A turning point in my understanding of the role mindful awareness plays in music practice occured while I was practicing singing one day. I’d like to attempt to share that experience, and the resulting thoughts that I observed in my mind.
I was attempting an exercise that had me sing three notes. Somehow, it wasn’t satisfying me, and I found myself repeating it over and over, trying desparately to feel at ease. Sing it once…not good…try again…what’s wrong with me? It’s just three notes. What am I doing wrong? Pay attention.
Wait a second…
I’m not even doing the exercise… It’s supposed to be just 1, 2, 3. What I’m doing is 1…check if 1 is right…if not, fix it…check if I fixed it correctly…2…check if 2 is right…etc.
(Um…I’m not even doing the exercise…)
The exercise is to do 3 things, I’m doing at least 12. Ok, never noticed that before…
I’m not doing it. But, can I do it? Let me try again. Nope, still not right. My teacher told me to stop overthinking, stop analyzing myself. Argh, I can’t even do that! What’s wrong with me? Can I just do the exercise? Just do 1, 2, 3. Is there any possible way I can do it, or am I just not good enough, just not focused enough, just too self-analytical to do this? Any possible way?
No, there’s no possible way. If I don’t analyze and correct myself, I will sing it wrong…I will sing flat…I will embarrass myself…My teacher will think I’m a bad student…It just can’t be done.
Hold on, something’s not right here… The question was: “can I do it?”
Of course I can. I don’t want to, but I can.
What will it take to do it? What will it take to just sing three notes and not correct myself in the middle of the exercise? I need to sing it wrong, sing flat, embarrass myself, be a bad student. Am I willing to do that, so that I can sing three notes? It’s just a yes or no question.
So I answered yes. I became a bad student. Not forever, just for 10 seconds. That’s all I asked. I did it, but it was not comfortable. I was embarrassed, I noticed myself analyzing what I sounded like, but I did it. And I did it again, and again.
Then it hit me…I had made a free choice.
What’s going on here???
There is a glitch in the matrix…the world is all an illusion…I have been lying to myself for my entire life…
That was a free choice. I had always been told that humans have free will and other animals don’t. They are bound by instinct and we can make decisions freely. No way. They are far freer than we are. Cats and dogs make free decisions every single moment of every single day. Whatever they want to do, they do. If I have so much free will, why do I feel like a prisoner?
But I saw behind the curtain. For one moment, I saw clearly that my prison is simply an elaborate hoax. There are no shackles, no rules, no restrictions beyond those that I have been imposing on myself.
I saw limitless freedom. I can do anything. Really, truly, anything. But what if something horrible happens? What if I try and it doesn’t work? Oh great, there’s the prison again…I’m trapped.
No. You can’t fool me now. I don’t have to play your game. You ask, what if something horrible happens? Well, I’m not going to argue with you anymore. You always win that game. I only have one question, and it’s NOT “will it really be as bad as I imagine?”
The only question I’m going to ask is: “am I willing?”
No more true or false. No more rules. It’s just a yes or no question.
Am I willing?
“What if you sing three notes and the first one cracks and someone hears you and thinks you sound horrible?” I’m not playing that game. I will sing three notes and the first one will crack and I will be judged. I can deal with that for 10 seconds.
“But aren’t you being irresponsible by not trying to do your best?” Haha, yep, you got me. Better call the cops before I do something really bad!
“What if you wake up tomorrow and realize that all of this is complete nonsense, and you feel ashamed about it? You really shouldn’t be bragging about this now.” Then so be it. I am willing to be wrong today, to be ashamed tomorrow. Why did I ever insist I had to be right all the time? Why didn’t I see the prison that put me in?
I am completely free. This is so radically fundamental. I can make any choice I want. I only have to ask if I am willing to suffer the dire consequences. If they are too dire, well, I can just scale it back. Find something else that leads me in the same direction, with consequences I am willing to take on. One step at a time.
But I won’t get what I want…the money, the prestige, the accomplishments…
Was that ever what I wanted? Be honest. What is really bothering me? Lack of money? No. Regrets, shame, a feeling of complete paralysis…? Hmm…If I could be free, completely free to make decisions, what would bother me? I could die tomorrow and be fine with it. Money will not give me that satisfaction.
I can always let it go, any time I check in with myself. I can let go of anything. The weights are all self-imposed. What if there are too many options…I can’t choose between them…Then pick one at random. What if it’s the wrong one? Not my problem, I didn’t know enough to decide between them. What if I should have taken longer to gather more information to make a better choice? Then I guess I’m a careless idiot. I can be a careless idiot. It’s my right to do that.
This is not complicated. Every other animal does this every single day, all day long. We know how to do it. Our ancestors did this for billions of years. But no, we’re smart, we “see” the “truth”, and we punish ourselves for being smart.
And the smarter we are, the more we punish ourselves.
(Can you relate to this? Or, are you wondering what the heck this has to do with piano playing? Comment and let me know!)