From 2007 to 2014, I taught an undergraduate course on mindfulness at Indiana University Bloomington that was academic yet also highly experiential. (Not surprisingly, a number of talented IU Jacobs School of Music students took my class through the years.) So it won’t come as a surprise that I will be exploring mindfulness and its relationship to piano pedagogy in this blog. First, an overview of the potential relevance of mindfulness to various aspects of piano playing.
Since its introduction into mainstream Western culture in the 1970s, mindfulness has exploded in popularity. Mindfulness, which is non-judgmental awareness of one’s present moment experience, has been extensively researched and applied in healthcare and psychotherapy, K-12 education, the corporate world, and even the military.
I believe that mindfulness is highly beneficial for musicians too. In this post I’ll explore how pianists can apply mindfulness:
- To reduce stress
- To increase concentration
- To improve technique
- To better convey the emotional content of music
- To reduce the impact of negative thoughts on practicing
- To reduce performance anxiety
- As a teaching strategy
This list is not comprehensive. Indeed, I think it’s likely that there are applications of mindfulness to music that have not yet been contemplated.
Mindfulness as a Stress Reduction Practice
Though its roots are in Buddhism as a spiritual practice, mindfulness has entered secular Western culture first and foremost as a stress reduction practice.
In the hundreds of hospitals and medical clinics where mindfulness is now taught as a stress reduction practice, it is presented in a secular form, almost entirely stripped of its original spiritual roots. This is not unlike yoga as taught in the West, which has also been stripped of its own spiritual roots (for better or worse).
The best-known secular formulation of mindfulness is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts. Extensively researched for its potential benefits for everything from heart disease to depression, by 2014 over 100 randomized controlled trials involving MBSR had been published.
The relevance of stress reduction to musicians, both professionals and amateurs, is obvious. We live with more stress than any previous generation in human history. Cultivating a practice of mindfulness for stress reduction, in addition to other important lifestyle choices such as regular exercise and nourishing sleep, will be beneficial for just about any musician.
Mindfulness as a Concentration Practice
Musicians are no different than anyone else – our minds wander and we may sometimes (or often) find that our attention to the music we are playing has lapsed. Or we may be less than completely present and focused in a lesson with our teacher. Worst of all, we may find ourselves spacing out in the middle of a performance!
Mindfulness enhances our ability to concentrate and return our attention to the present moment. This is an invaluable ability, because we have all been conditioned – though we may not be aware of it – to be distracted from the present moment by giving so much attention to thoughts.
While musicians may have better concentration then the average non-musician, most musicians can improve on this score. Improving our ability to concentrate can only benefit our practicing and music-making.
Mindfulness as an Adjunct to Healthy Technique
One of my own mindfulness teachers said that mindfulness should more accurately be called bodyfulness.
Why? Because so much of the practice involves paying attention to breathing and other bodily sensations.
Obviously, healthy piano playing requires awareness of the body, including breathing (or our tendency to hold our breathing), how our playing affects the body, and how the way we move the body shapes the music we play.
Piano technique is a vast subject. That said, I think it’s obvious that the more body awareness we have, the easier it will be to establish and refine our technique.
And of course, when it comes to prevention of injury, body awareness is crucial.
Awareness of the body is fundamental to the cutting-edge “body mapping” technique of piano playing.
Emotional Intelligence and Musical Interpretation
A strong and steady practice of mindfulness not only takes us more deeply into our bodily experience, but into our emotional experience. Mindfulness establishes an allowing, accepting space for the natural turbulence of emotions. This may sometimes involve opening to feelings that we have long repressed. While this may not always be pleasant, the rewards are worth it. By giving us admission to the full range of our emotions, mindfulness helps us to convey more profound and resonant musical interpretations.
Put another way, mindfulness enhances our emotional intelligence. Would you rather listen to music played by an emotionally repressed person, or by an openhearted, emotionally intelligent person, who is able to communicate the deepest emotional content of the music?
I know what my answer would be.
Using Mindfulness to Challenge Disempowering Cognitions
Mindfulness functions on at least three levels of human experience – body, heart, and mind. I’ve discussed the application of body mindfulness for stress reduction and healthy technique, and emotional mindfulness for improving musical interpretations. How can mindfulness of the mind (i.e. thoughts) help musicians?
Mindfulness naturally makes us more aware of our constant mental commentary, which may include unduly harsh thoughts that interfere with our musical growth, self-discipline, motivation, and ultimately the fulfillment of our musical potential.
Musicians often hold self-judgments and stressful beliefs (sometimes unconsciously) that profoundly affect their musical lives. Simple awareness of such negative thoughts is the first step towards disengaging from them. This is because when we are observing our experience we are not identifying with it. It is only when we identify with a thought that it can disempower us. When we are watching a thought, we are free of its power over us in that moment.
With our newfound awareness, we may even choose to apply more active techniques to release the power of the thoughts and beliefs that cause us unnecessary stress and suffering.
Mindfulness for Performance Anxiety
Research suggests that mindfulness is useful for reducing general anxiety. So it’s not a stretch to state that it is likely equally useful for performance anxiety. Mindfulness can be one more tool in the arsenal of the performing musician to quell anxiety in a natural way that also can enhance the concentration that is so important for performing well.
And it’s certainly better than popping a Valium!
Mindfulness in the Teaching Studio
Music teachers trained in mindfulness (and who practice what they preach – because an intellectual understanding of mindfulness means little) will find numerous ways to apply mindfulness in the studio, as described above.
What might that look like? Here is a mindfulness exercise I occasionally use at the beginning of a piano lesson. (You don’t even need to call it “mindfulness.”) It’s particularly useful when a student has rushed into their lesson and placed their body on the piano bench, while their mind hasn’t yet set foot in the room! The few minutes it takes to create a calmer, more focused student is well worth it. Students play better and will get more out of the lesson when they come more fully into the here and now. This exercise can be adapted for students of any age.
Exercise: A Piano Lesson in the Here and Now
“Would you be willing to try a brief exercise to relax and get focused? Close your eyes. Feel the sensation of your body sitting here right now, on the piano bench. Feel the sensations of gravity pulling you into the bench.”
“Now, let’s tune into breathing. Breathing is so important when playing music. It helps us to stay relaxed, to flow with the music, and to play in a healthy way. Where do you feel the sensations of breathing in your body?”
“Maybe you feel the breath moving in and out of the nostrils. Or maybe you feel the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe. Find that place where you feel the breath most easily, and we’ll take a couple minutes to just relax into it.”
“You don’t have to take deep breaths or manipulate the breath in any way. Just let your breath be natural. Let the breath breathe itself.”
“Just attend to the simple, natural sensations of the breath at that place you’ve chosen to pay attention to. Notice how giving attention to the breath feels calming and focusing.”
“By paying attention to the breath, which is always happening here and now, you bring your mind into the here and now, which is so important for playing and learning about music.”
“If you’ve noticed you’ve gotten distracted by thoughts, that’s okay. Just let the thoughts go and bring your attention back to the physical sensations of breathing.”
You may find that doing the above exercise for just 2-3 minutes is enough to bring a piano student into a more balanced, focused and present state of mind and body.
Mindfulness is simple and easy to learn. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to apply consistently. Or perhaps more accurately, it is easy – but our “always on the go” lifestyles can make it tricky to take a regular timeout for mindfulness. But the fact that doing so may be difficult doesn’t make mindfulness any less relevant. In fact, it makes it more obvious just how relevant it is!
Next: Read Mindfulness of the Body for Musicians