Mental Rehearsal - Practical Ramifications

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I wrote some years ago in general about the concept of mental rehearsal - that is, the act of running through an event in your imagination to practise how it going to go. And it is a technique I have been using more recently in my workshops on managing performance nerves. A recent session with Magenta brought out some interesting and useful side-effects of the technique, which I have been finding helpful to reflect upon.

The exercise was designed to introduce the technique as something for the singers to take away and use as part of their individual preparation for a festival performance. (And, indeed, the festival itself is serving as a medium to focus upon and develop techniques that can apply to all our performances.) The first part was undertaken sitting down, with our eyes closed.

I invited the choir to see themselves on a stage in a large auditorium with a packed audience, and bright lights. One of the things about mental rehearsal is that, while you can't imagine exactly what a situation will be like, you can conjure up something sufficiently realistic that the actual performance environment won't be too much of a shock to the system. And it makes sense to imagine on a bigger, more ambitious scale than you might need for now, both for the practice, and because vivid images are easier to keep to mind.

Once we had the environment envisaged, I asked everyone to rehearse a complete performance of a particular song in their minds. At the end of this, we stood up and sang it immediately as if in performance, leaving all discussion until after.

The discussion produced two distinct dimensions in which people had interesting experiences:

Musicianship

  • Without the external, audible cues of the song being sung, people found they had to work much harder to maintain the musical thread. The act of getting lost and either having to restart or find their places gave significant cognitive investment to memory and song mapping.
  • People had to imagine the whole musical texture, rather than focusing on their own part while relaxing into the others around them. This had two further consequences:
    • It made people work harder at maintaining that distinction between self and other. When you first start to sing harmony, you often get pulled off your own part and onto others. Everyone currently in Magenta has progressed beyond that stage, but this exercise renewed the challenge at a more advanced level.
    • It allowed people to hear the other parts much more clearly once we sang out loud again. Perception of the whole was significantly enhanced by the clearer concept of the whole that comes from actively conjuring it up in your mind

Performance skills

  • Mentally rehearsing the entire performance context, not just the song itself, gave people practice at being distracted by circumstance. The lights, the audience, the unfamiliarity led people to lose the musical thread - and again the active cognitive work they had to undergo to mend it strengthens their capacity to produce at will what they have rehearsed
  • Several people (including me!) reported a sympathetic nervous system reaction. Imagining the performance thus not only mitigates its unfamiliarity, but also gives an opportunity to practice handling an adrenaline response.

One downside that emerged from the exercise was that, by sending people deep into their own minds for the first part, the interpersonal connection within the ensemble for the actual performance was reduced. This was a useful thing to note, as it alerts us that any use of mental rehearsal in direct preparation for a performance needs to be combined with techniques to restore and strengthen that contact. Having said that, I would see our use of the technique as a group exercise as something to be used sparingly, to set up and support people's individual preparation, rather than a mainstay of our rehearsals.

Liz, how long did you allow for the visualization, and did you give any instructions regarding what to do when the mind drifts ?

Thanks.

Hi Gary,

I spent maybe a minute in the set-up for the visualisation - setting the scene. And when we started, I measured the time needed for whole song by the time it took me, then waited just a little to allow for tempo variation.

I didn't know until afterwards that people were going to find themselves getting lost and having to climb back on, so no I didn't anticipate this in the instructions. I suspect people will learn more from the exercise by managing their own attention...

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