is recommended that your intention is realistic, specific and meaningful to you. Then you can decide what you can focus on during the performance. Finding out what kinds of focus helps to perform well makes you a robust performer, including knowing what kinds of focus helps bring you back on track (or keep you on track) after an error.

Logging your practice and performances can help to accumulate your knowledge about how your process works.