Music With Your Mind (part I)

Music With Your Mind

In then end, improvements in your mental skills improve your playing above all else.

We know that the mental aspects are amazingly important. We’ve seen MRIs of musicians practising. MRIs of musicians mentally practising. And they look exactly the same.

I’ve also noticed that the small changes in my client’s mental skills have the largest effect on their playing.

Personally, I’ve caught myself making physical mistakes when mentally practising. For me, that was a sure sign that there wasn’t actually a physical problem with what I was doing. It was really all mental (and a fairly amusing form of self-sabotage). Once I’d corrected the problem mentally, the physical problem went away.

You can apply these mental skills in both practice and performance. Not that they’re really that different in the long run.

Here’s how I think about the two. (I’ll cover performance in another blog post, this one has gotten out of hand length-wise).


Practice is permission to succeed

Practice is a ritual that gives you permission to perform at your best. While practice is important for improving your physical skills. From a mental point of view, it’s a way of saying to yourself, “I’ve done the work, now it’s ok for me to perform well”.

Pattern Matching

The brain is an amazing pattern matching machine. When we practice we need to take advantage of this awesome tool.

In the end, there’s only one thing that counts in music, and that’s how it sounds. Music has only one KPI.

The ultimate goal of practice is to equate sound with muscle movement. So when you hear (either in your head or on a recording) a particular sound, your body knows what muscle movements to carry out to create that sound. We want to work towards removing all intermediate steps and eventually arriving at sound = muscle movement.

This is the whole purpose of ear training and practice in general. It’s also why we learn scales and scale patterns, to help bridge that gap between sound and action.

So, instead of concentrating on the physical when you practice, you should listen to the sounds you’re making. Use them as something that indicates that there may be a physical thing wrong. On guitar, for example, you may start to notice that a buzzy sound equates with your finger not being close enough to the fret. That a ‘dead’ sounding string may be a finger accidentally leaning over onto an adjacent string.

Don't Stop

Don’t stop when you hear the mistake. Be aware of it, and fix it on the next repetition of the phrase that you’re practising. Slowly repeating small sections of what you’re learning is really effective.).

When you practice small sections over and over, you give your pattern matching brain a chance to compare repetitions. This allows it to determine which options have faults in them and which are the more error free versions.

I think of this like target practice (think archery). You shoot at the target, you might have aimed a little high and you miss. You adjust your aim and try again, perhaps being a little low. Next shot you hit the target. Then miss, a little high, then hit it again. As you shoot more you become more consistent as you can reference the misses and make adjustments.

If we make the mistakes and stop, we don’t give our brain any reference points to improve against. Worse still, if we make a mistake, get annoyed and stop, we’re highlighting that mistake for our brain. The brain then thinks that the mistake is important and it grabs hold of that. Instead, show the brain that the mistake is a statistical anomaly. It will figure out that that’s not what you’re trying to achieve.

Practising in this way allows us to always improve by solving problems as they become audible to us. As we learn to hear more acutely, we’ll solve more and more subtle problems.

Long-Term Goals

When I’m working on a new skill, I like to set myself up for a three-month goal. Although “goal” is probably not the best term in this case. I decide that I’m going to do the same thing for three months and not really worry about the outcome. I’ll just concentrate on making gradual improvements over that period of time.

I find that goal orientated learning in music is rarely effective. If you’re inclined towards perfectionism, the long term ‘not goal’ is the best way to help yourself improve.

If you take a goal oriented approach and try to get it perfect on one day. Or, try to get it perfect by a specific date. You will either not achieve your goal, or slow your progress so much that it becomes a very painful process.

The trick, in this case, is to ‘just do it’, listen to the detail and make minor improvements when you hear faults. You’ll eventually do this without thinking about it. (see our blog post on the ‘Four Stages of Competence’).

There is a great book ‘Zen in the art of Archery’ that you’ll find in the instrument cases or bookshelves of many great players. It outlines the story of a Westerner who already had some archery experience learning the art of Kyūdō (Japanese Archery). There are many parallels between practising that art and learning music. In the book, the Kyūdō master sets up the targets in front of the student archer so that they can’t miss. This stops the student from worrying about the goal of hitting the target. This then allows them to focus on all of the other aspects of archery that in the end, are much more important.

Trying Fails

Another great book that we often recommend to clients is ‘The Inner Game of Music’. There’s a section in the book where a student attempts to demonstrate to a teacher how she makes a mistake in her piece. Much to her chagrin, she plays the problem section perfectly several times. By giving herself permission to fail, she’s stopped worrying about it. As a result, she has performed the piece exceptionally well. This is another example of where the mental outweighs all other factors in playing music.


Another place where trying fails is trying to go faster. Even if you are playing a rapid passage, you should never be ‘thinking fast’. Think smooth, even, focus on the rhythm, but never the speed. Smooth and rhythmic playing is relaxed whereas fast is tense. It’s often counterintuitive that playing mechanically even notes sound smooth and organic. You never need to worry about speed, it comes with time.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll follow up this post with a second part next week. In the meantime, feel free to comment on our blog, Facebook page or Twitter feed, or ask questions via email (


Andrew Farnham is one of the two directors of  IMA Music Mentoring where he leads the Guitar Lessons team.

Book a free, introductory music lesson and start following your musical dreams.


Photo credit: A Health Blog via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: mikerastiello via / CC BY-NC-ND

Jam Night at IMA

IMA Jam Night

We’ve recently relocated out Mitchelton studios to our new Ashgrove location. Since the move, we’ve been running the IMA Jam Night from this great new space.

IMA Jam Nights are a excellent way to get used to playing in front of a friendly and supportive crowd. You’ll also learn some great skills that you just can’t learn playing at home.

Get The Most From Your Practice

Why Should I Perform at Jam Night?

Playing at home is different to playing in front of people. There are some things that make playing surprisingly different at first.

For example, generally, you’ll be standing up to perform. If you’re not practicing standing at least some of the time, it’s a good habit to get into. Your posture will be different (and probably better).

You have to practice performing while staying calm. Everyone gets nervous playing in front of people, it’s completely normal. Learning techniques from your mentor to help you relax when performing will make you a better all-round musician. (Check out our upcoming IMA Performance Workshop)

Playing with a band requires some additional skills:

When you play at home by yourself, you don’t have to listen to anyone else except for yourself. Listening to others is an absolutely critical skill to improving your musicianship.

Learning to listen and respond to the group you’re playing with takes performing to a whole new level. It makes it even more fun and exciting.

When you’re playing with a group, you’ll have to manage your volume. It’s best to set it so that you can just hear enough of yourself to get by, and no more. That takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s very worthwhile.

Performers who are louder than everyone else just so that they can hear ‘more of me’ are rarely popular. They also can’t hear enough of the other performers to interact in any meaningful way.

Use Your Ears

Use Your Ears

You’ll learn to listen on three levels:

  1. Listening to yourself, making sure that you’re not being too loud. Confirming that what you’re playing makes sense.
  2. Listening to the band so that you can respond to what they’re doing.
  3. Listening like an audience member. Learning to listen like you’re not involved in the making of the music. Hearing the way that everything is interacting. Also ‘noticing’ things that you’d like yourself to change in that context. This is the most important of the three listening skills to work towards.

It’s also important to learn how to recover from mistakes. We all make them, the trick is not to be put off by mistakes. To remain relaxed and to not stop and if possible not to let anyone else know that you made a mistake.

The other thing about jam night is that you get meet people who are learning just like you. It’s great to be able to discuss the musical journey with people who are both further along, and less so than you are. It really gives you a great perspective on where you’re at and where you can go. It’s also nice to be able to give and receive some support and encouragement.

You get to play with and experienced professional band. The mentors at IMA are all seasoned performers. Getting to play with more experienced musicians always helps lift your own playing level.

Where is it held?

At our IMA Ashgrove studios. Parking is out the back accessed through Harry street.


What should I know?

Jam nights are fun! You get to perform with a really professional band in front of a group of supportive people.

You should be able to play along with the song you’ve chosen from start to finish without stopping.

How often do Jam Nights happen?

Once a month on the second Friday of the month.

How do I book?

  • Head here:
  • Choose a song from the song list.
  • Click on the ‘buy a ticket’ button (tickets are $5 for performers and audience members alike).
  • Pick a date (Jam nights are the 2nd Friday of the month)
  • Fill out the form and purchase your ticket. You should be able to add the names of the songs you’re going to perform to your ticket details.
  • If you’d just like to come along to watch (recommended for your first jam night), please purchase a general ticket.

IMA Jam Nights are great fun. We’re looking forward to seeing you there!

Setting Yourself Up To Practice

Keyboard Practice

Every extra step you need to get ready for practice is another barrier to getting started. And if it’s hard to get started, it’s much more likely that you just won’t practice at all.

Once you miss a practice session, resistance to practice increases. It then becomes a downward spiral from there as you put off practicing day after day.

Don’t panic! There are some simple steps you can take to make sure that this doesn’t happen to you.

Lower Resistance

  • Have your instrument out on a stand.
  • Have it plugged in if it requires it.
  • If it’s an electric instrument have the power plugged in so that all you need to do is to flick the power switch and start.
  • Have cleaning equipment on hand so that you can clean your instrument when you’re finished.
  • Have some kind of recording device handy.
  • Have a metronome or drum machine ready.
  • I prefer to practice in headphones.

Instruments on stand

Many of the ‘things you need’ can be found on a smartphone or tablet:(metronome / drum machine, tuner, recording device, headphone amp simulator). I’m a big fan of Garage Band on the iPad and iPhone as it contains pretty much everything you need for a good practice session wherever you are.

Keeping it in sight

  • If you’re always seeing your instrument when you walk past, you’re much more likely to pick it up and have a 5 or 10-minute play on it. That’s a great way of clocking some extra hours on the instrument.
  • If your instrument is hidden away, you’re more likely to forget to practice altogether, or to miss out on those great five or ten minute practices when you walk past.

Make a regular time

  • Make a consistent time to practice.
  • Have start and finish time in mind.
  • Also, just play for fun whenever you want to.


Get yourself setup to practice and do a minimum of five minutes per day and you’ll be blown away at how consistently you progress. It can be a great idea to record yourself also so that you can come back later and check on your progress.

In the meantime, happy practicing!


Andrew Farnham is one of the two directors of  IMA Music Mentoring where he leads the Guitar Lessons team.

Book a free, introductory music lesson and start following your musical dreams.