The most important skill a musician needs to possess is the ability to imagine the music with the inner ear. Playing music, and especially playing piano is a very intense activity. The performer needs to read the music notation for both notes and rhythms, remember the fingering, plan and synchronize the motions of the back, legs, arms and fingers. At the same time, the performer must not forget to breathe and manage to track all those notes and body movements with the eyes.
For students, it is often a lengthy process just to get to the point of having all that activity in place. And then they plateau unless someone points out that the purpose of playing music is not solely the physical activity. All the notes can be played right and still sound wrong, if there is no meaning.
I often ask the students to play sections of melody or layers of texture in an unusual context, extracting something in such a way that the student can’t rely on muscle memory. We often end up realizing that the student has never experienced hearing the assigned melody or doesn’t remember all the details of how it goes.
Another mental exercise I propose is to imagine that “your” hands represent an orchestra that has the best musicians in the world who can play anything. All you have to do is to communicate to them how you want them to play. This exercise will challenge the student’s imagination and inner ear, and many will realize that they have actually not given a thought to how a certain element or the whole texture should sound.
Lastly, singing a certain melody often helps, although our ability to imitate multiple instruments as well as the range of our voice is so limited that sometimes it is difficult to sing throughout the entire instrumental piece. Singing, however, helps to synchronize the body and the mind: respond to the projected sound and coordinate breathing and body movements.
Activating the inner ear and being able to imagine and mentally predict long sections of music takes practice: first, we can only focus on certain melodies; later, we can start imagining chords and textures and finally we will imagine a variety of timbres and sound production techniques that we can draw from when playing our own instrument. This incremental work will take time but will pay off in many ways: how we experience hearing music, how our reading or memorization becomes faster, and how we are able to play music with others.