This is the second article in a series discussing the benefits of mindfulness in piano lessons. See part 1.

Many people benefit greatly from a traditional approach to piano lessons. My approach, however, is based on something quite different. Let me give a few examples of how a mindful approach to piano lessons differs from the traditional approach. I urge all teachers and students to explore these issues in their own lessons, whether or not you wish to change your entire approach.

Non-judgmental observation

The core concept in mindfulness is paying attention. This is done entirely without judgment, if possible.

OK, this is never possible. Our minds judge, whether we like it or not. Yet, we can still become aware of this judgment, and observe the impact it is having on the situation.

If we immediately evaluate our observations, without taking this time, we are always slaves to our reactions.

Learning requires change.

Attitude toward mistakes

Mistakes are not something to be avoided. This is paradoxical, as of course the goal of piano lessons is usually to learn to play better. However, learning often happens best by making mistakes and observing the consequences.

Ironically, many times our efforts to avoid mistakes actually inhibit learning, as they cause us to pay more attention to avoiding the mistake than to the consequences of our actions! Awareness of these habits is extremely valuable in making rapid progress.

Mistakes, therefore, provide valuable data and should be actively sought out, not avoided.

Lack of a strict curriculum

Each student is on a different point in his or her path at any given moment. This changes day to day, and is difficult to predict. Additionally, it is often impossible to compare one student with the next in any meaningful way. It is difficult to know in which order a student will learn specific skills, so the teacher must be paying attention at all times to what is happening on this day, right now, and assign exercises accordingly.

Relationship between teacher and student

The relationship between the teacher and the student is crucial to the success of lessons. In traditional education, the teacher is viewed as an authority, in a position fundamentally different from that of the student. This is understandable, as the teacher knows more about the subject matter, and is hopefully able to in some sense interpret the student’s experience better than the student can.

That said, the teacher should approach the lesson with the same attitude her or she expects of the student: one of playful curiosity. As a teacher, I am learning to teach the student, in the same way that the student is learning to play a piece of music. This symmetrical relationship is vitally important, if both parties are to be truly in the present moment. The teacher must strive to understand why the student is behaving as he or she does, give the student room to be an individual, and accept that there are many things unknown to both.

Skill vs. awareness

The conventional attitude toward learning is that the goal is for the student to acquire skills. That seems like common sense, but my viewpoint is different. My focus is always on building awareness, with the intention that the skills will follow automatically. When learning to walk up and down stairs as children, we are not taught precisely how to move our limbs to accomplish this task. Rather, we grope around, noticing the effect different actions have on our movements, and eventually we figure it out. Is there any chance you will forget? Did it feel like effort?

Language and rules

In our culture, we tend to view language as expressing truth. We learn rules such as “you should work hard” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” As musicians, we learn “relax your arms as you play” or “put your first finger on the A key.”

These rules may help playing, or they may not. In a mindful approach, we evaluate rules based on whether or not they are useful, rather than true. Rules generally do serve a purpose, or they would have never been invented, and we would have never learned them. Nonetheless, we must always be paying attention to the present moment, which may differ considerably from the context in which the rule was originally conceived.

Exercise: What rules do you notice yourself following as a musician (or even in your daily life)? Where did you learn them? Can you think of a situation in which the rule is definitely helpful, and one in which it is definitely not helpful? Try to notice without judgment.