What do international musicians have in common with premier league footballers, Olympic athletes and top-flight tennis players? They all visualise their performance before an event either by ‘playing’ the piece in the concert hall, ‘running’ the race or ‘hitting’ the ball. But the visualisation isn’t just a mental image; it includes the sounds, the smells, the feel of the performance and is in bright, glorious, crystal sharp technicolour!
VISUALISATIONThe act of visualisation has been studied in some depth both in sport and in musical performance. In both areas the research shows quite clearly that just thinking about a movement has been found to create the same muscle activity as when physically executing it. “I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance” Jessica Ennis-Hill (Olympic gold medal winning Heptathlete) In the world of music visualisation is often referred to as internalisation or audiation. Research into the development of internalisation has shown that it has significant benefits for the development of musical skills. Many great pianists and music teachers extol its virtues. Pianists like Leschetizky and Whiteside built their piano teaching methodologies upon it. Music educators such as Kodaly, Orff and Dalcroze all considered it central to their philosophies. Yet it is often a topic that is not tackled in piano lessons, especially those of beginners and elementary level. Whether this is because it is considered an advanced skill to be tackled at a much higher level or because its importance is just not understood is hard to say. What is indisputable is the fact that internalisation should be a key feature of all lessons, right from the start! Do you currently use any form of visualisation or internalisation in your piano teaching? Do you ever visualise anything yourself?
WHAT IS INTERNALISATION?Internalisation is the ability to hear musical sounds in the head, without the physical presence of an instrument. It can be taken further and can include the kinaesthetic sense of playing alongside the aural awareness. It can be referred to in several ways. Edwin Gordon calls it audiation. Gary McPherson refers to it as thinking in sound. The Voices Foundation adopted the term ‘the thinking voice’ and it is this accessible phrase that I shall use from now on.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?For pianists, both young and old, there are three main benefits that arise from using the thinking voice:
- It places the ear and musical sound at the heart of the experience as the brain has to learn how to mentally manipulate the images and sounds
- It reduces physical tensions at the piano because the muscles have already rehearsed the movements
- It leads to a closer connection with the expressive qualities of a piece as less mental energy is required to just play the notes
“By unceasingly listening with ‘the inner ear, . . . to a composition, [a pianist’s] capability of comprehending it will develop to so great an extent that he finally will grasp it in all its detail and will be in a position to interpret this masterwork in all its greatest perfection” 
HOW TO TEACH INTERNALISATIONIn my experience all pupils, certainly over the age of 6, can start to use the thinking voice. Here are 3 ways this can be done with a song.
ONCE A MAN FELL IN A WELLFirst, learn the song and teach it to the pupil. CLICK HERE to watch a short video of Sally teaching you the song. To download the score and an accompaniment along with some other ideas for how to use the song CLICK HERE When the song is well known try the following activities:
- Ask the pupil to tap the rhythm pattern of the words by saying: ‘let the fingers do the talking whilst you speak the song using your thinking voice’.
- Put the pitch shapes onto the body. For example, your feet are the lowest pitch whilst the head is the highest pitch. Once this is firmly established choose a phrase to sing in thinking voice whilst still showing the pitch movement on the body
- Following written notation: ask the pupil to sing it in their thinking voice, raising a hand when they get to the last note – model the expected outcome. The challenge is for both of you to raise hands exactly together, The first time lightly hum the melody but second time be as silent as the pupil.