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Visualization: separating contenders from pretenders

Nathan Cole

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Published: September 24, 2015 at 3:51 PM [UTC]


The picture above was taken during a performance of Prokofiev's first concerto with the Lexington Philharmonic (my hometown orchestra) way back in 2003. I chose it because I remember so clearly the feeling of ease I had in the performance. Somehow the Prokofiev just fit me that year, and difficulties seemed to melt away in the concert. It's a feeling I long for any time I perform, and so should you. Easier said than done? Yes, like most things. But I have a secret weapon, and soon you will too. Through the technique of visualization, you can unlock abilities you never knew you had, and you can come to count on them even under pressure. If you've never visualized the way I describe in this week's post, you've been missing out. It isn't easy... but you have me as your guide, and we'll work on it together from now until Week 0.

The Challenge, Week 5

All we’re going to do this week is transform the way you think about practicing. Only that! So in a way, the Challenge truly begins this week. After all, in Weeks 14-6 we took a look at preparatory material, a concerto movement and six excerpts. You might call it music-learning rather than true audition preparation. Of course, if you’ve been with me the whole way, you know that we’ve covered much more than simply learning these few pieces. But now that they’re learned, we still have an audition to put together. You have the ingredients, but not yet the meal. For some of you, this is what you really signed up for. Perhaps you knew this music all along; you were wondering, how do I put it together and win this thing?

Before answering that directly, pause and consider how different things might have been if you had waited until now to start your preparation. Some people are undoubtedly doing it that way. It’s not an impossible task, for a talented player who knows most of the material already, but it is a tall order: gather the music; make decisions about bowings and fingerings based on personal experience, recordings and/or lessons; then synthesize it all into a winning performance. And that assumes, of course, that you’re already in playing shape. But if you’ve been with me from the beginning of the Challenge, you’ve had time to work yourself into your best shape week by week. You’ve also gotten to live with the music for a couple of months, and you’re now ready to take a second look, then a third and so on. In short, you’re in a winning position. But you need to experience the sensation of a winning audition.

This seems like putting the cart before the horse. If you had experienced a winning audition already, there’d be no need to prepare for it! And if we could simply trick ourselves into playing like winners, there would be millions of Heifetzes roaming the concert halls of the world. Of course, it’s not that easy. There are no tricks. Jascha is safely the greatest of all time. But that winning mental image, not just an image but a collection of sensations, can be yours if you work for it. The concepts are easy to understand, but putting them into practice takes dedication over a period of time. And since you’ve proven that you aren’t averse to that dedication, let me reveal the key concept for the rest of your time with the Challenge: visualization.

Visualization is the concept, and the technique, that will separate the contenders from the rest at this audition and every other one (I somehow avoided pretenders in that sentence, but just barely). It’s the same technique that allows top athletes to perform at a world-class level under extreme pressure. And while it can be practiced in a non-musical setting (i.e. meditation), here we are going to apply it directly to this audition. If you’ve never visualized in the way I describe here, you won’t forget the moment you achieve your first breakthrough.

You may be thinking, Why do I need a “technique” at all? If this is some game to get rid of nerves, I can tell you that nothing has worked in the past. Well, you can rest easy about the last point. Visualization won’t get rid of nerves. But it will help you embrace them. You read that right! Nerves will become a part of winning playing, along with so many other things that you bring to the audition. Of course, some truly harmful mental baggage will have to be discarded, and visualization will help you do that. But such a powerful technique is no magic spell, or mantra to be discarded as soon as it loses its effect. This will be a lifelong pursuit that will help you in other areas of life as well.

Consider what you’re up against when you come to the end of Week 0, audition day. The following passage comes from Second Wind, the autobiography of Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA championships in his career, the most in history: “Even with all the talent, the mental sharpness, the fun, the confidence and your focus honed down to winning, there’ll be a level of competition where it all evens out. Then the pressure builds, and for a champion it is a test of heart.… Heart in champions has to do with the depth of your motivation, and how well your mind and body react to pressure. It’s concentration—that is, being able to do what you do best under maximum pain and stress.”

Oh, all I have to do is concentrate? You don’t say! But Russell is saying more than that: to reach the highest level, you must have the ability, you must have put in the work, you must have the mental discipline to focus on your task… but once you account for all of that, there’s something that separates the winners from the rest. What matters is your ability to concentrate on what you do best, even under pain and stress. For us, what we do best in an audition, what we really do no matter our instrument, is to embody the character of various pieces of music. The more clearly and quickly we can concentrate on, or visualize, the sound and feel of each selection, the better we can perform even under pain and stress. Stress will be a given. Pain we likely won’t have to deal with, since nobody will be actively countering us and trying to prevent us from doing our best! But if you’ve ever auditioned before, you know that you can get in your own way just as effectively as if you were the opposing team.

So visualization is the ability not only to sense, in advance, the outcome that you desire, but the ability to sense, in the moment, what you are actually producing. We have talked in previous weeks about the importance of recordings as mirrors to show you what’s actually happening during your performance. And in fact, the mirror is a wonderful analogue to the microphone. The mirror itself cannot change the way you look. But by looking in the mirror, you gain information that allows you to change your look in ways that please you. Now many people, perhaps most people, look in the mirror and see a distorted version of their reflection. It is a combination of how they used to look, how they fear they look, and how they feel about themselves on a particular day. Recordings work the same way. Some people hear only their faults, while others hear only what they wish to hear! Under these conditions, mirrors and microphones cease being useful, since the observer isn’t open to accurate information.

Therefore the goal, when using the recorder, is not ultimately to “play better”. It is to refine your ear to the point that you know, as soon as the recording is finished, exactly how the playback will sound, down to the smallest detail. Such an ear would be perfect. We all start with less than perfect ears, but over time and many recordings and playbacks, we can move closer to that goal. Imagine never having to look in the mirror again, secure in the knowledge of how you looked at all times, even down to the smallest detail!

Your videos these last eight weeks have laid the groundwork for visualization. You’ve been refining your ears, consciously or not, through the making and posting of your recordings. There have been surprises along the way, undoubtedly, as well as confirmation of some strengths and weaknesses that you knew were there all along. That knowledge is the prerequisite for the powerful work to come.

Think back to the mirror once more: if you look in the mirror and tell yourself you want to look like Christian Bale, that’s not visualization. It’s wishful thinking. If you tell yourself you want bigger muscles like Christian Bale, and that you plan to go to the gym to work on them, you’re at least thinking constructively. But you’re still not visualizing; you’re modeling. No, not the runway kind of modeling! Modeling is a way to help you set goals. In this case, you’d like to model your body after that of Christian Bale. You admire his look, so you’d like to imitate it and eventually make it yours. To do so, you set the goal of growing muscles as big as his. Is it a realistic goal? Only time, and your own efforts, will tell. Your modeling provides the direction, but visualization actually brings the results.

Visualization happens away from the mirror. Let’s say that after looking in the mirror, you decide you want a slimmer figure. Why do you want it? Aha, now we’re getting started. Perhaps it’s to feel more confident when you walk into a room full of strangers. Let’s go with that. You close your eyes, and imagine walking into a party all alone. What kind of house or apartment is it? Did you walk up a narrow staircase, or did you walk through a broad front lawn right to the door? These details matter, believe me! Is it day or night? Remember, you want this new figure because of how it will make you feel as you make your entrance, so that entrance must be as real as possible in your mind. So let’s say that you’ve set the scene, and the party takes place at night in a second-story apartment. You’ve walked up the staircase and you can hear music and conversation coming from the half-open door. Are you nervous? If you’re truly visualizing, you very well may be nervous at this point! It’s not everyone who can walk casually into a party, alone, with no butterflies whatsoever. But this is your goal, so back up a few steps. Go back to the point at which you weren’t nervous. Maybe that was back in your car, or just outside the front door to the building. Visualize again, opening the car door smoothly, walking up those steps evenly, reaching the door to the apartment once more. When you can visualize this far with confidence, move on to your entrance. Of course, you have to know exactly what you’ll be wearing. After all, an improved figure goes with a great outfit. Feel how the clothes fit the new you, and how you move in them. Visualize the first interaction you have as you walk in the door. Perhaps it’s the host, or simply a stranger that nods or waves hello. How do you feel at this greeting? Are you nervous again? If so, back up!

If this sounds like hard work, it is. True visualization is some of the most demanding work you’ll ever do. But it is incredibly powerful. I can promise that what you gain from your efforts will justify them tenfold. Just writing the previous paragraph, I feel as though I could walk into a party right now, full of confidence! Of course, with such an abbreviated visualization, and just one session, it would likely fall to pieces when the moment of truth came. Not to mention the fact that I haven’t done any actual work on my figure to match my visualization.

You didn’t think I’d forgotten about the violin, or practicing, did you? Visualization goes hand in hand with the physical act of playing the violin. Neither is useful on its own. If you continued to visualize that party entrance, day after day, without taking any steps to achieve your new figure, you would find that the image would grow stale. Your brain would simply refuse to conform to the visualization. You can’t deceive your own brain! But with steady work, the image will grow clearer and sharper. It will involve all your senses; many people are shocked to find that they can perceive sounds and smells as part of their visualizations, the closer they come to realizing them!

It shouldn’t be too hard now to make the leap from our party to our audition. The key is to remember what visualization actually is. For most of our lives, we’ve learned to listen to our musical heroes and to say, “I want to sound like that.” And that’s great! You should be inspired by your heroes, and that inspiration (modeling) should direct your visualization. But that’s only a first step, and for far too many musicians it becomes a harmful one. The longer they look in that mirror and see themselves rather than their heroes, the worse they look in comparison. And meanwhile, that image in the mirror never changes. But visualizations can and do. They move ever closer to your goals, as long as you work toward them. What is your goal for this audition? Is it to win? Is it to play better than you ever have before? Is it to complete the Challenge and make that final video, playing all the music through in one take? You’d better define that goal before any more time passes.

Week 5 Assignment

This weeks’ assignment will not be a video, because it’s pretty difficult for me or for you to make a video of visualization! So your assignment will be to go through the exercise below, every day, and to write about what you experience.

Pick a favorite recording of your chosen Mozart concerto. In other words, choose a model. Focus only on the first 30 seconds of the solo entrance. Write down some words or phrases that come to mind when you listen. These needn’t be profound, but they should be “immediate” in the sense that they spring to your mind right away when you listen. After all, you’ll eventually need the process to work in reverse, and immediately! For example, I might put on a Perlman recording and write, “alive, human, singing, free bow, smile, resist the string, draw the sound.” Now listen again while reading your words. Feel free to add, subtract and change what you’ve written. Repeat the process until you’re happy with your key words. Then listen one last time while reading what you’ve written. Does it all fit together? Great, move on to visualization.

Now you’re going to need a quiet space. Find that space, and visualize yourself right there in that room, playing those 30 seconds of Mozart. You won’t need the violin. Visualize yourself starting from a “rest position”, in other words, with the instrument down. Then (in your mind) bring the instrument to playing position and play the 30 seconds of music straight through. Now this is crucial: do not listen for, nor try to recreate, the recording you’ve just been listening to. I repeat: you are not trying to “match up” a picture of yourself playing with the sound you’ve just heard. That wouldn’t be visualization, because it wouldn’t be immediate; it would be combining past sounds with a current picture. No, true visualization requires that you “hear” the sound you are creating, in that room at that moment. You are keeping certain key words in mind, of course, but they may or may not result in the kind of playing you’ve just heard.

As you visualize those 30 seconds, actually feel the physical sensations of playing the violin. I like to sit still while I do this, rather than miming playing motions. I find it more difficult, but ultimately more revealing. Do not be surprised if you find it nearly impossible to visualize yourself playing through the 30 seconds with anything resembling proper violin tone or technique. Many people report actually dropping their bow in the visualization, or doing something strange such as throwing the instrument. Anything goes in our minds, as you’ll soon find out! Nevertheless, get through the 30 seconds and then take a deep breath. Read your key words again and take one minute’s rest. Repeat the visualization. Most likely, you’ll be able to perceive more detail: perhaps you can feel more of the sensations of actually playing; the sound that you’re making; certain details of your execution.

Don’t be alarmed if your visualization is out of tune, or scratchy, or contains any of a hundred other faults! This means that you’re really going through the process, and your breakthroughs, when they come, are going to be extraordinary. It’s common for our brains to magnify certain aspects of our playing when we are in this state. In some cases the aspects our brains call attention to are very different from the ones that we are used to perceiving while playing.

Now repeat the process, taking 60 seconds break in between each repetition, until you are able to get through the 30 seconds of Mozart with some clear observations. Again, these should be “immediate”. Some of them may match the words you wrote down after listening to the recording, and some may be the exact opposite! Instead of “alive, human, singing”, I may perceive and write, “tight, sweaty, buoyant” if that’s what I sensed. What matters is how accurately you describe your visualization, not how well your visualization matches up to the recording.

At this point, you may very well be exhausted. I usually am. Did you think the Challenge couldn’t get any tougher? You’ll be going through this process every single day, multiple times a day. Why? Because you’ll need to shape your visualization along with your playing, step by step. Because you’ll eventually need to visualize that playing not in the room you’re in, but in a concert hall or audition space. And because you’ll need to visualize your “entrance”, from the warmup room downstairs to your first steps onto the stage in front of the committee.

But first things first: go through the process outlined above, then pick one word or phrase that doesn’t match up with the words you wrote about the recording. For example, my very first word, “tight”, doesn’t match up with anything I wrote about Perlman. Therefore, I would pick an exercise to perceive how “tight” or “loose” I felt. I might even start with some stretching, breathing or motion exercises away from the instrument. Then, with the violin, I would play some full bows, feeling the freedom and looseness in my muscles. Then I would stop and visualize doing the exact same thing, feeling that looseness in my visualization. From now until Week 0, you’re going to alternate constantly between mental image and physical execution. Starting slowly, with a concept like “loose”, is the perfect way to build that connection.

This post originally appeared at

Posted on September 25, 2015 at 1:29 AM
...too many notes
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 26, 2015 at 11:47 AM
one of the most important articles ever to appear on this site( apart from my prune recipes. ) I'm so glad you made the point about not miming playing and vizualizing. I believe that movement is a red herring that is very detrimental to the actual work one is doing.
From Paul Deck
Posted on September 28, 2015 at 5:59 PM
Pretty interesting stuff. Definitely thought-provoking.

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