It isn’t easy being a musician. Aside from the daily practising routine, usually done alone and in isolation, one can suffer from confidence and self-esteem issues, and crippling self-doubt, often the result of looking at what others are doing and thinking “should I be doing that?”, “am I doing it right?” or “am I good enough?”.
So, why “mindfulness”? My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a pianist friend told me about a mindfulness course she had recently followed and how she was employing mindfulness as a way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy as a musician and the exigencies of everyday life. I decided to explore further……
Mindfulness is an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. When in a mindful state, mindless “daydreaming” is replaced by presence and attention to the here and now. It can also refer to specific meditative processes, such as those popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Stress Reduction Clinic. Mindfulness has been shown to help people suffering from stress, anxiety and depression, including physical manifestations of stress disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pain and ill health, and is approved by the UK Mental Health Foundation. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London now runs Mindfulness courses for students to help them deal with issues of confidence and performance anxiety, and to strengthen ensemble work, communication and stage presence.
How to apply Mindfulness to the musician’s life:
Reaching a state of acceptance
Resolve to stop comparing yourself to others, stop worrying about what others are doing and trust your musical self. Accept that certain repertoire may not be “right” for you (I for example struggle to play the piano music of Ravel – but it doesn’t make me a bad pianist as a result!). Don’t feel you have to attempt certain repertoire just because others are doing so. Focus instead on developing your playing in repertoire that you enjoy and which interests and excites you.
Banishing the inner critic
Learn to switch off the voice in your head which tells you “I am not good enough”. This “inner critic” can be the manifestation of a variety of things, such as negative comments from a teacher or peer, which prey on one’s mind. Instead, draw confidence from the positive and supportive endorsements from trusted colleagues, mentors, audience members and friends.
Mindfulness enables us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care. Too often I come across students (and others) who simply “type” their pieces, processing notes with little care or thought and revealing that their practising has been repetitive and mindless. Repetitive practise is important, for sure, but it should be both thoughtful and repetitive – and each repetition should be carefully considered. Taking notice of what one is playing – each phrase, dynamic nuance, subtleties of touch, expression, articulation – will result in more efficient and rewarding practise, leading to vibrant and authoritative playing.
It also enables us to become more aware of our physical state when playing, to check that the wrists are supple and mobile, arms are soft, shoulders relaxed, and so forth, and to know to stop playing when the body becomes tight, sore or stressed. On a broader level, mindfulness can make us more insightful as musicians, to connect better with our inner selves, be less self-critical, to see mistakes honestly and without fear and know how to understand and adjust them more easily, and to improve our playing and musicianship based on experience and intuition rather than self-criticism: in essence, to better trust our musical self.
Mindfulness and performance anxiety
Know that the music has been practised deeply and is fully prepared, including at least three “practise” performances. Try to perform “in the moment”, to focus on the “now” of performing and to silence the destructive inner critic voice that wants remind one of all the slips and errors, and can stifle creativity and spontaneity in performance. After a performance, try not to post-mortem it too closely, but to return to practising the day after with renewed interest and (hopefully) deeper insight, while looking forward to the next opportunity to perform the pieces.
Daily meditation sessions may not be for everyone but increased awareness while engaged in music practise can help us reconnect with our instrument and our musical self, leading to improved concentration, physical awareness of the feel of the instrument under the fingers, tone control, quality of sound, expression, a vibrant dynamic palette, flow, musical insight and communication.
While playing, we should banish the “mindless” thoughts that distract and fill the mind – “what shall I cook for dinner?”, “did I remember to collect the dry-cleaning?” – and focus instead on observing and listening to yourself playing. Try to notice things that perhaps weren’t apparent before or which you previously took for granted, and bring meaning, value, love and life to every note and phrase you play.
Why not try a little mindfulness? You might be surprised by the results…