Tag Archives: mindfulness

The Self-Compassionate Pianist

The life of the pianist is, by necessity, solitary (and I have written before about The Pianist’s Loneliness). For many of us, the solitude is not an issue: we crave a sense of apartness to enable us to do our work and to create special connections with audiences when we perform, and we need quietude to allow time for self-reflection and evaluation.

The sequestered nature of the pianist’s life also calls for great self-reliance: we must  be self-starting, motivated, driven and focused to ensure our work (practising and preparation) is done each day. Most of us draw pleasure and satisfaction from knowing our work is done and done well, but without other colleagues and musical companions to interact with, it is easy for self-doubt to creep in, for us to question our role or our value, to ask “am I good enough?”.

Such negativism can stem from a performance which didn’t go to plan, the disappointment (and anger) from failing an exam or audition, a less-than-favourable review or some ill-advised comments from a teacher or mentor. Alone with our thoughts, such things can fester and grow into bigger problems than they need to be, and while most of us know that these things should simply be put down to “experience”, reflected upon and then put to one side, it can sometimes be difficult to shrug off feelings of inadequacy.

In his book ‘The Mindful Pianist’, teacher and pianist Mark Tanner notes the importance for the pianist of exercising “self-compassion” as a protection from the feelings of failure that can develop from setbacks, in addition to negative self-talk, lack of self-esteem, or dismotivation which can plague us when we spend so much time alone.

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Self-compassion is really no different from having compassion for others: the ability to recognise or understand difficulties, pain or suffering, and to respond in a kind, humane and sympathetic way. Having compassion enables us to offer understanding and support when someone makes a mistake, and demonstrates that we appreciate that we are all human and that suffering, failure, and imperfection are all part of the shared human experience.

By exercising self-compassion, we simply turn these kind and sympathetic responses back on ourselves. It involves acting in the same way as we would towards others when we are having a difficult time, fail or notice something in ourselves which we don’t like.

Self-compassion can be defined in three elements – self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity – and can be applied to the pianist’s life and work as follows:

Self-kindness helps us cease the self-evaluation and critical assessment, the negative self-talk, asking “am I good enough”, comparing ourselves to others and the subsequent feelings inadequacy.

By exercising self-kindness we can recognize that perfection is an unattainable artificial construct, that when we fail, we need not beat ourselves up nor judge ourselves too harshly, but instead accept that we are human, that we “had a bad day at the office”, Self-kindness allows us be curious, open, and loving when it comes to how we regard ourselves.

Self-compassionate people appreciate that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties are inevitable. By being self-compassionate we can be more gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of our expectations or set ideals. This can lead us to greater emotional equanimity.

From the musician’s point of view, such an attitude enables us to work with curiosity and open-mindedness, to be more self-inquiring, to regard mistakes as tools for learning and self-improvement, and to be kind to ourselves when lack of time or motivation means we may not get as much practising in on a given day as we’d hoped.

Mindfulness helps us to be non-judgmental and to take a balanced approach to our emotions. Being mindful allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, and for the musician it encourages a positive attitude towards mistakes (learning tools) and setbacks.

Mindfulness also means “living in the moment” and being awake to experience: for the musician mindfulness encourages us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care.

In a performance situation, it encourages us to focus on creating the sound we hear on the spot, and to immerse ourselves in the vibrancy and “now-ness” of the music, rather than over-thinking what we are doing or getting caught up in comparing the performance to the ideal one we have in our head. It also enables us to banish the destructive “inner critic”, to be less “over-identified” with our thoughts and feelings, and to be accepting of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Common humanity is about recognising that personal inadequacy, vulnerability and failure are part of the shared human experience – something we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. By recognising this, we accept that we don’t need to be singled out as the “most” or “least”, “best” or “worst” of anything, and we can become more objective about who we are in the world and how we choose to be. For the musician specifically, this includes not constantly comparing oneself to others but rather being accepting of who we are, and freeing oneself from the tyranny of perfectionism.

Self-compassion can protect us from the negative thoughts, self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy that the life of the musician may provoke, but it can also encourage us to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of our experience which is the starting point for truly compelling and mature musicianship.

The Mindful Pianist – Mark Tanner

Mindful

adjective

1. attentive, aware, or careful (usually followed by of): mindful of one’s responsibilities.

2. noting or relating to the psychological technique of mindfulness: mindful observation of one’s experiences.

41czgktnuml-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Mindful Pianist by pianist, teacher composer and examiner, Mark Tanner is the latest volume in the Piano Professional series published by Faber Music in association with EPTA, UK (the European Piano Teachers’ Association). “Mindful” is the word du jour, and the practice of mindfulness – the therapeutic technique of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations – has become increasingly popular in today’s stressful and busy world. This book, however, is not some groovy, new age, Zen guide to piano playing, but rather takes its inspiration and approach from the definitions of the word “Mindful”at the top of this article. With contributions from a number of leading pianists and piano pedagogues, including Philip Fowke, Murray McLachlan, Margaret Fingerhut, Penelope Roskell, Leslie Howard and Madeline Bruser, the book draws on the author’s and contributors’ own experiences of playing and teaching the piano, and explores ways in which pianists, amateur or professional, can be more attentive, careful, self-compassionate and mindful in their day-to-day engagement with the piano and its literature.

Written in an engaging and accessible style, yet clearly supported by many years of practical experience as a teacher and performer, and academic research, the book encourages the pianist to take a fresh perspective on playing and performing by applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano. Through 4 distinct parts, Mark Tanner explores the crucial connection between mind and body, and how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing that is more compelling, more refined and ultimately more rewarding. He begins with simple breathing exercises which enable one to focus while at the piano before a note has even been struck and includes practical advice on overcoming feelings of inadequacy when a practise session goes less well, or the self-esteem issues which accompany performing. He tackles the issues encountered by pianists when practising, performing, improvising and preparing for an exam with wisdom and gentleness – throughout the text, one has the sense of Mark encouraging us to be kind to ourselves and to show self-compassion. The section of exams (‘The View from the Examiner’s Chair’) is written from a wealth of personal experience and is particular helpful in offering perspective to those teachers, and  students, who may feel exams place undue pressure on aspiring young pianists. There is also a section on “mindful listening” (‘The Virtuoso Listener’) which encourages us to sharpen our listening abilities, both at the piano and when we hear music on the radio, in concert, on disc etc.

‘The Mindful Pianist’ is a long, detailed and highly satisfying read, and I will be extracting Mark’s wisdom to share with my own students as well as putting into practise some of his methods in my own playing and performing. Having recently had to deal with a setback in my playing career, I have found Mark’s intelligent, practical and gentle advice particularly helpful as I reflect and refocus on my own piano playing.

I am also grateful to Mark for citing this blog as a useful resource for independent learners.

Recommended

Interview with Mark Tanner

Further details and ordering

Rewiring turns “I can’t” into “I can”

cf3a43f548ef0b0425f8af95032b8849Whenever we have a thought or physical sensation thousands of neurons are triggered and get together to form a neural network in the brain. “Experience-dependent neuroplasticity” is the scientific term for this activity of continual creation and grouping of neuron connections which take place as a result of our personal life experiences. With repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time, and neuroscientists and psychologists have found that the brain can be “trained” to build positive neural traits from positive mental states. The trouble is, the brain tends towards the negative: it is very bad at learning from good experiences and very good at learning from bad ones. This negativity bias was very important in keeping our ancestors alive during times of great hardship and danger, but in our 21st-century brains it can be a block that prevents positive experiences from becoming inner strengths which are built into our neural structure.

As musicians most of us are very familiar with “the inner critic”, that destructive voice within that can sabotage a practise session or performance and damage our self-esteem with negative self-talk. The ability to self-evaluate one’s playing and performance and give oneself critical feedback is of course very important: it enables us to practise effectively and mindfully, it encourages humility in our work and tempers the ego. Equally, we should be able to accept criticism and feedback from teachers, mentors, colleagues and peers, provided it is given in the right way. But if our own self-criticism, and/or the comments of others, is repeated too often we can fall into a spiral of negativity.

From the teacher who continually undermines the student with negative feedback to the inner critic which constantly comments adversely on one’s playing, chipping away at one’s self-confidence, these repetitive detrimental experiences encourage negative neural traits which in turn build a negative mental state – and with repetitive thinking, the brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time. So if you continually dwell on self-criticism, anxieties about your abilities, your lack of confidence or a teacher’s negative comments, your mind will more easily find that part of your brain and will quickly help you to think those same negative thoughts again and again.

An example – the piano student who constantly self-criticises her own playing. The student in question is in her mid-teens, a bright, enthusiastic, engaged and confident young person who is not only a sensitive pianist but also a talented violinist and who is developing into an intelligent and expressive musician. Each lesson usually begins with the student playing one of the pieces or studies she is working on for her Grade 8 exam. She plays well, taking note of expression and tempo markings, dynamics, articulation, but almost every slip is met with profuse apologies or restarts, and as the music progresses, the errors increase. Her performance usually ends with her saying “I’m so sorry! That was awful! I played terribly today” – or words to that effect. Despite her teacher’s (me) reassurance that she played well, that there is noticeable improvement, etc., she continues to berate herself for her lack of ability. She recently performed in a school concert, playing with great poise and apparent confidence. Yet no sooner had she replaced her violin in its case, than the negative self-crticism and worrying about the quality of her performance began. Later, at the drinks reception following the concert, many members of staff and friends told her how beautifully she’d played, how much they had enjoyed her performance, but she continued to accentuate the negatives.

Sadly, this circle of negativity is not helping this student. She veers between believing she is a good musician (which she is) and that she is a terrible musician (which she isn’t). Because of the reiteration of negative messages, via her own inner critic and (I suspect) a parent with very high, or unrealistic, expectations, the circle continues, preventing her from becoming the poised and confident musician I believe she can be.

It upsets me to see my wonderful student struggling with so much negativity, much of which is self-generated (I’m no psychologist but I can guess at some of the roots of her issues because I recognise them from my own lack of confidence as a teenage pianist which I carried with me into adulthood). It’s quite clear, to me at least, that her negativity is self-perpetuating and in order for her to move forward the cycle needs to be broken. I am working with her to help her understand how to turn her negative thoughts into positive ones, using some of the techniques below.

Break the negative cycle and turn “I can’t” into “I can”

  • Banishing the inner critic is a key act in encouraging a more positive mindset. Acknowledge that your inner critic exists and then literally “show it the door” by imagining you are ushering the horrid creature out of your mind.
  • Attach a positive thought to a negative one: “I played that passage incorrectly, but I understand why I made a mistake so I know how I can put it right“.
  • Exchange perfectionism for excellence. Perfection is unrealistic and unattainable, excellence is achievable. Strive for excellence in your own work by setting yourself realistic goals and standards (these can be set in consultation with a teacher or mentor).
  • Draw confidence from the positive endorsements and feedback from trusted teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family. If it helps, write these comments down in a notebook and refer to them when you feel anxious or nervous.
  • If your teacher is continually critical despite your best efforts to play well, it is perhaps time to seek a new teacher. Few students will progress well if they feel constantly put down by a teacher or coach.
  • Approach practising, lessons and performances with an “I can!” attitude rather than “this is going to go wrong”. Try not to set up a negative feedback loop before you play, but instead draw confidence from previous good experiences (a lesson where you know you played well and your teacher offered praise and positive feedback, or a performance where you received compliments from the audience or another musician whose opinion you respect).
  • Draw confidence in an exam or performance situation from knowing you have done the right kind of work in your practising and that you are well-prepared
  • Try the Buddhist practice of “wise effort”. This is a habit of letting go of that which is not helpful, or is negative, and cultivating that which is positive and helpful. (It is related to mindfulness and NLP).
  • Spend time with friends and colleagues whose company is positive and inspiring.
  • Above all, allow the mind to focus on and remember the good stuff. Just as thoughtful repetitive practising leads to noticeable improvement at the piano, so repetitive positive thinking brings a more positive, cheerful mindset, which will in turn have a positive effect on your playing and your general attitude to your music making.

 

Further reading/resources

How Complaining Rewires your Brain for Negativity

The Perfect Wrong Note

Music from the Inside Out

How Positive Thinking Rewires Your Brain

 

 

Less is more: Marginal gain learning

“Marginal Gain Learning” (MGL) is a training concept employed by the British cycling team which has reaped brilliant rewards, as their success in both the London and Rio Olympics has demonstrated.

The concept was developed by the team’s coach Dave Brailsford, who believes that by breaking down and analysing every tiny aspect of a cyclist’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area, the cyclist’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced. This approach included obvious things like adjustments to the cyclist’s diet, the weekly training regime, the ergonomics of the bicycle seat. But it also included tiny, less obvious details such as the kind of massage gel the cyclists used, or the thickness of the fabric of their racing skinsuits. Brailsford and the team searched for 1% improvements everywhere and this approach resulted in Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in 2012, the first British cyclist to do so, Chris Froome winning it in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and an impressive medal haul by Britain’s track cyclists at the London and Rio Olympics.

This “aggregation of marginal gains” approach is incredibly simple and very effective – as Team GB’s success attests – and it can be used in any learning/teaching environment as it is highly adaptable and easy to implement. In short, it provides a tool for sustained improvement: from musicians looking to improve their overall performance, to students improving their learning and teachers enhancing their pedagogical skills. I have used concepts drawn from MGL in my teaching and also in my own practising and performing.

Learning music is hard: from the junior student faced with just three or four lines of music to the advanced pianist embarking on a full-length piano sonata or multi-movement work, the learning and upkeep of all those notes is a daunting prospect and requires many hours of consistent, thoughtful practise. For me, MGL is a way of “being kind” to yourself as a musician while also enabling one to practise and process music in a meticulous and mindful way. The trouble is, we tend to define achievement through one significant moment – learning a whole page or movement of a piece of music, for example – and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis which accumulate to create a significant whole.

For the musician, the MGL approach can reap important rewards. As a teacher, I encourage students to focus on very small aspects of their pieces at a time. We might take a single phrase and look at things such as shape, dynamics, articulation, mood. Each aspect is examined, played, evaluated, adjusted and re-evaluated. The various elements are then gradually aggregated and eventually the student plays the whole phrase with all the elements present. What might appear to be an overly nitpicking approach results in the student gaining security in the all notes and nuances of that phrase. And anything learnt in one phrase or section of a piece of music can be applied elsewhere, within the same piece or in other works. In this way, one creates a “knowledge bank” of information and details in music, while the process of MGL becomes almost habitual through repeated use. Because the student has been encouraged to work through this process slowly and carefully, they gain confidence in their abilities to apply the knowledge gained elsewhere in their music without constant reiteration from the teacher.

In order to achieve this, brain, eyes and ears must be engaged at all times – and it’s amazing how many musicians don’t actually listen to themselves as they play! – to assess what one sees and hears and to make small adjustments based on that judgement. Evaluation, reflection, adjustment and re-evaluation are important elements in the process and I am careful to ensure that students understand what they are doing and why. What is so satisfying about this method is that it produces noticeable progress through small increments which aggregate to create meaningful overall improvement. It also enables students to work (practise) independently because they have the knowledge and confidence to understand what needs to be practised and how. Thus, they come to their next lesson knowing they have made progress, which is one of the best motivators I know to continue practising!

I use the same approach in my own study and learning of complex/advanced repertoire and have found that it results in my ability to learn music more quickly and more accurately. It has made me more alert to the details and subtleties in a score, which in turn allows me to play with greater confidence, expression and musicality. I find the process of evaluation, reflection and adjustment deeply satisfying as the rewards are consistent and noticeable. The MGL concept can be applied in performance too as one makes small adjustments, evaluations and improvements each time the programme is performed.

On a more general level, one can apply MGL to aspects such as warm up exercises, noticing and reacting to tension when one plays, practising a phrase slowly and relishing the beauty of it, and playing in a non-judgemental way. The positive adjustments one makes are small but significant, and in this way MGL complements a mindful approach to practising and playing.

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

 

Pre-emptive strike

Understanding and coping with the stress of performance

We all have a tendency to post-mortem our performance after a concert, audition, or exam, focusing on the negatives and the errors rather than the good things, and in the heightened state of sensitivity that often accompanies such occasions, small errors can become huge. Of course it is important to review what happened and to reflect upon it, for this informs our future practising, but dwelling too long on mistakes is not healthy as it can  negatively colour our attitude to our music making.

Wouldn’t it wonderful if we could see into the future and predict what is going to happen in a performance? To be able to look ahead and figure out all the things that could go wrong, and try to work out what you can do to prevent those things from happening. We might call this a “pre-mortem”.

The “pre-mortem” technique of risk assessment was devised by research psychologist Gary Klein who found that “prospective hindsight” – imagining that the event has already happened – increases and improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes. We can use this technique to help us prepare for stressful situations – such as performing – and a pre-mortem ahead of that potentially high-stress situation can ensure that rational thinking and reactions are available to you despite the inevitable physical and emotional side-effects of stress.

As musicians the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves is good preparation. This is not simply practising at the piano but also recording and filming ourselves, playing to other people (teachers, friends, colleagues), playing other pianos, giving practise performances ahead of the big day, visualising the performance and imagining the sounds of the music in our head before we play, recalling previous successful performances, and engaging in positive, affirmative and mindful thinking. This is the musician’s “prospective hindsight” toolbox.

Managing our anxiety is another important aspect – and I refute anyone who says they do not feel nervous ahead of a performance, whether they are a world-class internationally-renowned musician or a young person taking Grade 5. Being nervous is normal; it is also a sign that you care about what you are doing. Understanding why we are nervous is also important: when asked, most people will respond that it is fear of making a mistake that fuels the anxiety.

Fundamentally, performance anxiety is fuelled by straightforward fear, and this is hard-wired into our physiology. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: when face-to-face with a predator, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode and releases stress hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol, which cause certain bodily systems to shut down (for example, the digestive system, the libido, and the immune system) to focus on supplying the brain and muscles with much-needed blood, glucose (sugars) and salts to enable the body to react immediately: stand and fight that sabre-toothed tiger or flee from it as quickly as possible. The physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweating, nausea, trembling – are entirely due to the release of stress hormones, and one’s anxiety can actually increase by worrying about these symptoms.

In a performance situation, the body reacts in exactly the same way as in the sabre-toothed tiger scenario, and the physical side-effects of stress hormones flooding the body can be extremely unsettling when we are trying to be as calm as possible in order to play accurately and well. Many of the techniques suggested for alleviating performance anxiety are to do with “kidding” one’s mental state – positive affirmation (“I can do it!”), Neuro-Linguistic Programming, mindfulness – which can distract one’s mind away from negative thoughts and damaging self-criticism. There are also some very useful physical strategies, including deep-breathing (Pilates-style thoracic breathing) and power poses, which have been proven to reduce cortisol and increase testosterone. In addition to the unpleasant physical symptoms before the performance, many of us also suffer afterwards due the depletion of sugars and salts during physical effort, and the effect of the stress hormones leaving the body and the body settling back into its normal state. frustrated-piano-teacherThese symptoms, which may linger for a good 24 hours post-performance, can include tiredness, grumpiness or depression, and physical aches and pains. Personally, I have found these symptoms more unpleasant than those of pre-performance anxiety. That is until a pianist friend of mine, who is a medic at a leading London teaching hospital, suggested I try using an isotonic sports drink before and after a performance.

Sports people use isotonic drinks, which contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar as in the human body, to help fuel the body when exercising, and to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates which are depleted during exercise. These drinks (the leading brands are Powerade and Gatorade) have also been proven to help patients recover more quickly after undergoing complex colorectal surgery (surgery which puts the body under significant stress) resulting in reduced morbidity rates. I used Powerade before and after a recent concert and took note of the effects. Certainly, I didn’t feel as physically or mentally tired after the performance (c45 minutes of continuous playing of advanced repertoire), and by continuing to drink Powerade on the drive home after the concert seemed to reduce the post-concert slump and the aches and pains I usually experience the day after. An understanding of what my body was undergoing physically before, during and after the performance certainly helped too, and I think if more musicians appreciated the physiological effects of stress they may be better equipped to cope with the psychological side effects too: it largely is not “all in the mind”, rather it is “all in the body”.

Until fairly recently, performance anxiety was a taboo subject for most musicians. To discuss it openly may betray a weakness which might lead to loss of work and by default income. Today many of the leading conservatoires and music colleges have courses, workshops and practitioners in place to help students understand and cope with performance anxiety: the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for example, offers a course in mindfulness for performers, while the Royal College of Music has a dedicated Centre for Performance Science. I believe that a better understanding of the physical effects of stress combined with a positive and sympathetic approach to the emotional and psychological effects will enable musicians to not only discuss performance anxiety more openly with teachers and colleagues, but also put in place effective personal strategies to enable them to play with confidence, fluency, expression and vibrant colour.

 

Further reading

How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed – TED talk by Dr Daniel Levitin

Your body language shapes who you are – TED talk by Amy Cuddy

Science finds new way to overcome your performance anxiety

 

(Header photo from livescience.com)

 

 

The Perils of ‘Overthink’

(picture source: de Melo Counselling)

Overthinking a piece of music can kill it – just as overpractising can. We’ve all done it – and we all continue to do it: thinking too much about the details – articulation, dynamics, voicing, pedaling. Often ‘overthink’ occurs when a piece is known well, but we don’t feel confident enough to let the music take flight or to simply allow the music to “be”. It can also create problems which aren’t really there.

Overthink is driven by the logical, self-critical left side of the brain: the hemisphere which is on the look out for errors, hyper-sensitive to any slips, however small, and always ready to send in the committee of corrections to tick us off for our mistakes. Our mind, specifically the left side of the brain, is the biggest obstacle to reaching peak performance – whether at the piano or on the tennis court. Overthinking will result in a boring, lifeless sound and, potentially, a performance riven with errors – because our left brain thinking has set us up for them in advance. The Inner Critic works for the left brain and can do a great deal of damage to our music and our self-esteem and emotional health as musicians. Unfortunately, western societal mores encourage far too much left brain thinking. From the moment a child goes to school (this is true in the UK, at least), they are encouraged to get things “right” (and be rewarded with stickers, or other signs of approval from the teacher). Mistakes are regarded as “bad” and to be discouraged. I come across this mindset time and time again with my students, who want their pieces to be note perfect. I encourage them to put aside thoughts of “perfection” and to instead strive for expression, musical colour and vibrancy in their playing, but such results are hard won and take a lot of encouragement and positive affirmation on my part.

Over the summer I had encounters with two inspiring teachers who highlighted the need to allow right brain thinking to take charge, to allow one to see the bigger picture of the music, as a whole, and to free oneself from negative self-talk and criticism. In one group lesson I found myself, before I’d even played the piece, justifying why I was going to employ a certain range of dynamics, what my intentions were for the opening phrase and a whole host of other reasons why. Instead, the teacher said, “just allow the music to be. Play with conviction and self-belief and your ideas will come through”. The resulting round of applause from the other members of the masterclass proved her point. In standing back from the details, I had allowed the true character of the music, and my response to and belief in it, to speak, and the resulting sound was convincing, vibrant and, most importantly, natural.

When we have been working on a piece or pieces for a long period of time, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as we become obsessed with making sure all the details of the score are correctly observed. Of course we must do this detailed work and it is important that we do it in an intelligent and methodical way as this ensures a tiny margin of error in performance and enables us to play with a confidence founded on the knowledge that “I know my pieces” (Horowitz). But if you are always thinking deeply when you are playing, you may find yourself suffering from “paralysis by analysis” (a term often used by athletes who fail to meet their potential ahead of a big game or race because of overthinking). If we have overloaded ourselves with detailed information about our music, and have drained ourselves mentally and physically by doing so, we have no resources left for the performance. Music which, in performance, is still undergoing “overthink” can sound lifeless, lacking in excitement and too safe or polite.

The best performances often come “in the moment”, where right brain thinking is allowed to take over. It banishes the inner critic and the continuous commentary of the left brain (“you missed that chord”, “you smeared that scale”), and frees us to be spontaneous, imaginative and creative as we play. Unfortunately, this is not something which happens automatically and is in fact the result of many hours spent meticulously practising and refining the music. Armed with good and proper preparation, one can walk onto the stage and know that a spontaneous “in the moment” performance is possible. In this instance, the final moments before the first notes are sounded can become the most important of the entire performance.

Psychologists and performance coaches talk about “centering”, the act of entering a state where the mind is focused yet relaxed. Observe a top tennis pro such as Roger Federer preparing to serve and notice how he allows himself time to prepare, rather than rushing into his serve. In the moments before we perform, whether in public or at home for friends, family or just the pets, take time to centre yourself. I call this “thinking myself into the music” and this process begins before I arrive at the piano. I imagine myself walking across the stage, sitting down at the piano and preparing to play. At the piano, I hear the opening phrase in my head, imagine the kind of sound I want to create, visualise my fingers moving across the keys. I also try to put myself in a “safe zone”, in my imagination at least, by pretending I am playing at home, on my beautiful Bechstein grand, to my family, or to myself. Or I recall a good public performance and try to take myself back to there, to recreate the emotions, and the sounds.

I have of course experienced left brain interference during a performance, the inner voice interrupting the flow of the music with comments such as “you always play that chord incorrectly and you’re going to do it again now”. But with good preparation during practising I have learnt to banish this voice, usually by using deep breathing techniques. Employing habits learned from mindfulness, allowing myself to perform “in the moment” and banishing damaging post-concert analysis all help to create a performance which is, I hope, convincing, committed, expressive and exciting.

Further reading:

Can Musicians Overthink Their Practice and Performance?

The Bulletproof Musician – a wealth of articles on performance anxiety and how to perform at your best on stage

Charlotte Tomlinson – performance coaching for musicians and creator of Beyond Stage Fright, a series of interviews with well-known musicians on dealing with performance anxiety

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw – resources on dealing with obstacles and learning how to see the bigger picture in our music

The Musician’s Journey with Christine Croshaw

I recently attended an interesting and inspiring workshop with acclaimed pianist and teacher Christine Croshaw.

Using the metaphor of The Hero’s Journeya pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development, Christine showed how this template can help us understand the challenges of the musician’s life.

In the workshop we first explored our initial “call”, the overwhelming desire to become a musician, and discussed how this dream and aspiration gives us energy and direction. Of course we may not achieve our dream in the form in which we originally imagined it, but pushing at boundaries forces us to develop and discover resources to help us, including guides and mentors, to overcome our demons and cross thresholds, and, on the way, learn to transform failure into a valuable resource.

Though we may face “demons” such as:-

  • injury
  • illness
  • dismotivation
  • negative feedback and criticism
  • lack of support from family and friends
  • mental & emotional issues
  • financial issues

– we should always be aware that there are people out there to help us. Sometimes these “mentors” are people already known to us – teachers, colleagues, friends, family – and sometimes they are “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we tune into their qualities and draw those qualities into ourselves so that we can utilise them.

We then engaged in an exercise (“Mentor and Resonance Pattern”) in pairs in which we named three mentors, arranged them metaphorically around us and identified the special qualities which we felt each mentor could offer us. We then offered these qualities from each mentor to our own selves. At first I found this exercise slightly daft, but the more I thought about and engaged in it, the more I found myself carefully considering what qualities I wanted to take from these mentors (one of whom is the pianist Maria Joao Pires, who I much admire not only for her exquisite playing but also her mentorship and support of young and emerging musicians).

Just as the Hero’s Journey is fraught with difficulties and dangers, so is the musician’s, and sometimes along the way we may get “stuck”. Often this is because our focus becomes too narrow and we forget to look at the bigger picture: perhaps we are obsessing about a small section of a piece of music we are working on rather than standing back to consider the piece as a whole, its landscape and choreography. As our music becomes more “embodied” within us, so we become more adaptable, able to react to anything that happens without losing a sense of the whole or the structure of the music, and more open to possibilities. A good example of this is the pianist who because he/she has done the right kind of preparation does not allow mistakes or a memory slip to throw him/her off course during a performance. In this state of “relaxed alertness”, we are more able to connect with self, music and audience.

A person’s errors are his doorways of discovery

James Joyce

Failure may come from external factors such as poor exam results or a bad concert or review. This can be tough, but any failure can be turned into a resource from which we can learn and move on. Trial and error, exploration and experimentation allows us to gain feedback and adjust our approach if necessary, before trying again and progressing.

The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new

Einstein

Much of Christine Croshaw’s approach is drawn from Neuro Linguistic Programming, a way of identifying how people are able to excel in various fields (business, sports, therapy, the arts and many others), and which, put simply, teaches one to “accentuate the positive” by understanding how we create and influence our own experience and behaviour. The techniques of NLP may seem obvious, but putting them into practice can be more tricky, especially if one is prone to negative thoughts, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. The practice of NLP sits well with mindfulness: taken together, the two practices can give us powerful tools to progress in our musical lives with flair and success.

Related articles

The Piano and Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Mindfulness and Piano Playing

Christine Croshaw’s website

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)