Mindfulness as a musician

There are many conflicting views on mindfulness.

There is the Buddhist perspective, that it leads us out of suffering.  (Take a look at this book, a fascinating read that I enjoy.)

There is the business perspective, that it makes us more effective at our jobs: https://hbr.org/2014/03/mindfulness-in-the-age-of-complexity

There is the perspective that it harms us: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill.

And there is also the constant media-induced craze, making it the newest health trend.

While I generally do not believe it harms us, that its purpose is not to make us perform better at making money for our CEOs, and that it should not be the latest craze, I do believe that it can make our lives more meaningful.

However, I would like to focus in this post on how it can help us as musicians.

Mindfulness, in its most distilled form, is awareness.  It is observing each moment as wide-eyed and aware as you can, and always getting better at it.  Mindfulness is both something one can learn, and something that one is always learning.

For example, if you are seated somewhere, be still for a moment after reading this paragraph.  Notice your breaths in through your nose, out of your mouth; your posture in your seat; the ambient sounds around you; the tension in your muscles; the thoughts you think–in and out, just passing through; your emotions, and where they come from physically in your body; etc.  All you have to do is see–see yourself, the world around you, the things inside of you, all in the moment.  That is the core of mindfulness.

As you can guess, the previous paragraph was a combination of at least a dozen different practices of mindfulness that could each take minutes to do and years to master. The goal is, however, to not spend minutes or years in meditation–the goal is to live mindfully.

Living mindfully is a great goal, but mindfulness as musicians is a specific set of skills that can be honed.

Take the example of the practice room:

We all struggle with hard passages on our instrument or voice.  The most idiomatic passages for our instrument can seem difficult, not to mention the most esoteric ones that cause us even more frustration.

What do we do when we encounter those passages when we practice?  Do we keep running through the piece at large, glossing over the passage?  Do we run through the passage, in one fell swoop?  Do we practice note-by-note?  Slowly?  Starting and stopping with each mistake, only to start again?

If we are aware of each moment–if we see each moment, we observe these different modes of practicing: “now I am encountering a difficult passage”; “now I want to just gloss over it”; “now I see that it is too fast for me”; “now I see that slow practice works for this, but there are two leaps that cause me trouble”; “now I feel my fingers extending for the leap”; “now I feel how I breathe at the leap”; “now I hear my intonation on the two notes”; “now I hear the slide between the notes”; “now I feel frustration”, etc.  It is amazing how just recognizing–seeing–the things around us and within us can transform practicing a difficult passage.

This is one example of potential thoughts while being mindful.  There are, of course, countless other possibilities.  The point is that one is aware of everything–one’s routine, one’s flaws, one’s thoughts, actions, emotions, pressures, physical sensations, everything, moment to moment.

This pertains to groups and interpersonal relationships–chamber music, ensembles, conducting, auditions, etc. Observe your emotions before an audition.  Notice the way different students react to and learn from (or learn less effectively from) the same teaching strategy.  Listen to the chatter in your ensemble as you talk to a section about intonation.  See the tense face a member of your chamber music group makes when the other members exclude him/her from decision-making.

These observations are not prescriptive–they will not tell you what to do in these situations, but they will tell you what is out there.  You can make more well-informed decisions, even if those decisions turn out to be detrimental.  And this may make your ensemble tighter, make your students learn more wholly, or make you try something that fails abjectly.  But, those decisions are entirely yours, and you are more likely to understand what works, what will work, what doesn’t work, what will not work, and perhaps why.

You can apply mindfulness to all aspects of being a musician.  However, the goal is not to become a virtuoso in music through mindfulness.  Mindfulness, when practiced, enhances one’s experience in life, and in music.  Mindfulness will not make you the best you can be as a musician, and it cannot make you better than your colleagues.  But, it will make your life as a musician better.

In all, I am not qualified to provide further mindfulness insight.  I am just learning myself.  Seek out mindfulness training, but beware of the motives behind it.  It is not going to make you happy all the time.  It is not going to make you rich, or help you find the secrets to life.  It is, however, going to give you a better quality of life.  And a more informed session in the practice room.

Happy composing,


P.S. I am deliberately not including photos of nature or people in yoga poses (haha).  The photo in the header is of a Max/MSP patch I made, that may be abstractly construed as an approximation of neurons in a brain.

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