How including mindfulness in your practice can improve your music and your life
By Diana Ladio
Mindfulness is a buzzword making its way around our newsfeeds, but it’s an idea truly worth considering as an aid to music-making. Playing an instrument is as much in your head as in your hands. Slowing down, being fully present, and harnessing run-away thoughts can be life-changing, musically and otherwise.
You must’ve found yourself playing scales or études only to “wake up” mid-scale and realize you hadn’t thought about a single note you played. Or found yourself paralyzed by negative thoughts before big performances. Musicians are champions of letting their brains get in the way. It’s frustrating, but because our brains are powerful enough to wreak havoc, they’re also powerful enough to do the opposite and help us achieve some of our most beautiful and expressive moments. Practicing mindfulness gives you control and a choice in the matter. You spend the time perfectly preparing your fingers and hands, but also need to spend the time preparing your thoughts.
Mindfulness is often described as “quieting the mind.” A visual I often use: Imagine your thoughts are like a clutch of baby chicks chirping and darting frantically in every direction. Pick one up and he slips through your fingers to rejoin the chaos. Practicing mindfulness teaches you to lovingly tuck all the chicks in a little basket and sooth their chirping. They’re all still there, but now they’re sleeping or cooing softly.
Practicing an instrument is the perfect place to employ these ideas, because you have something very specific and physical to focus on. Many meditators focus on parts of their body or their breath to center their thoughts, but musicians have their instruments.
Here are a few ways you can use your practice sessions as the perfect landscape for mindfulness:
1. Slow down. Practice moving very slowly and intentionally as you prepare for practice or performance. (I used to take a slow walk down the halls of the music school reciting “slow and controlled . . . ” before performances.) Try slowly opening your case and delicately taking out your instrument with care to notice every sensation. You’ll be poised to play more deliberately and less frantically.
2. Practice presence. Warm up slowly with long bows, working specifically on keeping your thoughts focused on the bow and the string. Nothing else. Set your metronome for 60 bpm and do 4 counts per bow, then slow to 8 counts, and eventually to 32 per bow. You’ll have no choice but to focus closely on the contact with the string and be aware of every muscle controlling your bow so as to keep the sound consistent. When your thoughts wander, just intentionally bring them back to the string. Notice when you finish how your thoughts come rushing back in. That’s a good sign; it means they were absent for a short time.
3. Include stillness. After a practice session, sit still with your instrument and spend a minute reflecting on all that went well and where your thoughts or worries may have run away from you. No need to ridicule or judge, just notice.
4. Find gratitude. As I’m packing up my instrument or leaving a rehearsal, I quickly find three things to be grateful for and say them out loud to myself. It’s often simple like “Thank you for today. Thank you for warmth. Thank you for a pain-free session.” It may change my perspective on how the whole rehearsal went.
Don’t expect a “click” as you suddenly become a meditator; it’s a slow practice and the act of attempting can be enough to create a noticeable difference. The gurus say that if you find yourself having run-away thoughts, don’t consider the session a failure—just lovingly take the chick and tuck it back in the basket. In the early stages that may happen every few seconds.
How do you know mindfulness is working? It’s different for everyone. I find that I’m less reactive, and less “twitchy” before performances. I feel steadier and in control. I’m more aware of my thoughts and their tendencies, so I can patiently and intentionally redirect them when they arise. I acknowledge worries without letting them get too powerful. I find it easier to be fully present in performances, leaving my mind freer to emote.
Here are some affirmations to recite during your practice. We could all stand to hear these more often, and they’re even more powerful when they come from within:
- “You are incredibly accomplished.”
- “You took a step forward today.”
- “Your art is a gift to the world.”