Since summer has begun, I have been away from my piano more than I am near it; an unfortunate circumstance considering my internal drive for progress. Although not entirely related, my current situation made reminisce of an old teacher with whom I studied. Whenever a beautiful day would come along, one of those days that are just too enticing to just stay inside, she would encourage me to take my scores, sit under a tree, and study them mentally. The concept seemed novel, but at the time I lacked the certain skills to make it beneficial. Needless to say, I never found myself doing much score study, but I did take away one idea; it is possible to practice away from my instrument and/or build my musicianship skills independent of an actual medium (i.e. purely mental).
Rhythm is the easiest area to study independently from an instrument. Simply running through various permutations of patterns can yield great benefits for musicianship skills. Another approach is to take the piece you are work on and practice the rhythm, thereby solidifying this aspect independent of the notes (of course, it’s always possible to keep the notes in mind). One of my favorite drills is to practice my polyrhythms, anywhere, anytime (practice a polyrhythm to the beat of your footsteps).
Depending on your location, making actual sound may not be a wise decision, which means that you must try to internalize pitch cognitively. This, to me, is an extremely hard exercise, but probably the most pertinent to development. After a while of running through lines mentally, the clarity of the pitches will become greater, and will translate to a better auditory understanding. The difference between a good player and a great player is the ability to lucidly hear the music, every line, harmony, and the interdependence of the notes.
A coveted skill, the ability to memorize away from a medium, and for a very good reason, it can save a tremendous amount of time. I like to run through pieces mentally, and see myself playing the notes, and even internalize the mental feeling of fingers, hands, arm, and my entire body moving. I find that after a while, when I think of how I would play something, I start to hear it, and in most cases it happens simultaneously (I.e. playing is linked with hearing). I find it even possible to work out technical passages quite easily away from the piano, this, of course, does require a certain level of technical ability, or at least a good mental representation of how the piano feels (just like how you don’t need to walk on ice to know the feeling.)
One of my favorite pastimes is sitting down with music that I don’t know, and sight reading the piece, and in this case, I visualize myself playing, as well as creating a concept of what the piece sounds like. To look at a score, and hear everything, as if reading a book; Isn’t that every musicians dream? It certainly is one of mine.
Something that can aid this, is to actually listen to music. That is, lots of music, and try to decipher it as quick as you possibly can. I typically like to take my time away from the piano to listen to the artists I want to hear, and remind myself why I continually strive to be a better musician day in and day out. Of course, it’s always a good idea to get back to your instrument and see if any of your score study has helped.