Once or twice a year every music educator needs to go recharge their batteries a bit by attending a conference or convention in their field. I have always been blessed with administrators that understand the importance of these events, and I just returned from my yearly visit to the Iowa Music Educator's Association Convention at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. I want to tell you a bit about what I saw and learned along the way. In one session by Dr. S. Daniel Galyen of the University of Northern Iowa , I learned that the concept of mental practice and imagery is becoming much more accepted and useful in the field of music education.
I had the chance to take in several very good sessions at the IMEA conference including a very interesting one having to do with mental practice and imagery. Basically it has to do with concepts used for many years by professional athletes but that has only in the last ten years or so been applied as a tool for helping musicians and other performance artists. Musicians can use these techniques in a variety of ways and for many different purposes.
I have used the basic concept of mental repetition with my beginners (and even with high school students) for many years. My favorite among them is what I call "Say It, Think It, Fake It, Play It." I first read about this concept in one of the music education magazines a few years ago and have adapted it to my own needs. I apologize that I do not have a specific reference for the original article.
Using Mental Imagery To Help Students Learn Note Names:
For me, "Say It, Fake It, Think It, Play It," has always made my students show immediate and obvious improvement during lessons when I have students that are unable to learn the notes of the staff on their own. Many of these students insist that the only way they can play is if they write in the letter names of all of their notes. Whenever I have a student like this I pull out an easy finger exercise (without anything written on it) and have the student say the names of the notes. Even if it takes them thirty seconds to go one measure, we still say the note names and do not write them down. Next, we say the note names again while combining this with fingering the notes. Third, we move the fingers while thinking the note names in our head. Finally we play the notes while actively thinking the notes in our head at the same time. In each of these cases if a student is having difficulty you repeat that segment until they are able to do it cleanly and quickly. As an assignment the student is asked to practice the fingering exercises, one or two measures at a time but they are not allowed to write in any notes.
In most cases using this strategy will be painfully slow at first, but the more they do it the better they get at it. In many cases the results are immediately obvious, although one often wonders if the initial improvement is due to rote repetition or to true learning. Over time it does work, especially if you can convince the student that doing the same thing at home will help him progress that much faster. If you are looking for something to use with a student that is having difficulties with learning notes or with playing a difficult passage in an etude, try it out and see if you get similar results.