[Harp-L] mental practice

Chris Hofstader cdh@xxxxx
Thu Dec 15 13:09:11 EST 2016

Hey Phil, et al,

Mental practicing and visualizing music is a strategy I’ve been using lately and is something I’ve discussed briefly with my instructor. While this may sound odd coming from the guy who can’t see, that I am blind may actually make this easier for me. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been describing this experience to a researcher friend at NC State as, like we discussed in the reading musical notation debate, it may have implications far beyond harmonica playing.

These days I practice between 45 minutes and an hour every morning and then just play around trying stuff out at random intervals throughout the day. During the same period, my brain invented a dynamic visual map of the harp. 

There’s a lot of abstraction going on here so I’ll do my best to find words for what I actually see that can be easily understood without physically being inside my brain.

Picture the harp as ten grey squares in a vertical line with gaps greater than on a physical harp - that would mean silence to me. If the square becomes white, it’s corresponding hole brightens to white; if it’s a draw it darkens to a brown. If I’m playing up the scale, the 2 through six tilt upward at a ~30 degree angle and when playing down they angle downward from the six always with a positive slope. 

When we add bends, the third dimension comes in. All of the bends I ever play are draws so I’ve not a visual vocabulary for blow bends. But, a 2 bent will turn from brown to purple and lean towards me while also lowering below the rest of the holes on the line. 

Various motion effects describe rhythm but these are really abstract and I can’t find a thesaurus that can translate from these strange images into anything resembling the English language. Dylan can make images out of the abstract but the Nobel committee is not likely to be knock, knock, knocking on my door anytime soon.
 Volume is described by the relative intensity of the colors, the darkest browns and purples are the loudest draws, the brightest whites are the loudest blows. Chords are represented when the gaps between the squares go away and the two or three holes move forward and down or backward and up depending on draw or blow. A glissando is kind of like a chord as the squares lose their gaps but they form a curve and tilt to the right or left depending on blow or draw (I find this one interesting in it’s the only I can recall that uses the x and not the z dimension for draw and blow), a hand wah happens when the background (usually black) changes color and flickers in intensity, a warble are the holes involved shaking left and right. I can zoom in and see only the holes I need in a riff or mentally, zoom out and watch the entire thing unfold in my head. 

Interestingly, I did not invent this single domain visual vocabulary nor did I learn it from someone else. It kind of evolved as I was visualizing while practicing/playing and none of the symbolic choices were intentional, they just started happening. It appears to be some kind of suggestive synesthesia, an effect experienced and that can be taught to people like me with acquired blindness. 

I find that I can summon riffs and such from memory into this visual space even when not playing. Using this modality, I can play the tune in my head while seeing the images as described above or I can watch my visuals and “hear” it played back.

Recently, I find that I’m seeing my squares do their thing while listening to other harmonica players in recordings but I’m entirely uncertain if they are accurate (I certainly do not have perfect pitch) and I haven’t been able to commit these to memory so I can’t recall them for playback later - suggesting that recall may only be possible with actual practice or that I’ve developed this phenomena too recently and it’s not fully functional yet. it would be cool as all hell if I could perhaps with repeated listening be able to learn things from recordings this way.

I also experience this effect when listening to a baseball or basketball game on the radio, I see a foggy visual image of the action described by the broadcasters that some friends find remarkable as I’m pretty accurate when I describe what I had seen this way.

Keep in mind, I’m a sample size of one and have never discussed this with any other blind person who plays an instrument of any kind so I’ve not even anecdotal evidence that any other blind person can do this or if it’s a common thing among we with acquired blindness. There is literature supporting a concept called sensory substitution (google BrainPort and The VOICe separately if you care for a deep dive, the literature on Brain Port is much more compelling) and this may be what’s happening here. I hear the sound and my visual cortex tries to interpret in some meaningful way. Sensory substitution requires a fair amount of training and my daily practice approximates the amount of time it takes one to learn to use BrainPort effectively so that may also be why I can only recall what I’ve practiced.

The odd life of my weird brain…

Happy Hacking,


> On Dec 15, 2016, at 11:33 AM, philharpn--- via Harp-L <harp-l at xxxxx> wrote:
> Has anybody had any experience with "mental practice" on the harmonica?
> Most people practice the harmonica by playing a song or exercise 10 times. Then, depending on how many times the tune is played, the player masters the song or exercise.
> When playing a tune 10-20 times the chops may get tired--expecially with newbies. But the chops never get tired with silent practicer.
> In mental practice, harmonica players "read" through the tune as if they were playing the without actually playing the harmonica.
> This can be done on the harmonica with sheet music or tablature. I don't think it can be done for ear or rote players because the player not only has to remember how the tune goes but how it is played on the harp (fingering.).
> This also provides SILENT PRACTICE-- without bothering other  people in the room/car/house/whatever.
> This has been done with college basketball players: The idea being that those who visualize throwing free shots do just as well or even better than people who actually throw the free shots.
> Here is one study: It also quotes  
> http://scholarsresearchlibrary.com/ABR-vol2-iss5/ABR-2011-2-5-8-13.pdf

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