This is a pretty wacky story, so buckle up.
My junior year of college I had the opportunity to go to Dallas, TX for PASIC. It was a fantastic experience - life changing, even. But it happened to fall two weeks before juries (and if you don't know what juries are, thank your lucky stars), and it meant no practice time for a week.
Those of us who went on the trip - five percussion majors and our percussion professor - were talking about ways to make up for the lost practice time, and one of my colleagues mentioned this foreign sounding word to me: visualization.
Visualization is basically this: seeing the instrument in your mind's eye, you rehearse the piece, section, or whatever it is without physically doing it. It took me some practice (no pun intended), but I was finally able to visualize a marimba keyboard and four mallets in my head. It started one note at a time, then a measure, then a phrase. The coolest thing about visualizing your practice is that there are no rules and no limits. You can sound perfect, play in an amazing venue, make no mistakes, etc.
Anyway, I tried it. On the flights, both ways. On the train. In the hotel room. At breakfast. And you know what? When we got back from Dallas, I had actually improved my playing without having touched a marimba or mallets for a solid week.
It was nothing short of shocking.
If I had a little more discipline, I would have developed the habit of visualization and used it more frequently, but I have tried it over the years when I'm about to go on stage or start a take in the studio.
Now, I'm not advocating the abandonment of actual, real-life practicing, but try some visualization, especially when you're learning something new. This is a bit backwards, but I've always believed that if you can't think it, there's no way you're going to play it.
Happy drumming, and think happy thoughts!
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