As a child, I loved to imagine and come up with new ideas and experiment with them. One of the most interesting experiment I did on myself started after a biology class in year 8. The teacher taught us that our arms and legs learn certain movements and is then stored in the brain. Later when we want to move the same limb the brain sends signals and tells the limb what to do.
My little brain at the time thought to myself, ok does it mean people can shortcut the process by just ‘installing’ what the brain needs to know and then it can also send the same message to the limbs? I went about testing it out myself.
I am a musician and was learning the piano and oboe at the time. I loved the musical instruments, but like every other child, I did not enjoy practicing scales. They were boring and I just wanted to play the songs. So I went about my test on scale practicing. At that time, my teachers tried to get me to practice my scales because I used to get them wrong. So for a few weeks, I used the time in the car on the way to school to mentally practice my scales. I closed my eyes (mum thought I was sleeping) and imagined playing the scale in my mind – for both the piano and oboe. Physically I only practiced once a week.
Interestingly after I started doing that, my teachers was so happy because she thought I listened and started practicing my scales. Little did she know.
Recently I came across a research that explored the plastic human brain cortex, by a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School Professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Participants in the research were taugh how to play a five-finger exercise on a piano keyboard, and surprisingly mental practice also showed activation in the same area of the brain.
This is what I did as a child – mentally practiced my scales. It turned out that I wasn’t JUST imagining it, the imagining did help. Professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone would be interested to know that the exercise had practical outcomes for all musicians. I passed my 6th-8th grade piano exams and 5th-6th grade oboe exams practicing my scales mentally. I doubt music teachers will rush to tell their students the ‘new way’ of music practice, but for me, it confirmed that some of my crazy ideas were not so crazy after all.