Guest post by Doug Hanvey
Unless they’ve been living in a cave for the past 30 years, most people have heard about mindfulness. I offer piano lessons in Portland, Oregon, and it’s difficult to go for long in my West Coast city without hearing about a new application or research study related to it. Mindfulness – bringing intentional awareness to one’s experience in the present moment – is said to reduce stress, improve one’s relationships, diminish chronic pain, improve productivity at work, and much more.
Gigantic corporations such as Google, hundreds of hospitals, schools and colleges, and even the military are all touting mindfulness. If mindfulness is good enough for Google, might it be useful in piano pedagogy? I believe the answer is yes.
In fact, I believe there are numerous potential applications of mindfulness in the piano studio that are only now beginning to be considered. Learning to play an instrument as multifaceted as the piano requires so many faculties (cognitive, emotional, kinesthetic) that cultivating a deeper awareness of our present moment experience is sure to help. Piano students (and teachers!) can easily become stressed. One of the primary functions of mindfulness (particularly in healthcare settings) is reducing stress. Piano students need to acquire a high degree of concentration. Mindfulness is most often taught with a focus on developing concentration. Pianists need to be able to feel their emotions deeply in order to express the emotional content of the music. Paying attention to one’s emotional experience is a vital element of mindfulness practice.
But mindfulness of the body, of one’s somatic experience and movements – which coincidentally is how mindfulness is usually first taught to beginners – is perhaps most relevant for most piano students. Mindfulness has immense efficacy in its capacity to enhance our awareness of our physical well-being and, not unrelated, our piano technique. In order to remain healthy by avoiding injuries due to faulty technique or overpracticing, awareness of the body and the impact of our practice habits is bound to be beneficial for most serious students. And since piano technique essentially boils down to how we situate ourselves and move the body to play, enhancing our awareness of the body (posture, position etc.) and how we move is sure to expedite improvements in our technique.
After all, the statistics are alarming. A large percentage of serious pianists, such as college music students or professional musicians, will be compromised physically at some point, most often due to a repetitive stress injury (RSI). Changing practice habits and routines, taking better care of one’s overall health, and even learning injury-prevention techniques such as the Taubman technique – which I have studied intensively – are all bound to be useful for the injured pianist, or the pianist who wishes to avoid injuries. Each of these strategies can be enhanced by practicing mindfulness. How?
One of the most common applications of mindfulness, as I explained above, is to reduce stress, and disorders and ailments aggravated or brought on by stress. Reducing one’s stress is likely to minimize the impact of playing, even with inferior technique – on one’s body.
In addition to stress reduction, mindfulness can help pianists become healthier and better players. Like athletes, musicians require some degree of body awareness simply to learn the instrument. Cultivating body awareness can help players become aware of habits of tension that may lead to injury down the road. Body awareness is also necessary for becoming a better player, i.e. for learning new techniques (ways of moving). Most musicians can be more “body aware” than they are. Mindfulness, in my experience, is one of the best ways to enhance body awareness and secure the benefits that brings.
How can piano teachers bring mindfulness into the studio? Just as piano teachers are expected to “practice what they preach” – i.e. play the piano well before teaching it – it’s also useful for teachers to practice mindfulness before teaching it to others.
Mindfulness is most often taught with an orientation on the body, in particularly towards the natural rhythm and “bare” physical sensations of breathing. “Bare” means awareness of one’s actual felt sensory experience. So a good way for music teachers to begin is by practicing “mindfulness of breathing” or “mindfulness of the body.” There are numerous free audio meditations online, and I offer a set of my own guided audio meditations for piano teachers and students on my blog.
After you’ve practiced mindfulness for awhile, and begin to understand how it works (or if you have already done that) you might be eager to try introducing mindfulness to a student to support their musical health, or when teaching technique. For example, say a student is struggling to learn a new way of moving, and they keep falling back into old habits. You might say:
“Would you be willing to try a brief body awareness exercise that may help? OK…close your eyes for a moment, rest your hands on your lap, and tune into the rhythm of your breathing.” (Note: You, the teacher, might want to follow your own instructions by practicing mindfulness with your student as you lead them.)
“Be aware of the bare sensations of breathing wherever it’s easiest to feel them.”
“Let your breathing do its own thing. Allow the breath to be as it is. You don’t need to change anything.”
“Now tune into your body. Feel your whole body, sitting here on the bench. Notice any tension or contraction in any part of the body. Let it be as it is.”
“Now tune into your right forearm. What sensations do you notice? Be aware of any tension or contraction. If it relaxes or melts away, great. If it doesn’t, just let it be.”
“Now tune into your right hand. Notice what it feels like to have a hand. Notice the life in your hand. Notice energy flowing, tension, and any other sensations, pleasant or unpleasant.”
(repeat for left forearm and hand)
“Now open your eyes and practice the technique we’re working on, with mindful awareness of your body and the movements you’re making.”
This brief exercise can help students to become more naturally aware of their body generally and playing “equipment” specifically (in particular the arms and hands). From this awareness, students may begin to notice that they are habitually moving in certain tense or less-than-efficient ways, which sets the stage for naturally dropping these habits and learning new ones.
Mindfulness offers much more, of course, but a gentle introduction with a specific orientation towards the piano is often the best way to start.
Doug Hanvey taught an undergraduate mindfulness class, The Art of Meditation, at Indiana University Bloomington from 2007-2014. He currently teaches piano in Portland, Oregon.