“Visualize! Visualize! Visualize!” is a cry often heard by athletes. The idea is to picture a performance in the mind, and by repeatedly doing so, help insure a successful result when the times comes for the real thing. For example, as a runner I might try to visualize striding smoothly and powerfully mid-race so that hopefully, that image will become reality on race day. I have had some luck with this and recommend Running Within by Lynch and Scott if you’re interested. But these sorts of things are rather vague and rely on reinforcement of a positive self-image, of a confidence-booster. I’m more interested in something a little more concrete. If you’ve read my earlier DIY Neuro-Motor posts here and here, you know what I’m getting at. Can the idea of visualization coupled with mirror neurons be helpful to someone learning a musical instrument?
After reading an article in Scientific American some time ago regarding mirror neurons, plus some interesting items I saw on Nova Science Now, the idea occurred to me that perhaps one could visualize very distinct movement patterns as a learning aid. For me, that means drum patterns. The idea was to visualize playing new patterns to see if that could improve my skill without actually picking up a pair of drumsticks. I started this little self-experiment in mid-winter and I’m ready to report my (not so rigorous) results.
The first question was what to use for a test pattern. New drummers learn a vocabulary of sticking patterns called rudiments. There are dozens of them. Typically, they are learned on the snare drum. Later, the drummer might learn to “travel” with them, that is, move them around the drum kit using different drums. I know a lot of rudiments and I’ve practiced them for many years, but my earlier DIY experiments pointed up some interesting things with regards to symmetry and traveling, so that gave me a hint.
One of my favorite early rudiments was the paradiddle. These are straight quarter notes using a right-left-right sticking pattern like so:
RLRR LRLL RLRR LRLL
and so on. I added the spaces just so that you can see the repeated groupings. There is no pause when this is played, just straight quarter notes (and eventually eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and 32nd notes just before your wrists explode). Again, this is introduced using a single snare drum. A little more interesting are the double and triple paradiddles:
My second DIY post referred to some difficulty that I had trying to make symmetrical motions around my drum kit now that the kit is arranged in a symmetrical fashion (quite the opposite of a normal drum kit which is highly asymmetrical). Here is what my kit looks like from above:
(The typical kit would have a toms 1 and 2 directly in front where the hi-hat is and the hi-hat would be over where tom 2 is pictured. There would be no tom 3.)
So, I decided to try some symmetrical traveling sticking patterns to see where I stood (or sat, to be more precise). Seeing that I have three toms on each side, I decided to see how well I could travel with a triple paradiddle, each single stroke hitting one tom in turn, with the double stroke on the snare. The pattern is one of ascending pitches, moving from the sides toward the front. It looks like this (the numbers indicating the tom and a lower case s indicating the snare):
R6 L3 R5 L2 R4 L1 RsRs L3 R6 L2 R5 L1 R4 LsLs
You can also do this in reverse (descending pitches moving from front to back):
R4 L1 R5 L2 R6 L3 RsRs L1 R4 L2 R5 L3 R6 LsLs
Needless to say, this was a bit of a challenge. While I could do it, it required a very deliberate, slow motion. It was not fluid in the least. The results with a symmetrical traveling double paradiddle were, if anything, worse.
This is where the fun began. Each night at bedtime, I would close my eyes and picture my arms and hands moving from drum to drum to follow this pattern. That’s it. I never tried to practice this pattern on the kit. All I did was picture it in my head. After about a week of this visualizing I sat down at the kit. Quite literally, within a few minutes I was moving right along with the traveling symmetrical triple paradiddle. Granted, it was not perfect. It was not as fluid as if I played it solely on the snare or between the snare and just two toms as I had many times before, but it was a huge improvement over my initial attempt. Another interesting thing is that the double paradiddle version showed some improvement as well (but not as much). I was shocked at how dramatic the outcome was and I intend to try this with some things in the future. I am particularly curious if there’s anyone else out there who plays an instrument and has experienced this sort of thing.
In sum, preliminary results indicate that visualization works. You can increase the fluidity and speed of repeated movement patterns just by thinking about doing them.
Side note: Several months have passed since the initial trials and I have continued to practice the double and triple symmetrical traveling paradiddles. I can now do them almost reflexively, adding alternating hi-hat and kick drum beats underneath the pattern. I am reminded of Robert Fripp’s (guitarist, King Crimson) quote: “Start with the possible and move gradually toward the impossible.”