Mindfulness and piano playing

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, in my musical life and every day.

Basically, “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.

How I am using Mindfulness in my musical life:

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.

Mindful practising

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.

(source http://www.gracebelgravia.com)

8 thoughts on “Mindfulness and piano playing”

  1. Greetings from New Zealand!

    Thank you for this post. It was aptly posted, at this time where my current state of mind is bogged down by stress. Thank you for your posts on pianism , I find it truly helps as an adult student who is attempting to sit for the LTCL exams.

    One of the challenges I find being an adult student is that I simply can’t switch off from the day’s happenings when I practise at home.
    When I was a teenager doing ATCL exams I find that I needed less time to do so.

    Keep up the good work!

    PS: Schubert Sonata in A D959 is a great piece. Also in the FTCL repertoire.

  2. Excellent article and lots of things you have said resonate with me at the moment. I think that lack confidence and the inner critic often need to be put out of the way but it is easier said than done, however there is also a need to be determined and focus on what one wants to achieve. I’m not there right now but I’m pushing myself to get back in to the swing of regular and focused playing!

  3. Very interesting and brave to assert yourself in such a delicate personal way. Mindfulness – or meditation technique, which is what mindfulness is just another word for, is proven to rid the front bit of the brain of the scrambled effect caused by stress or panic and there was a great Horizon programme concluding (after having shown Buddhist monks brains being scanned) that mindfulness (without and religious overtones or undertones) along with positive thinking techniques being researched at Essex University surpassed other methods for de-stressing. The NHS tend to be in the drug companies pocket and if we get to the serious end, psychoses and worse it’s lithium, resperdal, respiridone. A very informative pamphlet from MIND covers the drugs and alternative methods used for thousands of years in non industrialised societies. I believe personally that music, dance, rhythm, theatre, storytelling and art have their place in the equation. The lack of these active daily interventions is possibly the reason why with sedentary computer glued life styles there is so much stress, panic and depression, if not trauma in society not least induced by graven Internet posted images of beheadings, bombed infants and mad assassins axing statues in Mosul museum. The only thing, personally that I found helpful for traumstic stress disorder is not therapy of any kind, but a thing related to meditation and yoga breathing, which is learned called Applied Relaxation Technique. This involves a concerted 10- 15 min session per day where each muscle in each group from top to toe is tensed as you breath slowly in (yoga way) and then relax as you slowly breath out. It could be (I thought) having a terrifying bout of panic and the shakes before
    playing for the first time ever in front of others last week that besides practising every bit in as concentrated and constructive way possible, I should have been spending at least 15mins a day on the very thing that could wreck everything if the horse boulted, panic and tension control – it even could be functional if the slow relaxation breathing counting related strictly to a given tempo that you wanted to keep – or that you subdivided the muscle groups to attend to various desired finger positions, movements, down to minuscule alternations in pressure, so applying the daft breathing and tongue tensing and teeth clenching and relaxing to actual finger athletics practice ????!!!! – or even interpretative passages of harmonic tension and release – but then thinking whether I’ll ever be able to climb out of my utter selfish self consciousness and give up everything for the music being transmitted to others, I don’t know – all I think is that the young Mendelssohns’ Dad built the lads a gymn in their posh palazzo overlooking a square in Berlin, and that young Felix used to be up and down those bars and leaping over horses in his de rigueur 30 minute work out that he would do before performing his stunningly relaxed hi speed finger athleticism… and so he was never sick in a bucket before each show, like I was when I came to the theatre before reclusing into painting and film-making. Anyhow hope this is helpful – either energetic running round the block, garden digging, hand springs, salsa, swimming or yoga breathing technique probably have the same end result – nerve/endorphin control – of course only if applied daily – as it didn’t save my skin doing it 3 years ago!!!!! Anna

  4. Another brilliant, well written post. I am just reading ‘The Great Pianists’ by H C Schonberg, in which Chopin is quoted as having deplored the notion of mechanical practice, insisting that it demands intensity and concentration.

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