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Does Mental Practice Work?

It is said that legendary pianists Rubinstein and Horowitz weren’t always fond of practicing. Rubinstein simply didn’t like practicing for hours on end, while Horowitz supposedly feared that practicing on pianos other than his own would negatively affect his touch. Their solution? A healthy dose of mental practice.

Though many of us may never be legends, mental practice is something that all musicians can absolutely benefit from, regardless of skill level.

Have a concert coming up that you’re not ready for, but too tired to practice? Want to practice but can’t, because of a flare-up of tendonitis or a bad cold? Practice rooms full? Instrument in the shop? Too early/too late to practice? Only have 15 minutes, so it’s not really worth getting your instrument out of your locker, finding a practice room, and getting set up, only to have to quit a few minutes later?

Sound familiar?

Sure, but just imagining yourself playing can’t be the same as real physical practice, right?

 

You’re right. It’s not the same, but from studies of athletes, we know that successful individuals tend to engage in more systematic and extensive mental rehearsals than less successful individuals. Yes, I acknowledge that there are some differences between athletes and musicians – but not as many as you would think when it comes to the mental aspect of performance.

Furthermore, researchers are finding more neurological and physiological evidence to support what top athletes such as basketball great Larry Bird, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, and golfer Tiger Woods have known for years – that mental practice produces real changes and tangible improvements in performance. In one study, participants who mentally practiced a 5-finger sequence on an imaginary piano for two hours a day had the same neurological changes (and reduction in mistakes) as the participants who physically practiced the same passage on an actual piano. Some have suggested that mental practice activates the same brain regions as physical practice, and may even lead to the same changes in neural structure and synaptic connectivity.

In other words, there is growing evidence that mental practice (if done correctly), can absolutely make a difference in your playing.

My Experience with Mental Practice

I remember when I was 4 or 5, my Mom would put me down for a nap before performances, and tell me to lie quietly in my room mentally going over my performance note by note. I thought this was silly at the time, but it kind of stuck, and just became part of what I did.

I found out years later that this mental practice habit contributed to my developing a reputation in college for not practicing because I spent so little time at the practice rooms. Mostly, the reputation was true – I practiced maybe a couple hours a day at most and usually even less on the weekends. I heard that another violinist in my studio asked our teacher how I was able to play as well as I did despite practicing so little. She told him that most of my practicing took place in my head, so I didn’t need to spend as much time in the practice room. I don’t know how she knew this, but she was right. Off and on throughout the day, whether I was walking to class, eating, or just sitting around, I would often find myself inside my head, hearing whatever I was working on, seeing and feeling my fingers play the notes, trying out different fingerings or bowings, experimenting with shifts and finger pressures, correcting mistakes, all in my head. At the end of the day, I’d spend an hour or two going over the things I had already spent all day working on, and that would be the end of it.

In all honesty, I really should have practiced more, so I can’t endorse the idea of trying to get away with practicing only an hour or two a day (though you may wish to read this article on how to practice more efficiently). I also can’t promise that you will sound like a Rubinstein or Horowitz if you engage in more mental rehearsal, but I do know that if you don’t engage in mental practice, you are totally missing out on a tremendous tool for improving your playing.

Keys to Effective Mental Practice

The psychological literature on mental rehearsal suggests that there are two important keys to keep in mind when engaging in mental rehearsal – that it be systematic and vivid. In other words, mental practice is not the same as daydreaming, in the same way that practicing on autopilot is not very helpful. To be effective, it must be structured just as actual practice, with self-evaluation, problem solving, and correction of mistakes.

Some Guidelines on Mental Rehearsal

Here are some ideas on how to get started.

1. Calm down
Close your eyes. Focus only on your breathing for a minute. Breathe in slowly and fully through your nose, then breathe slowly out through your mouth. Then do a total body scan for tension: check your head and facial muscles, your jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, hands, back, hips, quads, hamstrings, calves, ankles, even toes. Let any tension you find just melt away.

2. Expand your focus
It can be anything – your instrument, the stand in your practice room, a specific wall. See it in your head. At first, it may not have much detail, or you may have trouble bringing it into focus. That’s ok, your goal is to take something small, make it more vivid, and begin to expand that vividness into the rest of your imagined environment. You’ll get better with practice.

3. Warm up
Imagine yourself playing scales or warming up with something easy. Can you hear yourself? Exactly the way it sounds? What do you feel? Can you feel your fingers, your arms, shoulders, lungs, throat, etc.? See how vividly you can mentally recall the kinesthetic elements involved in playing your instrument.

4. Imagine
See, feel, and hear yourself starting to play. Concentrate on the motions that produce the sounds and effects you want as you go through the music, note by note, phrase by phrase in your head. Keep “playing” until you make a mistake or feel the need to correct the way something sounded.

5. TiVo it
When you “hear” or “see” yourself play something that doesn’t sound like you want it to, immediately hit the pause button on your mental TiVo. Rewind to a place before the mistake. Start from that point, moving slowly forward, at a speed you can control. Repeat this process several times, just as you would in real practice, until you’re doing it correctly up to speed. Don’t just keep rewinding and trying it again mindlessly – make sure you hit pause, think about why the mistake happened, hit play, try it again, and then move on when you’re satisfied you got it down and know why the mistake happened in the first place.

6. Keep it real
It’s important to make the experience as vivid and real as you can – feel the instrument under your fingers, hands, lips. Really hear the sound, the textures, the volume. See the room around you and the instrument you are playing.

Additional Suggestions

When you use this technique, break it up into shorter segments, like phrases or shorter sections of the piece. You don’t always have to play straight through.

Try visualizing yourself in different locations, wearing different clothes, and in different conditions.

When you feel you’ve gotten the hang of mental practice, try testing yourself. Record yourself performing an excerpt, review and rate your performance, then run through a series of mental rehearsals of that excerpt taking notes about what you notice. Then perform again, review and rate your performance, and make note of what has changed.

Once you make systematic mental practice a part of your everyday practice routine, I am certain you’ll soon wonder how you ever did without it.

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Tired of inconsistent, sub-par performances?

Beyond PracticingHow do great artists perform with such apparent ease in front of packed houses? How do some musicians maintain their composure and consistently advance in even the toughest auditions?

Hard work and talent are important, of course. But once you get to a level where everyone is talented and everyone has done the work, it all comes down to a different set of skills. Mental skills that can be the difference between a sub-par performance, and one that you feel really good about.

Like any other skills, these too can be learned. And if you're interested, I'd like to show you how.

Comments

  1. Bernadette says

    Thanks very much. Very helpful suggestions for a busy working parent trying to also learn to play the piano!

  2. Frances Starling says

    I do this often with my singing. I can hear the music, once I have learned it, and sing it in my head without missing a note. Even to correcting that wrong note, If sung wrong. I don’t have a piano, but a song once learned and sung enough is re-called. My head sings it better than my voice, for when I open my mouth sometimes the sound is not as pretty as it should be. Age has alot to do with this, and the fact that I am 72 years old and do not perform as I have in the past. Maybe more practice with the voice, instead of in my head?

    • says

      Hello Frances,

      You’re not alone in finding that often we are capable of sounding better in our heads than in real life – though it’s always surprising to me how many mistakes we make even in our own minds.

      Have you ever tried mental practice with a primary focus on kinesthetic sensations? Meaning, rather than being focused on sound when engaging in mental practice, to focus also on what it feels like when you are singing optimally – i.e. to practice recreating the physical sensations and muscle activation patterns which occur when you are singing your very best?

  3. L. Rochefort says

    Hello,

    Thanks a lot for all this very useful information. I’m in a kind of transformation as a music student, seeking for everything that can improve my performances and especially my time inside the practice room.

    I’ve just started applying this technique, and as soon as I “played” a difficult passage in my head, I could realise that my body was getting tense playing those notes! Now I’ll try to do this every day, before I go to practice. It’s very useful!

    Many thanks!

    L. Rochefort

  4. Graeme says

    Dr. Kageyama,

    First of all, I love reading your articles. They are all very helpful and insightful, and I have already implemented some of your suggestions, such as keeping a practice notebook.

    I was particularly excited about the idea of mental practice because I will be in Japan without my clarinet later this month. A few logistical questions: When I do use mental practice, should I have sheet music in front of me, or should it all be from memory? Do you recommend keeping your eyes closed the whole time? How long should a typical mental practice session last? And when have access to both an imaginary clarinet and my real one in the same day, should I allow for much time between my real practice and my mental practice? Should I mental practice before/after I real practice?

    Forgive me for the barrage of questions, and thank you very much!

    Graeme

    • says

      Graeme,

      Mental practice is a lot like regular physical practice, and can be structured similarly. If you are working on memorization, then certainly, you’d want to practice from memory. On the other hand, if you’re learning a new piece or just working through different passages, you could practice with your music in front of you. For me personally, it’s difficult to keep mental practice vivid if my eyes are open, but I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule about whether eyes open or closed is better (eyes closed is generally what you will see described in the literature though).

      At first, I’d encourage you to keep mental practice sessions shorter so that you don’t get burned out, or lose focus. As you develop greater mental stamina and the ability to stay focused on practicing productively in your head, sessions can be longer.

      And when you have both a real clarinet and your imaginary one on the same day, given the circumstances you describe, you could probably give your imaginary clarinet a break that day. Under normal circumstances I would encourage you to integrate the two, i.e. play through a passage, rate yourself and write down observations, then run through a few mental practice runs to work out kinks and get it sounding exactly like you want, then playing it on your real clarinet, rate/write down observations again, and so on.

      Have a great trip!

  5. Mary Titus says

    Mental practice is so very important. You must know your music mentally, it’s construction, keys and key changes. I’ve had students who would prepare repertoire with chunks of scales that they are familiar with but have no idea that they are playing scales until I make them look at the runs. Then they realize that all they are doing is playing a simple C Major scale then the particular passage is played with very little effort. We live in a society that does not have time to waste time. When I am working on my jazz pieces I will spend hours writing out the changes and writing what keys work the best with the changes. I enjoy playing my axe more when I don’t have to stress about what works best with a Bb7 chord.

  6. A says

    Many thanks for this article. I’m always looking for ways to improve my musicianship when I don’t have my instrument to hand. I am so excited about trying this!

  7. Danijel says

    Hello!
    I’m a student and I play double bass. I’m doing mental practice for half year and I can tell you that it is a gratest thing/ idea that I’ve ever apply in my every day practice! More you do it easier it is. I’m so happy that you post this on your site, so now more people can, and know how to ,use their genious brain and body in a best way.
    From my experience, I would just add some details:
    - metronome while doing mental practice
    - well breathing( while m. playing hard passages)
    - end extra tip that I got in Alexander technique class: Put your hands on a table with your palms up and put some heavy book( more more) on each of your palms. Also, I recommend to put some rag or textile on the table. I do this during my mental practice because then arm muscels are in their full lenght and mostly important relaxed! DONT FORGET TO BREATH WELL AND HAVE YOUR BACK STRAIGHT!

    - also, mental practice is so much easier after doing Brain gym. Very simple and effective. Paul E. Dennison wrote few books on it. I RECOMMEND!

    Dr. Kageyama God bless you and your work!

    P.S.
    Would love to hear a comment on my comment!

    Danijel Radanović, Croatia

  8. says

    Last year I had to perform a major Liszt organ work for my end-of-semester jury. I had played the piece with score in concert in the preceding months and it hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped. But this jury was to be by memory — the first time I had ever performed it that way!

    That morning, I was moved to devote my time entirely to mental practice. Something in me said “keyboard practice won’t accomplish anything new at this point. Mental practice will prepare you in a different and very decisive way.” I continually set aside my panic-based resistance to the idea (“WHAT?! no real practicing?!”) and set to work.

    I sat on my bed and studied the score, noting harmonies, structural elements, intervallic relationships, melodic shapes, sequential formulae… I then closed my eyes and thought through each of these elements by memory. I visualized myself playing each passage, moving my fingers through the fingerings and being mentally aware of each in memory. I also mentally rehearsed all changes of registration, the physical movement required for each and how it would be timed and fitted into playing the music.

    The end result was that, even though I was playing this piece by memory for the first time in front of other people, this performance went better than the ones I had done earlier with score! And that was after only one mental practice session, on the very day of this performance. What if I had been doing them regularly for months before then?

    • says

      Hi Timothy,

      This is a great description of mental rehearsal – thanks for posting! The key here is how vivid you made the experience of “playing” in your imagination. All the little tiny details, the kinesthetic sensations, were all part of the experience, and that really seems to be the key to successful mental rehearsal.

  9. Lee Koss says

    Yes, I agree that mental practice works. Daniel Coyle’s book “Talent isn’t born, It’s made, Here’s how” reports about brain research that supports this idea. He writes that when someone learns something challenging and interesting (this is very important), specialized neurons in the brain lay down myelin along the neural pathway for that task. This permits us to play with increasing speed. Also, it is very important to begin practice of a piece on a different page each day or to use different rhythms and articulation patterns to keep the music fresh (credit to Michel Debost). When I taught woodwinds in the public schools I would have students play along with their peers, fingering on a drumstick, if they forgot their instrument at home. I could “see” whether the students knew their parts. The drumstick approximated the length of their instrument and the students knew that I would be watching their fingers. Of course, only actual playing improves tone but at least this way the students were concentrating and laying down a little bit of myelin as well. I think that this style of practicing helps to develop “inner hearing,” too.

  10. Andrea says

    Dr. Kageyama,

    I have teachers that recommend this type of mental practice. I do use it sometimes and I do an active practice on the keyboard, thinking of what I’m doing, not automatically… (my practice routine is like three times more efficient than other students!! it’s only about thinking and not about time, it’s true:)!!)
    Your article was very helpful. But I was wondering… is mental practice more efficient than “real” practice whe you are starting a piece? My sight reading has improved a lot and that obviously helps me whem I’m starting a new piece, but I don’t know how to accelerate that process of learning a new piece….

    Sorry for my bad english and my poor vocabulary! I hope you understand me!

    Andrea

    • says

      Hi Andrea,

      There’s no substitute for “real” practice, so mental practice isn’t necessarily more efficient per se when you’re trying to accelerate learning of a new piece. However, too often we wait too long to decide what we really want a piece to sound like, which ends up being more inefficient in the long run.

      What I mean is we start off just trying to learn the notes and rhythm and other technical details with no regard for what we really want the piece to sound like. And then when the technical details are in place, we then think about adding “musicality” to it. But that then fundamentally changes the piece, and we have to learn how to play it in this new way with a whole new set of technical challenges. Better in the long run to figure out how we really want it to sound first, and then work towards that from day 1.

      And that’s where mental practice can come into play and accelerate our progress in the long run – by giving ourselves a clear picture of how we want things to sound even though we can’t yet play it that way on our instrument.

  11. Kate says

    Thank you for this article. The past years or so I have been working at figuring out how to practice most efficiently; I am attempting to study two instruments (flute & piano) seriously and figured I couldn’t afford to waste time in mindless practicing (I just found your website the other day and am so far finding it useful and confirming in this endeavour!). In this journey I had started spending my (substantial) time on the bus working on my music in my mind, and in the last couple of months I have started to find it really working for me, and appreciate hearing essentially exactly what I’ve been doing given as advice. What I’ve actually found this to be most useful with is solidifying memory. Only looking down at the notes when the bus is at a complete stop I can accomplish as much in a 45 minute bus ride as in a couple of hours with the instrument in my hands.

  12. Leo says

    Hi, all–

    During mental play, I have difficulty envisioning a wide enough area of the keyboard to really see both hands effectively. Sometimes I raise the point of view to a greater height over the keyboard, but then I start to lose the “visual” detail within each hand. Or I my focus gets so tight on one hand, I lose “vision” of the other.

    Part of the reason, I believe, is that when actually playing, you can’t necessarily see/focus on both hands simultaneously. You typically have one hand in visual focus, and the other hand is only seen peripherally or coordinated tactilely and not visually at all.

    So perhaps mental play SHOULD be an envisioning/practicing of this visual asymmetry?

    Was wondering how folks approach this. What precisely do you envision? How do you envision both hands? Are they both “in focus”? Do you try to replicate the exact, asymmetical visual experience of being at the piano?

    Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Leo,

      My take is that it would depend on what you are doing mental practice for. Meaning, if you are working on running a piece in your head for some mental performance practice, you’d want to create the same experience you would have if playing physically. So you would be focusing on whatever you’d focus on in a real performance – at times looking at one hand, at times both, at times perhaps neither.

      On the other hand (does that count as a pun?), when engaging in mental practice for practice purposes, you may really take a closer look at a hand that you don’t generally pay much attention to, so as to clean up a technical error, or bring greater awareness to something that isn’t working quite right.

  13. mary T. says

    When I do mental practice, I do it with the music in mind. I don’t think about what my hands should be doing. I think about what is going on in the music. Often 8 measures of runs turn out to be simple fragments of scales. Like in jazz, a measure can be based on 1 particular keyfully understanding that key can easily make that measure into one note instead of many. Listening is a very good way to practice with the mind. Listening to a piece repeatedly, without even playing it physically, can speed up the learning process. ALso, a series of key changes can move methodically. Such as a series of runs in one key can be repeated in another key that has moved down 1/2 step. I use mental practice as a means of “seeing” the piece without memorizing.

  14. Beyla Kaythin says

    Actually this works really well! I already tended to go over whatever I just practised whenever I was finished, especially because I usually practise just before sleep (which hasn’t rarely resulted in dreams of piano keys, haha).
    Funnily enough I make the same mistakes when mentally practising as when actually playing, which proves to me that the deficiencies aren’t really in my hands, fingers, etc. but in my brain itself! (I can move my hands and fingers pretty fast and pretty accurately (like when typing), and because I also draw and paint a lot the fine motor skills of my right hand are great. But yet I hit wrong notes and am unable to play fast, let alone with two hands together. This puzzled me for a long time, until I realized it’s not my body where it goes wrong, but in my brain!)
    I thought at first that when playing something mentally I would be able to play ANYTHING flawlessly, which is wrong! I can HEAR it in my head flawlessly, but cannot imagine the keys, fingering, movements, notes, etc. at ALL unless I’ve actually done it physically first. For me Mental Play is very useful and also pretty fun (because I don’t get tired, can replay any time, etc.) and you can do it ANYWHERE, ANYTIME! (which is terrific during boring maths lessons, I tell you XD though I have to be careful not to look too much ‘zoned-out’ as I tend to drop into some sort of a ‘trance’ when I’m practising something with Mental Play)

    I was also wondering something… ehm… well… I am afraid I sound terribly psycho when saying this; but… is hearing music in your head… well… ahem… normal? (it’s not some weird form of schizophrenia, right?) And with this I don’t mean ‘having a song stuck in your head’, like something you heard on the radio or something, but DIFFERENT music! The best way to describe it is that it feels like having an orchestra locked up inside your head of which you aren’t the conductor, nor the composer of the music it plays. (which CAN be great, but also pretty annoying, like lately I had this gorgeous song playing during a PHYSICS test, which made it impossible to concentrate on the test P_P *sigh*)
    But anyway, that has been one of the reasons for me to pick up learning music, as I tell you… nothing is more frustrating than hearing music ’round the clock and NOT BEING ABLE TO PLAY IT! Argh! (nor being able to REplay it, as my brain never is kind enough to put it on repeat, unfortunately. Only known songs keep looping around and around now and again, while I can listen THOSE anytime I want. Speaking of annoying!)

    • Connie says

      i’m pretty sure you are composing in your head. this sounds like what most composers describe is going on all the time mentally in their heads, which they say is sometimes quite annoying. hope this helps. write down the music, before you lose something great! if you can’t write it down, hum it and record it.

  15. says

    Dr. Kageyama,

    Just discovered your excellent blog! Thank you! I have been performing as “Barra the Bard” for 24 years, as a traditional Celtic storyteller specializing in Scottish and Welsh tales, myths, legends, folklore and music, as well as being a writer, poet, blogger, harper and workshop leader.I do many kinds of programs, often of multicultural, historical, and/or family/personal tales, and for the past few years have begun finally approaching my initial goal of combining my telling with harping, poetry, and singing. With over 5,000 tales of all kinds in my repertoire, it has been very frustrating to me to have such difficulty in memorizing music! I can learn a new story by hearing it once and retelling the bones of it within 24 hours; a written story takes only slightly longer; a song I’m singing takes about 2 weeks–but memorizing and *keeping* a piece in my memory and fingers on the harp strings is far more difficult! I’m about an intermediate on lever harp, and admit that I don’t practice regularly or consistently enough physically. OTOH, what stood out to me in reading your post was that Mental Practicing applies in other ways; I realized I’ve been doing it all my life in regards to stories (my own original fiction as well as traditional tales), rhyming games just before I slept as a teenager obsessed with poetry, working on songs in the shower or doing dishes, etc. The hard part will be applying it to harp music, but I’m excited to try! Thank you again!

  16. Chris says

    Thanks for an informative article!
    I have a strange experience during mental practice. What I see often resembles a video with frames missing. Also, I see random changes in the level of clarity; the “movie” becomes blurry. I was wondering if you had any strategies or insights into refining this process.
    Thanks again, you are providing a great service.

    • says

      Hi Chris,

      Visualization is a skill like any other, so what you experience isn’t too uncommon. We see (and hear) the things around us all the time, but often don’t really “see” what’s there. For instance, try looking at a bowl of fruit, and then recreating it exactly in your mind. You’ll probably notice that many details are missing. Then look closer, and try to fill in the gaps, then try again to recreate in your mind. Same sort of exercise can help clarify your mental movies.

    • says

      Hi Martin,

      I don’t know that there are any books on mental practice specifically for musicians, but Steven Ungerleider’s “Mental Training for Peak Performance” might be a good place to start.

  17. Katy says

    I find mental practice very helpful and do it a lot when I don’t have my instrument and am preparing for a performance. I do not play with written music, usually learn by ear without any score. I do read music and sometimes will start that way, but quickly move away from the paper once I have something in my head. I do not consider the process memorization, but rather getting to the point of knowing the piece and feeling the music internally. I am wondering if you have any comments on a related issue and that is with difficulty keeping my mind focused on the music When I am actually playing my real instrument? Any ideas on how to improve in this area? Similar to when you drive somewhere and then realize you have no memory of actually making those turns. I may find that although I am playing something, my mind is thinking of something totally different. Then I forget if I have played a repeat already or if I should go on to the next section or the like. Do you know of any exercise to help keep the brain in the zone and really focused on the music and not wander off?

    Thanks so much.

  18. Mark Williamson says

    Hello Dr Noa Kageyama, Thanks for an excellent website with many fine articles.

    A introductory book on mental practice is by Malva A Freymuth: “Mental Practice & Imagery For Musicians”. Last look unfortunately out of print, available through some good music libraries.

    I’ve pushed this technique for a long time. Mandatory and very helpful indeed. However examining its strong practitioners the balance of “hands on work” and “mental work” does need consideration. In effect focusing on real kinesthetic detail is dependent on having done the very similar beforehand. And knowing where and how you build “instrumental ease” is difficult without instrumental work. The reason Luigi Bonpensiere becomes so difficult.

    I remember a “quote” from Glen Gould talking about a recording he made of a late Brahms
    intermezzo I think Glen said that he had learn’t the intermezzo entirely by mental means and the first time he had played it was in the recording studio. The telling comment came next. “As soon as I started playing it a second time it has started to change!” Wonderful as the first take was. As I remember it: all in “The Alchemist by Bruno Monsaingeon”. And related: late Gould recordings to my ears do display a weakened sound control. I have similar experience listening to the other great mental workers in comparison to the “at the instrument” fellows. Which is not to say that mental work isn’t very important.

    Another aspect of this is the difference between the “pre-recordings” era musicians and the present day. I suspect that with few or no recordings about mental took on a different
    perspective. It possibly was more intense and “personally” formed. Each interval, harmony and rhythmic shape was known personally as opposed to being formed from a recorded sound. Going through a score may have been quiet a different process and put a different framework in place for knowing and relating to sound. And related the often introverted performances I hear in early recordings may have been an important part of that era’s music study paradigm.

    Do you have any experiences or thoughts on these observations? mw

  19. Stewart Ross says

    My dissertation for my PH.D. in Music Education at Northwestern U. in 1985 was an experiment using mental practice with high level trombone players. It was published in the Journal of Research in Music Education. It was one of the first dissertations ever completed with musicians using mental practice and imagery. Many were already done in sports.

    We found that mental practice was as good as physical practice if placed between two physical practices for more advanced instrumentalists. This is important for brass players and others who cannot play 4-5 hours a day like pianists or even violinists.

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