Research on musical imagery carried out by members of the IMAGINE PROJECT is described in this section. To view the full research expositions, click on the link at the end of each project description.

An important question facing musicians both in the practice room and on stage is “What should I focus on?” There is a great deal of research in the fields of movement sciences and sports that suggests that adopting an external focus of attention – focusing on the intended effects of one’s movements – can be beneficial both for learning and for performance of complex motor skills. There has been very little research done on the effects of external focus on musicians. 

Aims & Method

The aims of this study on external focus were as follows: to translate the idea of external focus from movement science into the field of music (how can external focus be characterized for music-making?); to design several ways to use, test and explore the application of external focus in field situations; and to collect data and find information to elucidate the effects of external focus and the instances in which it can work for musicians. 

A series of three empirical projects were designed and carried out in both semi-controlled as well as natural environments. The mixed methods research approach included both quantitative and qualitative elements. A music-pedagogical practice tool based on external focus was designed and used in all three projects. 

The first project involved natural trumpet players (n=7) who practiced fragments of repertoire using an external focus practice tool. Results were compared the their ‘usual’ practice methods. Quantitative data was collected to show the effects of external focus on accuracy, self-efficacy, confidence and motivation of the players. 

In the second project the same seven players participated in the preparation and performance of a chamber music concert for trumpet consort. The third project involved a chamber ensemble of 18 players including string players, trumpeters and keyboard players. In projects two and three the performances were prepared and rehearsed by using tools and techniques based on external focus. Qualitative data was collected from questionnaires, surveys and interviews.

Results & Conclusions

Results from the three projects tentatively supported the overall hypothesis: External focus is beneficial to musicians’ learning and performance experience. Statistical results showed positive effects of external focus on accuracy and suggest a positive trend for confidence and for self-efficacy in performance. Qualitative data from interviews and surveys over the three interventions showed the performers’ ensemble playing was enhanced by using an external focus approach, and that they suffered much less from performance anxiety than usual.

External focus could play a larger role in music pedagogy for musicians at every level and stage of learning. The kind of procedural implicit learning that results from using tools based on external focus means that technique (motor control) is being informed by musical intention and not the other way around.

Finding Focus

Susan Williams

Internal focus

External focus

Distal external focus

Very distal 

external focus

Movement of the fingers

Movement or position of the arm

Force produced by the arm

Embouchure muscles, lip pressure

Breathing mechanism, force or speed of air


Position of larynx, soft palette, tongue

Movement of the keys

Movement of the valves

Movement of the bow

Movement of the hammers

Movement of the stick/s

Imagining the desired sound/reverberation


Imagining the meaning of the music

Imagining a picture, analogy or metaphor connected with the music

Imagining the mood or emotion behind the music

Imagining the rhetorical expression of the music

Imagining a narrative or story connected with the music

Table: The continuum of internal and external focus for musicians in four levels. 

Intention-based Piano Pedagogy

Bastiaan van der Waals

Musicians have mental representations of the musical sounds they intend to bring about. Various names are used by musicians and music teachers to describe this capacity: musical imagination, audiation, auditory imagination, inner hearing, the mind’s ear, to name a few. The motor actions of musicians are goal-oriented: they are aimed at achieving the intended musical outcomes. Recent scientific research has produced valuable information about how musical intentions are transformed into motor actions in the brain and (more generally) how the learning process of sensori-motor skills (skills that require close interplay between perception and action) can be facilitated by teachers. This research aims at showing how this body of information can be applied to piano pedagogy. 

Recent research in neuroscience has shown that the brain uses continuous predictions in order to accurately pre-plan and rapidly re-adjust motor actions. Over time and as a result of procedural learning (“learning by doing”), mental representations of movements and their perceivable outcomes become tightly linked, a process known as ideomotor learning. This supports the notion that vivid musical intentions (i.e. non-conscious mental auditory anticipations of intended musical sounds) are vitally important for acquiring the fine-motor skills required for music production. This research identifies teaching strategies aimed at helping pupils to obtain clear musical intentions of target pianistic skills. 

Teaching strategies for motor skills vary in the extent to which they emphasize verbal knowledge of movement performance: if the learner gains verbal knowledge of movement performance, and the learning process involves cognitive stages and is dependent on working memory involvement, the learning process is considered to be explicit. On the other hand, if learning progresses with no or minimal increase in verbal knowledge of movement performance and without awareness, the learning process is considered to be implicit (Kleynen et al., 2014). In the last decades, a lot of experimental research has been done to the differential effects of implicit and external motor learning. Implicit motor learning has consistently been found to lead to advantages that are relevant for music pedagogy. Among other benefits, implicit motor learning has been shown to lead to better performance under stressful circumstances, better retention (i.e. retrieval of the skill after a period of not performing it) and greater movement economy (i.e. less muscular effort). In this research, numerous examples of implicit teaching strategies for pianistic skills are presented. 

Finally, this research describes how the ideas summarized above are conveyed to bachelor piano students in the piano methodology course. More specifically, it describes the development of teaching materials (booklets, videos) that aim to convey educational principles based on recent scientific insights in motor control and motor learning. 

The Effect of Mental Imagery in Daily Practice

Annoes Hendrick-van der Zande

This research is how mental imagery exercises can be included in daily practice and what the effects are. The main question in this research is: How can mental training help me to practice more economically? Previous research showed different potential benefits of imagery exercises. The aim of this research is to collect and categorize different imagery exercises and to indicate if the exercises help to practice more economically. For this, different indicators of economic practice are constructed like the level of engagement during practice, the level of motivation the level of enjoyment, the level of anxiety/confidence and the level of tiredness before and after the practice session. Furthermore, the tempo of memorization of the piece will be an indicator for economic practicing. 


The method of the research consists of two parts. The first part is a self-study in which the imagery exercises are applied in my own practice. To be able to state something about the effects of the exercises two pieces are chosen from the same composer that are similar in length, difficulty and technique. One of the pieces is studied in the normal way, the other is studied with help of the imagery exercises. To make sure no other factors influenced the outcome, both pieces were studied for the same amount of time (15 minutes a day for three weeks) and not on the same day (so alternating days for the pieces). After each practice session is logged how the different indicators of economic practice are experienced. By doing this, the research is able to say what the effects of mental practice are on myself as a musician. For the second part of the research, a performance evening is organized. Using a questionnaire, the audience is asked to compare the performance of the two pieces. The audience will consist of harpists and non-harpists. It is important to include the last category, since non-harpists are likely to listen differently to the pieces than harpists are. The logbooks and video material of the practice sessions together will provide insight in how mental training can help to practice more economically. 

Mindful Practicing 

Magdalena Morales Hidalgo 

A growing body of evidence suggests that an individual’s attitudes and beliefs play an integral role in the ability to execute a task. This research focuses on the application of specific mindfulness and goal setting exercises in order to observe change in a musician’s self-efficacy beliefs. It seems especially relevant in the learning context of music conservatory students to observe how their concepts of their self and their confidence in their ability to learn and achieve their goals can be affected by the practice of mindfulness and deliberate goal setting.

The following research provides an analysis of Mindfulness practices and its application for the practice and performance preparation of music conservatory students. Furthermore, it explores goal setting exercises in conjunction with the afore mentioned. The exercises chosen were partly taken from Author Vanessa Cornett and her book “the mindful musician”, Sarah Samuel’s book “Mindful crafting”, from empirical studies and other traceable sources, as well as original exercises designed by the researcher.

Because the career of a musician has such high physical, mental and emotional demands, it seems relevant to pay attention to how they cope with the process of learning in the conservatory environment. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to apply mindfulness and goal setting exercises for the daily practice sessions and observe its effects on the self-efficacy of the student. The following thesis provides not only tools for students who wish to improve their sense of self-efficacy during practice but provide an extensive analysis from the perspective of the musician’s wellbeing and show some implications on musicians’ mental emotional and physical health.

It is known that the use of adaptive mastery goals and deliberate practice (Bonneville-Roussy, A. L.G., & Vallerand, R. J., 2011; Ericsson, A., Krampe, R. & Tesch-Römer, C., 1993) are fundamental factors towards positive performance outcomes. Although many models have been developed for enhancing and preparing the musician for performance, there is a lack of information concerning the general on-going process of the musician’s practice related to his wellbeing and even more so to his sense of self-efficacy. 

By means of a multiple case study and a mixed methods research design this research addresses the following questions:

How can mindfulness and goal setting exercises be applied during practice in order to promote self-efficacy in conservatory students?

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation for Music Performance and Practice

Kassandra Siebel

All musicians have sometimes questioned their abilities, experienced frustration, disappointment, anxiety, had negative or destructive thoughts and had failures and negative experiences on stage, during practice and/or performance preparation. The ability to manage these problems is due to a large degree on one’s mindset. Any situation can lead either to growth or to degradation depending on how one thinks. Someone with a growth mindset will learn from mistakes and embrace challenge, whereas someone with a closed mindset will try to avoid mistakes and worry too much about negative judgement. This research investigated the effect of specific characteristics of mindfulness meditation on mindset behaviour.

The researcher designed and participated in a self-study where she tested herself during a seven-week intervention. She practiced several mindfulness meditations each day and noted her levels of energy, enjoyment, stress, concentration, motivation, emotional-state and self-esteem before and after each meditation. The scores were compiled and compared. Recordings of practice sessions and concerts before and after the intervention were made and a general approach to her practicing and performing before and after the intervention was compared.

Results found that practicing mindfulness meditation had a positive effect on the researcher’s mind and body (less mental and physical stress and tension) and an enhanced ability to control and steer her attention. In addition, she found that her approach to practice and performance illustrated a more open mindset than previously.

A Holistic Approach to Practicing

Karolina Aurelia Walarowska

Inspired by the researcher’s recent hand injury caused by stress and misuse of the violin technique this research demonstrates an insight into the recovery process and an experimental self-intervention conducted in this case. Having observed the correlation between experienced stress and body pain, the researcher developed, experimented and explored a way in which she can help the change of negative physical as well as mental habits that could enhance the process of recovery and the building up a new “healthy” technique. 

In the first part the researcher shows and explains what inspired her when exploring how to approach her situation and describes the process of creating an intervention. The intervention itself consisted of various techniques and exercises that were implemented in her daily routine: including the use of deliberate practice, different learning strategies, musical imagery, warm ups, time planning, meditation, physiotherapy exercises, Alexander Technique, Yoga, and changing mindset (according to Carol Dweck’s findings). Processes were monitored by noting the level of concentration, engagement, motivation, physical state, and enjoyment during practice sessions, as well as comparing the overall state and playing before and after the intervention.