The other day I was on my way to my Monday job (I work as an assistant to an elderly writer who lives in London’s Notting Hill). My train drew into platform 1 at Earl’s Court station. I alighted the train, crossed the platform and boarded another identical tube train without pausing to consider whether this was in fact the train that would take me up to Notting Hill Gate station. It was only when I heard the announcement that this was in fact a Tower Hill train that I “came to”, so to speak, and got off the train to wait for the right one. As the tube rattled up to Notting Hill, I pondered my “mindless” behaviour and decided I should pay more attention, not just to my Monday commute, but to other aspects of my daily life, specifically my musical life.
After completing my Licentiate Diploma in spring 2013, I had nearly a year where I “drifted” through my piano playing. I learnt a handful of pieces, enough to create a couple of interesting and varied concert programmes, but nothing particularly challenging nor “difficult”. I fell out of love with the piano for awhile (admittedly, this was during a period of noisy and disruptive building work in my home which prevented the long practise sessions I had previously enjoyed); I acquired my beautiful Bechstein piano and fell back in love with the piano, more passionately this time, but always with a sense that I wasn’t quite worthy, as a pianist, of such a gorgeous instrument. Family and friends told me I was being ridiculous, that I had worked hard and the piano was absolutely well-deserved. Meanwhile, I was busy helping to run a piano group for adult amateur pianists and setting up a concert series, making new piano friends; still blogging and writing articles for other music websites, and reviewing concerts. And all the time I felt I wasn’t really playing the piano with the seriousness it required. I considered studying for a final Fellowship diploma, but was dismotivated by comments from others insinuating that I would find it “extremely challenging”, or that I wasn’t “good enough” to attempt it.
So, why “mindfulness”? My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a friend talked of following a mindfulness course and 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 to see if employing some techniques drawn from mindfulness could help me, and the start of a new year (2015) seemed the perfect opportunity to put this into practice.
Reaching a state of acceptance
I suffer from a certain lack of confidence as a musician (despite appearances to the contrary when I play and the many positive endorsements I receive from teachers, colleagues and friends). I realised that part of this stems from a habit of constantly comparing myself to others. I have resolved to stop comparing myself to others, to accept that certain repertoire just isn’t “right” for me (for whatever reason, technically or emotionally), that I don’t have to attempt pieces just because others are, and to focus on developing my own playing in repertoire that I enjoy and which interests me.
Banishing the inner critic
Alongside this sense of acceptance, I am learning to switch off the voice in my head which tells me I am “just not good enough”. I’ve realised that this voice is, in part, the manifestation of a variety of critical comments, from a music teacher at school to certain others who have hinted that I am committing some form of pianistic “hubris” by performing in public concerts or taking on works such as Beethoven’s Opus 110 or Schubert’s Sonata in A D959 (my current preoccupation). I now try to draw confidence from the positive and supportive comments from colleagues, diploma adjudicators, mentors 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 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-criticsm: in essence, to better trust our musical self.
Dealing with anxiety
My main strategy for dealing with performance anxiety is knowing that the music has been practised deeply and is fully prepared, including at least three “practise” performances. In addition to this, I 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, I 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 (and this is not something I actively engage in) 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, 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.