Mindfulness seems to be coming into fashion these days, and it’s not entirely without reason. This is a powerful skill worth developing, for a variety of reasons. In this article, I will cover some of the specific benefits for pianists, and musicians in general.
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.”
Those who have practiced mindfulness meditation will be quite familiar with these ideas. However, these are also critical concepts for developing effortless skill at the piano. And yet, most musicians sadly neglect these ideas.
Why is mindfulness useful for musicians?
Musicians benefit greatly from having a working understanding of the mind-body phenomenon. 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. Yet, this mastery can only be gained by paying attention. Another crucial form of awareness which must be developed includes awareness of one’s own urges. Mindful practicing is a powerful tool for coming to terms with who we are at the instrument, and what we are capable of doing.
Music is really hard. No one gets this stuff quickly. Yet, some struggle more than others. However, this struggle can be greatly reduced by taking a non-judgmental stance toward one’s successes and failures.
What mindfulness is not
Mindfulness is not about relaxation. Rather, it’s about paying attention. You know, sometimes it’s hard to relax. Since we often have a lot on our minds, becoming aware of all this mental chatter can have quite the opposite effect. And, that is entirely the point.
Mindfulness is not supernatural. For thousands of years, mindfulness has been a feature of all of the world’s major religions, and is often associated with a wide array of differing spiritual movements. I believe this is evidence of the fact that what we are dealing with is basic to the human experience. I’d like to strip this down to its basic elements, so that everyone can understand its benefits.
How to get started with mindfulness
There is only so much that can be conveyed through writing. In other words, you need to experience mindfulness in order to truly understand it. So, here is an exercise I urge you to try.
- 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. No judgment.
You don’t need to do anything else. Your experience is your teacher.
This is really hard stuff.
What’s so different about a mindful approach to music?
Many people benefit greatly from a traditional approach to music lessons. However, a mindful approach 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.
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 watch what it’s doing to us.
If we immediately judge our observations, without taking this time, we will always be slaves to our reactions.
Learning requires change.
Attitude toward mistakes
You don’t need to avoid mistakes. 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 prevent learning. We end up paying more attention to avoiding the mistake than to the consequences of our actions! Clearly, 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. Also, it’s hard 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 an authority, on a totally different level than that the student. This makes sense, as the teacher knows more about the subject matter, and is hopefully able to better understand what’s going on with the student.
Nevertheless, 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. A mindful focus is always on building awareness, with the intention that the skills will follow automatically. For example, when learning to walk up and down stairs as children, no one teaches us exactly how to move our arms and legs. 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. For example, 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.”
In fact, these rules may help playing. However, 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 whatever was going on when the rule was originally learned.
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.
The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self by William Westney is a must-read.
Books on meditation
For an introduction to meditation for beginners, I recommend Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Interested in going much deeper into how the mind works? Check out The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness, by John Yates. Do not let the “Buddhist” in the title scare you; the author is a neuroscientist, and takes a very practical approach.
Insight Timer is a very handy app for meditators. It tracks your progress, and also has access to numerous guided meditations and audio courses.