My approach to piano playing is based on mindfulness. This is something I am often reluctant to mention, for two reasons:
- Mindfulness is something of a fad these days.
- The word “mindfulness” carries with it certain connotations.
All of that aside, this is an extremely important topic, and I would like to share a bit about why that is.
What is mindfulness?
I tend to like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
This are critical concepts in developing effortless skill at the piano. And yet, they are sadly neglected by most.
What mindfulness is not
Mindfulness is not about relaxation. It’s about paying attention. You know, sometimes it’s hard to relax. We often have a lot on our minds, and becoming aware of all this mental chatter can have quite the opposite effect. That is entirely the point.
Mindfulness is not supernatural. Mindfulness has been a feature of all of the world’s major religions for thousands of years, and is additionally often associated with various other spiritual movements with wildly differing worldviews. I believe this is evidence of the fact that what we are dealing with is a basic aspect of human consciousness. My goal is to strip this down to its fundamental elements, so that everyone can understand its benefits.
Why mindfulness in piano playing?
There are many reasons, but these three stand out immediately in my mind:
To develop concentration. Everyone who has studied a musical instrument has faced the problem of distractions. These come from both our 5 senses as well as from our internal world, in the form of thoughts (both negative and positive) and feelings. Developing mastery of the instrument requires finding a way to deal with these distractions.
To develop awareness. Technical ability at the piano requires a thorough understanding of physical movement. This mastery can only be gained by paying attention. Another crucial form of awareness which must be developed includes awareness of one’s own motivations.
Music is really hard. No one gets this stuff quickly. Yet, some struggle more than others. This struggle can be greatly reduced by taking a non-judgmental stance toward one’s successes and failures.
Learning from experience
There is only so much that can be conveyed through writing. You need to experience this in order to truly understand it. Here is an exercise I urge you to try.
Exercise: Breathing at the piano
- Choose two pieces: something fairly difficult that you struggle with, and something easy that you know well.
- Take a seat on the piano bench. Breathing through your nose, notice the feeling of the air entering and leaving with each breath. This is not an exercise in deep breathing; your task is only to notice the breath as it is.
- Play the difficult piece, keeping your attention on the breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back. Notice what causes your focus to leave the breath. Your task is to try to keep it there 100% of the time (you will definitely fail at this, but try anyway). If your attention wants to go to the music, bring it back to the breath.
- Now, play the easy piece, again focusing on the breath.
Notice where your mind wants to go. Non-judgmentally.
You don’t need to do anything else. Your experience is your teacher.
This is really hard stuff.
(read on to part 2)