Navigating Embodied Practicing & Memorization

By Lea Pearson, DMA

Whether you have injury or discomfort, limited time in the practice room, lack of sleep that makes you too tired to physically practice, or just want to be more efficient in learning a piece – embodied practicing can be helpful. It is also the most productive route to memorizing a piece: to get it out of your head and into your body where it can live and be  reliably and consistently played.

Embodied practicing is practicing in which you engage your whole self – body, mind, emotions and multi-sensory awareness – in all you do. It has three main aspects:

  • Learning the music away from the instrument
  • Imaginary practicing and memorizing
  • Practicing with the instrument

We’ll examine each of these from the perspective of how to learn and memorize a new piece of music. I’ve spent years using and teaching this method, and I find it a rich and satisfying process.

I. Learning the music away from the instrument

This is the first step in learning any new piece – and can take place long before you pick up your instrument. With the score at hand you can do it in bed, on a plane, or in the library. If you have recordings, great: if not, you have to hear everything (this is where a little piano background comes in handy).

I study the piece for as long as it takes to feel like I have an understanding of the following:

  • Analytical structure: what the sections are, how they are constructed, and how they relate to one another (some people love to create color-coded maps).
  • Harmonic progressions: how they contribute to the emotional language of the piece (including where my part is in each chord).
  • Emotional meaning of each movement, section and phrase.
  • Narrative: is there a story? Do you have a personal narrative that goes with the piece? Embodying a narrative provides a wonderful shortcut into expression.
  • Quality of movement needed to bring out the emotion (for example, if playing Debussy, your body will feel very different from playing Prokofiev!).
  • Function of articulation – how it enhances the meaning of the phrases.
  • The function of each section, and similarities and differences between repeated sections.

This is essential prerequisite to memorizing. It may seem laborious at first, but when you get to know a piece at this level of emotional understanding, you will be much more comfortable with it and less likely to slip up in performance.

I do this work with and without recordings. I endeavor to feel everything that I learn, so that the structure and emotions are in my body before I ever touch the instrument. Basically, I am learning the music without my instrument.

II. Imaginary practicing & memorizing

Imaginary practicing – what some people call “mental practicing” – is an efficient and effective way to learn music away from the instrument. A friend does an experiment every year at the college where she teaches: she divides her instrument class into two groups and gives each group the same piece to learn in a week. One group learns it the traditional way and the other must learn it without touching the instrument. She has done this for years, and each year the group that doesn’t touch their instrument plays the piece better than the other group. That’s enough evidence for me, but if you want to look into the official research there are several sources.

Imaginary practicing is much more than reading or singing the music. It means imagining everything you do to play or sing – finger movement, breathing, embouchure changes, dynamics, bowing, articulation, expression, etc – all with a multi-sensory awareness. You include in your awareness the way your body feels; what you hear in the environment; and what you see, with your main focus on the music. It’s as far as can be from an intellectual studying of the notes.

This process is most useful for working on difficult passages. Let’s say you have a difficult passage going up high with a diminuendo. Imagine the following:

  • Fingerings. If you can’t imagine your fingers moving clearly and precisely for every single note, you are thinking too fast. Choose a tempo where you can really feel each note, then gradually speed up. Remember: don’t actually move your fingers. Just imagine the movement. You are training the neuromuscular connections, and it’s easier for the brain if you don’t actually use the muscles. Memorize the difficult passages and go over and over them until they feel natural. If they are memorized you can even practice on the subway or bus or in line at the bank! (If you go too fast, your thoughts feel fuzzy. That’s your brain saying “Help! This is too much for me to process at once!”)
  • Dynamics. What do you have to do with your body as you make a diminuendo? Feel the ground more? Make sure you don’t tense your neck? Change your embouchure? Change the weight on the bow? Change your air speed or amount? Change the resonance in your body? If you want every note to sound focused, you need to know exactly how to feel each one in your body.
  • Articulation. What tonguing and slurs do you use? What kinds of bow strokes?
  • Tonguing. How does the tonguing feel – crisp, legato, etc? Where do you place the tongue in your mouth? How much effort do you use? In general we use way too much effort in tonguing, so practice letting the air carry the phrase, not the tongue.
  • Bow strokes. What’s the quality of movement you need for each bow stroke? How exactly does it feel in your hand, arm, and whole body? How does it connect with the emotional meaning of the section?
  • Breathing. Where does the music want you to breathe? Have you found places that work best to bring out the phrases? Are you gauging the descent of the ribs to match the length of the phrase, or are you pushing the air out too fast and running out? (Singing helps to discover the most expressive way to manage the air.) Are you letting your body automatically and reflexively do the work or are you over-working to breathe? Since the body seems to be calmer while doing imaginary practicing, this is a great time to work on the movement of breathing.
  • Expression. How are you using your body to create the emotion you want for this phrase? Are you tensing in the arms, legs or neck as you diminuendo or reach the peak of the phrase? Can you instead feel increased support from the floor as you increase volume or play high notes? High notes have very fast vibrations and need strong fundamentals through a good grounded connection through your legs to the floor.

As you can see, there is a great deal going on while you are learning music!

Neuroscientists say making music is one of the most complex activities we do. In order to effectively coordinate all this brain activity, we need to go slowly and deliberately enough to make sure we are embodying the music with the expression we intend. Practicing in an embodied manner away from the instrument while imagining everything we do really helps to build coordination in a free and expressive way, and keeps the brain out of reacting in fear.

Using memorization in the imaginary practicing process. 

You’ll be getting lots of tips from other articles in this edition, so use what works best for you. I prefer to work in chunks, learning small chunks, and then putting them together. The most important thing is to remember how your brain works. To get things from short-term to long-term memory, you have to work on them, give the brain time to rest, and pick them up again. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of spending a half an hour on one section only to have to start all over again the next day! The ideal interval is to practice something with six hours in between, or, practice it right before you go to bed and then again in the morning. The advantage of imaginary practicing is that you won’t bother anybody!

III. Practicing with the instrument

Finally we get to playing!! I promise you that if you do all the previous work first, you will learn the piece relatively rapidly when you actually pick up your instrument, because you will already have it in your body and in your long term memory.

It can be really effective to practice a phrase in our imagination and then with the instrument: back and forth, back and forth – to see if we are accurately doing what we have imagined.  Or, to see if we are adding unnecessary work when we pick up the instrument. Then we use the metronome to get up to the desired speed – still with an awareness of the freedom and use of the whole body that we need for rapid technique. If there are passages that are difficult (or very high and hard on the ears), this is a really useful way to practice. For example, if you practice a passage that makes your hands tired, alternate it with imaginary practicing of the same passage. 

Most of the music we play has parts that are easy and parts that are hard. When first looking at a piece notice what seems hard and make these sections into etudes that you can do with your daily warm-ups. For example, I was recently practicing a passage with a lot of high C’s. It’s been a while since I’ve been up in the stratosphere on a regular basis, so I am including that in all my warm-ups. This will provide a foundation for similar passages in the music. Don’t spend a lot of time practicing the easy parts. Learn to embody them in your imagination and they will be just fine. 

Practicing in an embodied manner helps us to trust our bodies when it comes to performance AND memorization, where we hope to use our whole being to convey the meaning of the music. Clarity of musical intention will make it possible to play what you want.

I invite you to experiment with embodied practicing in your memorizing. Let me know how it goes!

Lea Pearson | Facebook

Dr. Lea Pearson has been helping musicians find relief from pain and learn expressive ways to move and play since 1998. One of the country’s leading Body Mapping Educators, she works with professional and amateur musicians and trains teachers to fill in the missing piece – how to use our bodies to make beautiful music.

MA, Stanford University
DMA, The Ohio State University
Fulbright Scholar, The Sibelius Academy Helsinki
Teaching Artist, the Kennedy Center
Founder, Music Minus Pain
Founder, The Transformational Teacher Training Program
Author, Body Mapping for Flutists: What Every Flute Teacher Needs to Know About the Body. Chicago: GIA, 2006.