THE SCIENCE OF
With Chuan C Chang, author of Fundamentals of Piano Practice
interviewed by Leah Young
The Power of Mental Play
-- Out of all the topics in your book, [and you really covered a lot of ground in that book] the idea of mental play is my favorite topic. I never really exercised that part of my brain much before I started reading your book and now that I’ve tried it, I have seen wonderful results. --
Mental play has all kinds of beneficial effects. Not only beneficial, but necessary. All the great performers and the great musicians have tremendous mental play power. It’s obvious to recognize that when one observes what these great musicians did. It's one of the most powerful tools that we have and it's so overlooked.
-- Mental play is a little difficult at first before one adapts to it, but I have found it to be a crucial part of my practice routine. Because I can play a piece and have the muscle memory and there it is. Before I developed the ability to do mental play, I would go and try to play it in my mind without the instrument get stuck so easily. It's really hard at first. Like anything, it gets easier and easier, and it is so powerful and valuable. --
There's an easy way to get out of that kind of fear about mental play. Consider a mother with five kids getting up in the morning, and each kid has his preference on what he eats for breakfast, and how to make each breakfast, and which school they go to, and how they go to school, and when to pick them up, and all that.
When a mother wakes up in the morning, she goes through this entire thing in the morning to make sure that she knows what to do for the day. That's mental play. She's never been trained in mental play. Yet, she's an expert in it. The mental play she conducts in figuring out the whole day is much more complicated than a Bach invention!
Mental play is not difficult, and everybody does it. If you're not trained to do that in music, it's difficult to get started. But conceptually, everybody already does it. There's no reason to be afraid of it, or think of it as difficult. You just have to use it and practice it.
-- You'll often see people, myself included, who get nervous playing in a recital, and we start thinking, "Oh no. I'm messing up. This is awful. This is like a bad dream." These are the thoughts that are so loudly going through our heads as we perform. But now I'm training myself so when I'm performing, and also when I'm practicing, to be very focused on playing the music in the moment in my head and not be thinking about other things. That's another application for mental play, mental play in tandem with physical play. --
Mental play is the best cure for stage fright. Before, I used to get so nervous. I hated performing just because of the nervousness. Then I learned about the mental play when I was about 50 years old. I said, "Man, this is great."
I started using it and I found out that if I can mentally play a piece completely away from the piano, I wasn't nervous at all. Now I wonder, "How does anybody perform without mental play? It's so scary!"