How do jazz saxophonists use mental training?
– Over the past few years I’ve grown increasingly curious about the benefits of using mental training during instrument practice, Ida explains.
She is herself a jazz saxophonist, and during her master project she interviewed six professional jazz saxophonists who use various forms of mental training in order to try to understand how they benefit from it.
– Mental training is quite a vague concept to many, says Ida.
– People often have different ideas about what mental training might involve. I’ve therefore been very open-minded when interviewing my informants and let them use their own terminology. I was keen to look at the breadth of approaches to mental training amongst the informants.
Ida submitted her master thesis in May. She is one of two master students at the Norwegian Academy of Music to be awarded a master scholarship from NOKUT via CEMPE. Ida’s master project comes under the CEMPE focus area of musical practice, involving the development projects Teaching of practising, Cross-genre practising, and Interdisciplinary practising.
Ida identified both similarities and differences in the way the musicians she spoke to use mental training. Yoga, meditation and nature were all mentioned.
– One of them in particular talked a lot about nature. He said he could benefit as much by going for a walk in the woods as from spending six hours in the practice room.
– How did he explain that?
– It has something to do with perspective. He talked about taking the time to let things ripen. The sounds of nature inspire him to go back to the practice room and make music. New ideas pop up during these walks, he says.
“He said he could benefit as much by going for a walk in the woods as from spending six hours in the practice room.”
Many of the informants also talked about aspects directly linked to their instrument. Picturing technically difficult phrases, for example, without physically holding the saxophone was something the informants benefited from. Both fingering and sound were things that the informants could visualise and practise mentally.
A broader perspective was also brought up:
– One of the informants talked about using visualisation before walking onto a big stage in order to calm his nerves and improve his performance. By picturing the crowd, queuing around the block to get in, he evokes the emotions associated with that, and when he then steps onto the stage he has assumed this attitude.
– I asked him whether he ever gets disappointed if there isn’t a long queue, Ida says. That doesn’t matter, he answered, because by that point he will already have elicited that emotion. It allows him to perform with that feeling even if the audience should turn out to be no more than a dozen strong.
Does mental training have an effect?
The musicians Ida spoke to use mental training to varying degrees, but all of them spoke of its benefits.
– The reason some of the informants use less mental training is often down to time. Some used mental training more in the past, but then they started a family and had children, and there just isn’t the time. They simply do not have the time to sit down and work on mental exercises. It’s more down to that than not experiencing any benefits from it.
– But it’s difficult to say whether you can actually feel the effect of mental training, Ida says.
– Of course, we don’t know how things would’ve turned out had they not used mental training.
Taking a lesson from sports
Research into the world of sport is often cited when the issue of mental training is raised. For example, research fellow Johannes Lunde Hatfield asks whether mental training exercises used in sports psychology could have a positive impact on music students’ development. Ida also writes about mental training in sports in her master thesis. However, she believes there are key differences between sports and music, especially when it comes to the focus on competition and results. In music the process goals are more important, she points out.
– Has there been too little focus on mental training in music?
– I find that athletes are very good at using mental training; much better than musicians, in my opinion. I think musicians could benefit from using mental training more than they do. Things have been written about mental training in music, too, but not specifically on jazz saxophone as far as I know.
Ida mentions Kenny Werner, a highly regarded American jazz pianist and author of the book Effortless Mastery. Werner offers various mental tools to help deal with performance anxiety and other challenges associated with practice and development as a musician. He raised these issues when he visited an international conference on musical practice organised by CEMPE in December 2015.
“There are so many musicians suffering strain injuries because they are practising the same thing for hours on end, day after day. Mental training can be a way of not wearing your body down.”
Some of CEMPE’s projects involve musical practice across different disciplines and across genres. Applying knowledge from sports and psychology in order to improve musical practice could be a fruitful endeavour. Musicians from different genres could probably learn from each other’s working methods, too.
– Do you think there would be much of a difference within the different genres as to how mental training could be implemented?
– There are probably some similarities, but also a few key differences, especially when it comes to the use of written music. Classical musicians often learn the music through musical notation, while rhythmic musicians rely more on sound and ear. Because they learn in different ways, they may also use mental training differently in the learning process.
More tuition in how to practise
Ida believes music students could benefit from receiving more tuition in how to practise. She feels that this is one of the most important things that she teaches her pupils. But she also stresses that which techniques would be most beneficial will depend on the individual, and not everyone will find mental training equally useful. However:
– There are so many musicians suffering strain injuries because they are practising the same thing for hours on end, day after day. Mental training can be a way of not wearing your body down.