Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

Mindfulness for Musicians

Most of us know music is an artistic, emotional and often spiritual expression of ourselves. Listening to music can get us excited, cheer us up, it can equally be relaxing and conciliatory.
Playing music can be a reprieve from the daily grind, it can lift our spirits and be an emotional outlet. But as musicians, whether starting out or trying to make a living, we can put enormous pressure on ourselves, and this can result in a lot of tensions and anxiety relating to our music.

There has been a lot of publicity about 'Mindfulness' in recent times. It has become trendy, seems like everyone is jumping on the bandwagon so to speak. While I do not agree with all of it, having read bits and pieces on meditation, mainly from a Buddhist tradition, along with various ideas and strategies to improve mental health, I find the idea of focus in the moment and non-judgmental awareness fits in very well in music practice.

In today's world of constant pressures of work and life, everything moves so fast we hardly get time to notice. Mindfulness brings back to us this awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, experiencing every moment. Giving us a break from worrying about the past or the future.

Music too is like this, a great piece of music can hold our attention and draw us in to the moment. The cliche of the 'tortured artist', isn't always too far from the truth. There are many things that can be easier to express through art or music than actual words, for whatever reason. But we can still find ourselves putting pressure on ourselves to practice more, to perform better, and this can get very frustrating, to the point that it's no longer enjoyable, or good... the more frustrated we get the worse it sounds.

Incorporate some 'mindful' activities to combat these moments:

BREATH
Practice breathing,
1. While still and;
2. While slowly making the movements that you use to play.

Unless you actually need to breath to play, for example, singers, wind or brass players where the music is going to determine much of your breathing pattern. Others such as string players, pianists, guitarists, percussionists, harpists etc... we must make a conscious effort to breath.

Try this: Play a simple exercise such as a scale. Practice breathing, much as you would control your breath whilst running long distance, time your breath in and out with the movement of the bow or per octave.
As you do this, feel every movement, notice every muscle, how it moves, if it is holding tension, is your weight distributed evenly, is the weight being transferred as it should be into the instrument.
As you notice each of these things, try to adjust them, release the tense muscles, transfer the weight, economise and optimise your effort, control the movements. 

The next thing you will be noticing is the quality of the sound as you make these adjustments, hopefully it is improving, but perhaps at times it is not, continue adjusting, focusing your attention on that area.  

Note that this is contrary to the main principle of mindfulness; being that you notice all , but make no judgement. But, in order to improve our playing, the practice session must have some critical objective judgement involved. Use specific and descriptive words when you do this exercise ie. the notes could be more smooth, or the sound more even. Try to avoid pejorative terms.

This can in some sense be likened to the practice of a walking meditation. Noticing the movement and feel of muscles and senses.

FOCUS

A lot of meditation practice is about discipline, focus and concentration. This certainly holds for music practice too.

  • Try to make sure you have as little distractions as possible that may interrupt your flow.
  • Set an alarm for a certain amount of time to work on an activity. This is especially useful if you have limited time available to practice and makes sure that you can cover everything you want to and don't get stuck on one particular thing. For example working away at a particularly difficult exercise, the alarm goes to remind you to move on: you avoid getting to a point of frustration and start to undo your good work by over-working it. 
  • Try to notice how many times your mind drifts away from what you are playing during each exercise or piece. Even the fact of deciding to do this can help focus your mind on what you are playing, and if you notice there is more drifting than focusing, you might have done enough for the day.
  • All this focus can make for very good quality practice, but it can be mentally tiring. Take little breaks, just for a minute, stand up, walk around, then get back into it. And... know when your done - if you've lost concentration it can be counter productive. (See previous point). You know your ow limits and how long you can maintain effective concentration on one activity.

VISUALISE

Visualisation is as important in practice stages as in performance and it is a two fold concept:

1. Visualise in your mind how the piece is going to sound, how does the very first note begin, hear it in your mind, think of the pulse and rhythm the tone and dynamics. Visualise the movement of your bow and fingers and hear the sound that is produced. take a couple of good deep breaths, feel everything relax in.

2. Visualise the piece in your mind before you start , feel the surroundings, you are aware of your audience yet not thinking about them. Draw on your musical inspiration from some imagery you can associate with the music. Focus on any accompaniment to bring your attention to the music. Always be thinking about the line you are playing, not worrying about a really hard bit on the next page or that high note you missed a few bars back, absorb yourself in what is happening now.

PERSERVERE

Almost everything is difficult at some point and there are times for all of us that certain things seem well beyond our capabilities. Perhaps they are, but it doesn't help to throw in the towel. As my mother often says, "take a deep breath, and get on with it".
Well... yes, easier said than done in the context of practicing. But do BREATH, deeply and slowly feel the air through your nostrils, filling your lungs and breathing out feel everything relax and sink down. As many times as you need, then go back to what you were working on, but this time taking it back a notch, break it down, processing every movement and note with a careful awareness.
Even if it is not as fast or loud or whatever it needs to be, as it was before, you are still better off. Psychologically, you finish the session playing it well, you feel better about coming back to it next time.

If all his is very unfamiliar to you Mindfulness in Plain English by Venerable Henepola Gunaratana is a very good, easy to read and practical book to get you started.
Also check out your local Buhddist Temple, they often have meditation and mindfulness courses or will welcome you to attend a session. You don't hve to buy into all of it, but you will get enough understanding of the practice to apply it to your own practice.

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