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Deliberate Practice Strategies — Part 3: Mental Representation by Sean Millman

May 26, 2021, 07:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

Visualization is perhaps the most well-known mental preparation strategy among musicians; envisioning oneself playing successfully is a near-ubiquitous piece of advice from teachers and colleagues. It is a part of what Anders Ericsson called the mental representation, which simply refers to performers’ cognitive understanding of their best possible performance. 

Nearly two decades ago, Holmes and Collins codified this strategy in what they called the PETTLEP Model of Motor Learning (Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2001). The graphic below (Wakefield and Smith, “Perfecting Practice,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2012) depicts this model, which encompasses seven elements that need to be accounted for in a mental ideal of correct performance: physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective. 

The PETTLEP Model of Motor Imagery

Millman Image Part 3

Physical refers to the player’s body, incorporating both how it looks and feels to perform correctly. For us as percussionists, this includes things like body position, posture, technique, and grip pressure. In the marching arts, this includes visual technique. For drummers, timpanists, and vibraphonists, the player’s feet need to be included in consideration. 

I noted in the last article that I would include the OPTIMAL theory’s external focus concept (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2016): Wulf and Lewthwaite state that mental focuses that point “away from one’s body parts or self and to the intended movement effect have consistently been found to have an enhancing effect on performance and learning.” Examples of applying this include focusing on what the sticks are doing rather than the hands, or on the kick pedal beater instead of the foot. This is not to suggest total ignorance of what one’s body is doing throughout the process; this external focus is primarily for the performance state, not the analysis state. 

Environment refers to getting as detailed a picture of the performance venue as possible, including size, lighting, acoustics, temperature, the smell in the room, even the type of dress and attitude of the audience. The goal here is to create as much of the setting as possible, in which to place the visualized performance.

Task is simple: what is the performer attempting to accomplish? This is where the music itself is added. The task and physical elements are linked, since the music is played by the body. This exemplifies the linkage between all seven points; the PETTLEP model is a way to get to a unified whole of a visualized ideal performance rather than merely a seven-point checkbox list of unrelated points.

Timing obviously has a particular relevance for musicians, doubly so for drummers and percussionists. One obvious question is, “Should I be imaging at full speed or at the tempo at which I’m currently practicing?” This is an element where the research isn’t yet complete, but with what has been done thus far, it looks promising to say “both.” A full-speed representation can function as both a guiding goal with which to aspire, and a reality check when technique decisions are being made. This can prevent a student, or even seasoned pro, from relying too heavily on the techniques that would be correct at 70% of performance tempo, then having to make an unexpected muscle-group shift on the fly. 

The learning element means to take into account the relationship between this single performance and the player’s experience with the same music, articulating the difference between a single moment in time and the longer story of improvement.

Emotion, for most performers, is related to how the task makes them personally feel and what mental state they would like to be in — what sport psychologists sometimes refer to as arousal. This emotion element for musicians can also encompass the emotion that the player would like to encode into the performance; certainly, what the player wants the audience to feel and what the player feels are not always the same.

Finally, perspective refers simply to whether the visualization is being done from a first- or third-person viewpoint. Both are valuable, but each has its separate uses, and one may be more appropriate than the other, given the type of music being prepared. For example, marching percussionists may benefit more from a third-person view because of the visual emphasis of that domain. Onstage soloists and students approaching recitals likewise will benefit from a third-person perspective as they curate how they intend to make their performance connect with an audience. Players on the orchestral audition circuit, or those working in musical theatre in dark pits or remote rooms, have little interest in how their performance looks and thus are likely to focus more on the first-person view. 

Once all of these elements are individually accounted for, players can create a single, unified mental video of their own body, in the performance space, playing the music, in correct time, in relation to improvement, with their mental state and intended emotional impact, from both first- and third-person perspectives. That’s a lot of information and data points, which is why the PETTLEP model is valuable as a reminder of all the many things that need to be included in order for a mental representation to be effective. 

As one final element of the mental representation, there is a concept called domain-specific knowledge, associated with the chess studies of Adriaan de Groot. The idea as applied for musicians is that there are non-performance data points that contribute to improvement in performance. In our world, this includes things like how certain gear sounds (e.g., “That marimba is brighter than the one I usually play on, so I may need to use mallets that are softer or heavier”), how different gear feels to play on (“This club’s house kick pedal is way too loose; I should remember to bring mine”), or even colleague preferences (“We have a sub on keys tonight? I should keep my vibe solo in the last tune simpler so it’s easier to follow”). This is also where the universal importance of being a well-listened musician fits into this model; stylistic knowledge, tempo and dynamic expectations, and fluency in diverse genres all falls into this domain-specific knowledge category that might not always go into the visualized version on the representation, but is the contextual foundation supporting it. 

Sean MillmanSean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt and freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at

This series examines and applies elements from the author's forthcoming dissertation "A Deliberate Practice Loop for Music Performance Training," to be completed this year.

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