During a recent band practice, my mind began to wander, as it sometimes will when you’re playing the same song for the 100th time. I started thinking of future article ideas: “Maybe I should research and write something about mindfulness and music,” I thought, and promptly forgot my place in the song, flubbing the next few notes.
At its most basic, “mindfulness” is an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. In a mindful state, daydreaming is supplanted by presence, and attention to the here and now. It can also refer to specific meditative processes, like those popularized by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Stress Reduction Clinic. In the late 1970s, Kabat-Zinn began teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a course based on meditation and light yoga, as a way to help patients deal with stress, pain, and illness.
For some, the idea of meditation summons a range of fears — of anything from religious indoctrination, to having to adopt a new, amorphously “spiritual” lifestyle that will require relentless trips to Whole Foods and the purchase of incense.
In practice, thankfully, mindfulness is a much more grounded process than one might expect, and throughout the 21st century, scientists have studied the positive benefits of meditation on both mental and physical health. They are only just now scratching the surface of meditation’s effect on creative and performance-based pursuits like music.
Mindless Self Indulgence
“Mindfulness allows you to develop a certain detachment from the crazy, hilarious, sometimes brilliant workings of the mind, and find spaces between thinking, from which true wisdom can arise,” says Rolf Hind in an email exchange.
Hind is a classical pianist and composer who has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera house, and at numerous European new music festivals. He’s also an advocate for mindfulness as a powerful addition to the musician’s toolbox.
In 2011, Hind wrote an article for The Guardian titled “Head First: Mindfulness and Music” about his personal experience with meditation and his efforts to introduce an MBSR course modeled after the work of Kabat-Zinn to London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Hind says that the value of mindfulness for musicians can be twofold. First, it helps to unlock creativity, and then helps the body and mind put that creativity into action in the most productive way possible.
“The mind is no longer tightened around argument and its processes, and truths consequently emerge. As a composer, this could be a decision about the shape of a piece, how to deal with a tricky corner, or a more fundamental feeling about what I might want to be writing next. As a pianist, the process is perhaps less obvious — I become more relaxed and focused, physically and spatially aware, and so I make much better use of my time, approach problems directly, and stop when I get tired or tight.”
Hind uses a range of mindfulness techniques in his daily life: “Body scans” that help him recognize physical sensations and establish a deeper connection between his mental and physical presence, “walking meditation”, for when he walks out on stage to perform, and a “50/50” technique that divides awareness between internal sensations and external surroundings.
“As a listener to music, I feel more responsive—as opposed to reactive—and less judgmental when I’m listening with a meditative head on. So, rather than always asking ‘Do I like this?’ [my] question becomes ‘What is this?’ Obviously that will change the way you play and compose too.”
This idea, about the importance of silencing the reactive, over-bearing (and often sour) inner-critic that cripples our creative efforts, is a recurring theme throughout many texts on creative performance.
In her book about writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott likens the litany of negative voices she hears in her head to a radio station, which she refers to, charmingly, as “Radio KFKD”. She advises the reader to breathe deep and simply turn off the station. In Effortless Mastery, pianist Kenny Werner’s classic treatise on learning to play music without fear and self-criticism, the author tells us to let go of the “little” or “ego” mind, and embrace the “intuitive mind.” (Some copies of the book come with a guided meditation CD dedicated to this goal). In The Inner Game of Tennis (a book that has been adopted and adapted by some musicians) instructor W. Timothy Gallwey refers to two selves: The thinking ego self (“Self 1”) and an observing, naturally learning self (“Self 2”):
“It is the constant ‘THINKING’ of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached.”
The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation for Musicians (and Normal Humans, Too)
“I played a horrible show the other night. Some musician I am.”
This is a classic rumination, the act of “passively focusing one’s attention on a negative emotional state like depression, its symptoms, and thinking repetitively about the causes, meanings, and consequences of that state,” as a 2004 study in Cognitive Therapy and Researchwould put it. This study, by Wiveka Ramel, Philippe R. Goldin, Paula E. Carmona, and John R. McQuaid, showed that participants in a standard 8-week MBSR course showed significant reductions in rumination. They just couldn’t dwell on the past while anchored in the present.
In a feature for the American Psychological Association, PhDs Daphne N. Davis and Jeffrey A. Hayes list rumination reduction as an empirically supported benefit of mindfulness, along with stress reduction, improved working memory, increased focus, decreased emotional reactivity, and more.
“Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation,” Davis and Hayes write, “all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning, improvement to well-being and reduction in psychological distress. In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed, as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand.”
Okay, but get to the good stuff: Will it make us better performers?
“I don’t know about being a ‘better’ performer,” says Rolf Hind, “but I’m certainly there more when I play, and it has the same effect on the rest of my life.”
We may not be able to quantify if a mindful violin soloist can “sing” better than a merely present one, but looking at hit-or-miss scenarios, such as an elite shooter’s ability to hit a target with an air pistol after meditating, as at least one 1996 article for the British Journal of Sports Medicine did, shows us that mindfulness practice can indeed increase performance ability.
Perhaps most importantly, studies show that mindfulness increases cognitive ability, as well as our ability to observe and understand ourselves. This is the undercurrent that runs throughout Rolf Hind’s meditation practice, through Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery, and through an elite tennis player’s ability to hit the perfect forehand. If we can observe our surroundings and ourselves objectively and without judgment, our play becomes richer and less restrained. We connect deeper with our inner-selves, we can see our mistakes and challenges in an honest light and without fear, and we can understand and adjust to them more easily, improving in ways that are based on intuition and experience rather than self-criticism.
“It is not helpful to condemn our present behavior patterns,” W. Timothy Gallwey writes in The Inner Game of Tennis. “It is helpful to see what functions these habits are serving, so that if we learn a better way to achieve the same end, we can do so… A child doesn’t have to break the habit of crawling, because he doesn’t think he has a habit. He simply leaves it as he finds walking an easier way of getting around.”
Daily meditation may be a bridge too far for some of us. Rolf Hind says that forcing meditation upon oneself is antithetical to the process, but he also believes we already practice some form of it in our daily lives.
“Sometimes in the period after meditation I will suddenly catch myself thinking, hey, something’s different, and I realize that it’s simply that I’ve gone a length of time without feeling self-conscious and distracted. I believe these are called ‘flow states’, and are something many people [and] musicians will have experienced anyway when they are really immersed in their work [or] performance and there is clarity and focus.”
So the next time you are ruminating on something long in your past, or just wallowing in self-criticism, try a mindfulness exercise. Focus only on your breathing for one minute, following your inhalations and exhalations. Then try expanding your awareness of your breath to include your entire body. Try to feel the full sensations of the things you hold or just touch. Try to notice things you didn’t before or took for granted.
The next time you pick up your instrument to play, instead of judging, simply observe. Note the taste and the texture of the reed in your mouth, the weight of the ivories you’re tickling, the vibrations of the snare drum, the feeling of your fingers and their natural oils on the strings of the guitar. Feel the audience, or just the empty room around you. Note the ease—or the difficulty—with which you play. How do you feel? Are you experiencing what you love about performing, in the moment, or are you thinking: “Milk, eggs, toilet paper, shaving cream…”?
If it’s the latter, you may have lost some of your connection with your craft, and need to re-establish it. There’s no time (or place) like the present for doing so.