5 Ways to Practice Away from Your Instrument

Whether away on holidays or bedridden with a flu, sometimes life just makes it impossible to practice. This can especially be the case for us pianists who don’t have the option of bringing our instrument with us when we travel.  We know that skills require daily maintenance, so what happens when you have no option but to take some time off? 

For this year’s summer holiday with my two children we decided to visit the charming city of Victoria, British Columbia. Nicknamed the “City of Gardens”, Victoria is the capital city of our neighbouring province, and we decided to visit after we noticed that anyone who had been there couldn’t stop telling us how much they love to visit.

Among many other things, we’ve been out whale watching, hiking, swimming in natural potholes, visited spectacular gardens, butterflies, bookstores, castles and parliament buildings. As far as holidays go, it’s been awesome.

Early on in the trip when we visited their Empress Hotel and heard their lounge pianist playing some nice jazz, instead of sitting back to enjoy the music I started to feel a bit restless with the reminder that I have a lot of work to do back home. Instead of acting on my first instinct which was to try and sweet-talk my way into borrowing his piano for 30 minutes, I was able to relax when I remembered that there are other ways for me to stay on top of my repertoire while my piano isn’t in reach.

Here are 5 of my favourites:

1) Mental Practice

This is the most obvious alternative that comes to mind. Doing mental practice is one of the most helpful alternatives that I encourage doing often even when your instrument is available to you.  Olympians and elite athletes have touted the benefits of imagery and mental practice for years, and visualization plays a big role in the work of sports and performance psychologists.

After years of study, lots of what you do at your instrument can come so naturally to you that you may not realize how many habits (good and bad) you carry with you into each new piece you learn. The sheer volume of physical movements and thoughts that are taking place when you work on your most challenging passages means that despite our best efforts there are likely many details being missed.

During practice we know how important it is to plan what type of sound you would like to produce before you begin, and mental practice in larger chunks can help you hear and make a clear plan in your mind.

Mental practice (both with and without any physical movement) is an excellent way to get to you know your music on a deeper level, and also to set clear intentions for how to approach your piece when you are back on your instrument again as well.

Try playing through the passages only in your mind, planning what you would like each line, phrase and tone to sound like. Also imagine how your body will feel – is there tension or is any area strained? After you have chosen how each passage should feel and the sounds you will produce, then you can add physical motion along with your mental practice. You will be pleasantly surprised how much this will impact your playing when you finally do sit down at your instrument!

2) Listen, listen, listen! 

Listening is another wonderful (and enjoyable) way to stay on top of your music while you are away from your instrument. It can be done with less energy than mental practice and is a fun way to explore different ideas and music. Here are a few things to consider when fine tuning your practice of listening:

Listen to other performers: We are so fortunate today to have such an abundance of recordings and YouTube videos to choose from so that we can compare and learn from many of the world’s greatest musicians (‘Kids these days’ will never understand the struggle we went through having to sift through limited public library CD’s to be able to hear more than 1-2 recordings of our repertoire!)

Listen to as many different audio recordings and video performances that you can. If you imagine yourself playing along with them, it’s like a window into how they’ve chosen to interpret the piece. Pay close attention to colours they bring out, lines and melodies you may not have noticed, tempo choices…there is always lots to learn by listening others!

Active vs. Passive listening:  All listening is not created equal. Active listening includes (but is not limited to) listening while following along with the score, paying close attention and repeating segments to pick up on details, pondering what you hear in each different interpretation to decide what you like (or dislike) about each performance.

Passive listening arguably takes less energy but I would say is equally important. In this option you are relying on learning through immersion, and allowing your brain (the ultimate super computer) to take the reins and unconsciously integrate what you’ve heard for you. Have your favourite recording playing in the background as you enjoy your day and step aside to allow your brain to work its magic.

Listen to recordings of yourself: This one takes some planning in advance, but is another way to get a boost to your progress and preparation. Keep in mind this doesn’t have to be a professional recording. You can make a home video or press the voice memo on your smartphone. Listening to your own recordings (especially before/after you listen to some of your favourite other performances) can be an excellent way to firm up your ‘to-do’ list of things to prepare and focus on when you get back to your practice room. Listening with my “teacher ears is always both rewarding and mortifying to hear so many things I would never let my students get away with.

3) Get to know more about the composer

Taking little time to learn more about your piece’s composer, or the context in which the piece was written, will deepen your appreciation and may also change the way you choose to approach your piece in the first place. 

What were the instruments like at the time it was written? What type of venue and for what audience was it written for? What do you know about the composer and what he/she wanted to achieve through their music etc.? What were they going through in their life when they wrote it? This is an often overlooked part of preparation but can really impact your performance in a way that many hours of practice may not.

4) Analyze

If the harmonic structure is considered to be like the blueprint of a house, then taking the time to analyze it will most certainly help you to see your piece in its entirety. Harmonic analysis is said to unlock many mysteries of music, and is also one of the best ways to reinforce your memory for performance as well.

I will be honest to let you know that music theory was never my strongest point and I always felt I had to force myself to do this type of work (or in school it was assigned to me), but over the years I’ve been able to experience how important it is to understand and continue studying. For some this may seem like a lot of extra work, but taking the time to analyze your music can feel like a safety net during a performance. If this seems like a daunting task, you can start with a rough analysis then dive deeper in layers as you are able. I rarely enjoy doing this while in the act, but I am always thankful I did when I’m in a performance!

5) Visualize

Lastly, this one is often confused with mental practice although is arguably quite different. I am a strong believer in visualization for all of our goals, and taking the time to visualize how your next performance will feel and sound is a powerful exercise to set yourself up for success (see above re: sports and performance psychologists)

Practice setting yourself up for success by setting the tone for your next performance. Some find it helpful to have an “imagery script” – “I walk confidently on stage, I sit and breathe before beginning, I perform exactly as I wanted and feel in control/elated/happy etc. etc.”

Generate the feeling the vibrational frequency of what you would like to feel on the day of your performance –  do you feel in control, have feelings of gratitude, do you feel prepared? Your emotional and mental state is key to a positive and meaningful experience on stage.

There are not set guidelines for how you should visualize your next lesson, masterclass or performance although there is one rule: YOU NEVER FAIL IN VISUALIZATION. If ever you find yourself stumbling, no problem! Just start the scene again and make sure that you complete it with 100% success each time in your mind.

If you find yourself apart from your instrument, hopefully these 5 ideas show you there are lots of areas to practice even if you are unable to play. Have you tried any of these before and if so, do you have any questions? What other techniques have worked for you in the past?