Mental Practice and Visualization

Question: There is a blind Japanese pianist I found on YouTube, his name is Nobuyuki Tsujii. Truly remarkable, he was born blind. No doubt you probably know of him. How he learned to play, to me, is mind-boggling. He can’t see, so how did he learn to “read” music? He can’t see the keyboard, how does he find the keys? My guess is that he must “see” in his mind, the notes and the keys. In other words his practice is all mental primarily. Whatever the mental learning technique is, it must be all mental first and then he physically plays the piano. He must practice 24/7 in his mind. I noticed while he was bowing to the audience after a performance that his fingers were still moving as though he was still playing.

What an inspiration for others in whatever their endeavor is. I have a suspicion that a sighted pianist must use the same mental technique but they may not be aware of it, at least not consciously employing it.

Would you care to comment on this? Do you have an idea as to how he does it??? It may be a key to a successful method of practicing.

I am sure I would not be an example of a dedicated student of any subject… I regret to say… but it seems to me I never learned how to learn. I have recently found that it helps to “see” notes in the mind as well as the keyboard. For example I can practice the scales… or a scale in my mind, visualizing the keyboard. But why not? There does not need to be a piano at hand physically, since it is mental then one can practice anywhere.

Watch Nobuyuki’s hands move across the keyboard!!! He must being doing it in his mind first.

Would appreciate your comments. What practicing do you do in your mind?

Sincerely,

– Chuck (Phoenix, Arizona, USA)

Albert’s reply: Nobuyuki Tsujii is a remarkable young artist whose blindness has not negatively affected his interpretations in any way. He fully deserved to win the Van Cliburn Competition. I’m not surprised that he can play so brilliantly without seeing, although I wonder how he hits those dangerous leaps in Liszt’s La Campanella so perfectly without even looking at the keyboard. The great jazz pianist Art Tatum, who inspired awe in Horowitz and Rachmaninoff alike, was famous for his accurate leaps at lightning-fast tempos, even though he was unable to see.

I can’t speak for how any other pianist learns music in particular, although I can offer some insights about playing blindly and mental practice. It is not really much of a mystery, in fact. It turns out that blind pianists read music in the same way they read text. There is a Braille system of music notation, with Braille editions of all common music literature.

Beyond the inability to look at the keyboard, the major difference is that a blind pianist is unable to sight read. As you point out, he or she must learn the music in advance of playing it. This method of learning is actually highly recommended for sighted pianists as well. I wrote an article on memorizing music without playing it that outlines a detailed top-down approach to mental practice.

As mentioned in that article, the more we can abstract from the keyboard when you learn music, the better we tend to learn it. Personally, I do several things mentally to test my memory of a piece. The first thing is to listen to it in my mind. It can be a real eye opener to discover that you’re unable to hear a piece played straight through in your mind, without looking at a score. Sometimes your mind will skip a passage, or you’ll discover an uncertainty. These are the areas that you must go back and study in greater depth.

Another type of mental practice I engage in is to attempt to see the score in my mind. One of the subcategories of visual memory is a mental photograph of the score. Try to see the score in detail in your mind, then compare it with the actual score. Are you able to see each voice accurately? Do you notice expressive markings and any text? Can you see the typography and your own handwriting, including fingerings, in your mind? These are all details that you can develop by looking at the score and studying it visually.

Finally, can you visualize your hands playing the keys? You should not be at the piano for this exercise – it should be performed in your mind. Keep the score in front of you for whenever you get stuck. Study that passage, then visualize your hands playing it without looking at the score.

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