Mental Practice: How to Sing Without Making a Sound

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


“Mental practice is anything that doesn’t directly involve playing your instrument.”
Jonathan Harnum


Not just a plan B when you don’t want someone to hear you, this is a genuine, effective, worthwhile practice strategy.  It is my #1 piece of advice when singers ask me how to still be ready for a deadline even though they are recovering from a cold or tired from a long week of work meetings or even lying on the couch with fractured ribs!


“The worth of this practice regimen lies in its ability to sharpen the mind without tiring the body.”
Lynn Helding


Isn’t that the best news you’ve ever heard?  Just because your physical and portable musical instrument needs a break from being played, doesn’t automatically mean you can’t practice at all.  The only time I would say you shouldn’t even do mental practice, is if your mind is too tired to create the thoughts and intentions that you want to encode into muscle memory.

To get maximum benefit from mental practice, you will need to ensure that you are imagining with as much focus and purpose as you would when practicing aloud. The best thing is that by doing so, you will genuinely exercise the muscles and coordination of ALL the systems of your mind and body involved in singing. And there will be ample opportunity to still make small errors and correct them. Try this with me…vividly imagine yourself saying “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Did you notice the impulse of your tongue and lips as they received instructions from your brain and were ready to move? A number of research studies have been conducted and showed more surprising results than any of us could dare hope for.

Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard discovered evidence of what we sense in ourselves.  He conducted a research experiment with musicians, where one group or participants literally practiced a piano piece, and the second group actively thought about playing the piece. His examination of their brain scans led to this observation:


“This kind of purely mental practice showed an equally pronounced change in the same region of the motor cortex as those who actually played the instrument when practicing!”

Jonathan Harnum, quoting Alvaro Pascual-Leone







“Imagine in energetic detail how you want the specific passage to feel.”

William Westney



“Make no actual movements or sounds but take yourself to the edge of your imagination. Likewise, practice with maximal effort. If any technique or portion of your program is physically difficult, go deep into this difficulty rather than imagining yourself cruising past it. Know that you are accessing the motor program for the real deal. This should be a real workout for your brain cells.”

Lynn Helding



There is really no area of your musical discovery, development and delivery that cannot successfully incorporate mental practice. Here are some examples:




Harnum adds a fabulous idea… “imagining someone you admire greatly is in the practice room listening to you closely”. This will stimulate your adrenal arousal and give you and opportunity to imagine your steps for regaining a lower state of excitement, continuing your pre-performance routine, and performing the song.



Hopefully, these thoughts have persuaded you to start planning how you could use mental practice straight away. You probably already noticed a few ways you’re already using it and know it can do even more for you. Adapt these suggestions to your routines and ways of learning and exploring your vocal instrument. The sky is the limit.


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Harnum, J. (2014). The Practice of Practice. Sol Ut Press
Helding, L. (2020). The Musician’s Mind: Teaching, Learning and Performance in the Age of Brain Science. Rowman & Littlefield
Photo by J. Balla Photography on  Unsplash
Westney, W. (2003). The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus Press

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