(This article was originally published February 25, 2014.)
Psychologists have recently been studying what makes high-level musicians excel and have discovered that it has something to do with “mindful” or “deliberate” practicing for just a few hours a day, as opposed to many hours of “mindless” practicing on autopilot. They’ve written about the laser-like attention required to analyze the exact problems in a phrase or passage, and they recommend using practice time to focus intently on solving such problems, rather than repeating a passage over and over without a clear understanding of the issues involved.
Certainly, as a teacher, I know that the ability to precisely pinpoint a technical or musical issue is essential for productive practicing. In fact, the more I teach, the more detailed and exact my instructions become. Technical mastery of your instrument and a comprehensive understanding of the score are essential to confidence in performance.
But there is another side to effective practicing. In addition to sharp mental acuity and deliberateness, we also need great softness and relaxation—a heart to go with the intellect. Without such softness and relaxation, we can lose touch with our humanity. We can get so hung up on perfecting and controlling every move and sound we make that we bury the very essence of our talent—our deep receptivity to music and our love for it.
We could view these two complementary qualities—sharpness and softness—as the masculine and feminine parts of our musical nature. Music itself is constantly expressing these two fundamental types of energy. It continually mixes the elements of rhythmic and lyric, forceful and tender, driving and spacious, explosive and yielding. And it is the artful combination of these two basic aspects of music that gives it its dynamism and power.
Connecting Mind and Heart
I was delighted to read that “mindful” practicing has been recognized as effective and important. My book, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart, published in 1997, predates the current widespread interest in mindfulness in our society and is filled with mindfulness and awareness techniques for musicians. I have also written a number of articles about mindfulness for musicians, including a chapter called “Making Music” in The Mindfulness Revolution, published in 2011, and I teach a summer program, as well as workshops at schools, called Mindfulness, Confidence, & Performance. I am very much a part of the mindfulness movement.
But I advise musicians and others not to think of mindfulness as a heavy-handed tool for solving problems or a scalpel for performing surgery on tough musical passages. The word “mindfulness” essentially means an awareness of both the details and the atmosphere of present-moment reality. Properly understood and practiced, it is very much about opening the heart as well as sharpening the mind. It is a discipline that includes both precision and gentleness, and it cultivates these complementary qualities that are natural in us as human beings.
What We Really Want
Traditionally in Asia, where mindfulness disciplines originated, when a person speaks about the mind, they point to their heart. Yet in today’s frequent, enthusiastic discussions about mindfulness, people talk mostly about its beneficial effects on the brain. That is the organ that we Westerners usually associate with the word “mind.” Nevertheless, neuroscientists are increasingly referring to the effects of mindfulness training on the core of what makes us truly human: our ability to empathize with others and to participate in life with warmth and compassion.
These are obviously the qualities that most contribute to a deeply engaging and meaningful musical performance. When we attend a concert, we want to be moved by music, to feel our heart, our aliveness—to connect to the performer, the composer, and our fellow audience members on a visceral level. Every time we buy a ticket to a performance we are hoping for at least a moment of this powerful experience of our shared humanity. And when it happens, we may tell others about it for years afterward. (“Did you hear his Mozart G major at Avery Fisher Hall?!” I recently enthused to a fellow musician, referring to a particularly memorable performance of that concerto by pianist Peter Serkin.)
How to Get There
This kind of music making starts with clearing your mind and opening your heart in the practice room. Rather than setting a primary goal of “nailing” the performance, make it your aim to bring all of yourself to the work you are doing—including not only strong mental focus but tremendous openness and relaxation. The more you can relax and let go of unnecessary mental and physical tension, the freer your mind and body will actually be to operate optimally, and the better you will be able to listen to the music and to your own ideas and feelings.
This is easier said than done, because we have so many habits of straining and struggling, and so many things to be mindful of when we’re practicing: notes, sounds, body movements and sensations, phrasing, musical architecture, and stylistic traditions. The key to mindful practicing is to be aware not only of these technical and musical demands, but also of the accumulation of mental and physical tension that gets in the way of fully expressing ourselves and of transmitting the depth of the composer’s intentions.
For now, I’d like to offer you three simple but far-reaching approaches to clearing your mind and opening your heart in the practice room.
One: Tune In to Expressive Impulses
I recently coached a string player who was having intonation problems. Although I often work with intonation issues by having the player focus on the harmonic implications in a line, I sensed in this case that the main issue was that she was not letting go and freely expressing herself. She had been working so much as an orchestral player that she had forgotten how to be free—how to play from the heart and not worry about following a conductor’s stick. As soon as she began allowing her natural impulses to come out, her intonation improved dramatically. Her body was free to move, and she became naturally precise.
Similar experiences happen to us in everyday life. We may often feel tense or bottled up, but when we are with someone who appreciates who we really are, our heart opens, and the full range of our natural intelligence and emotional colors emerges.
The next time you find yourself struggling for accuracy or perfect phrasing, consider the possibility that you are inhibiting your natural musical impulses. Without worrying that your playing will be too slow, or too wild and unacceptable by the standards of the musical tradition, just notice how you feel inside about the music and how your energy wants to move through you. The result may feel a little out of control and may sound a little crazy, but it may also be so full of life that if you keep working with it and gradually tuning in to your desire for a satisfying sound, elegant lines, or rich harmonic inflections, your body may gradually find a natural freedom and precision.
Two: Relax with Doubts, Fears, and Confusion
Our state of mind creates so many of our problems in life, including in our practicing. Sometimes we feel at ease and do good work, and sometimes we feel anxious and tense and our work suffers along with us. Real mindfulness in practicing has to include the totality of what we’re doing. We can’t ignore our mental and emotional discomfort; we actually have to work with it, process it, and transform our state of mind on the spot while practicing.
To encourage expressive freedom, we need to recognize and let go of perfectionism and tension in practicing and to relax with both our psychological and our musical experience—including the pain of not yet solving a problem, the longing to be free, and the doubt we feel about our ability, as well as the achingly beautiful sounds that a great genius has given us and the pleasure of moving our body as we make those sounds.
As with the previous suggestion of tuning into expressive impulses, we need to first recognize that we are struggling, and then let go of the struggle. In this case, the approach is to take a moment to relax with the the painful feelings and let them permeate your system. It may hurt a little, but if you take just a moment longer and extend sympathy to yourself, the pain may begin to dissolve. It’s similar to how a good friend can sometimes help you feel better when you’re stressed out, just through their kind and sympathetic presence. Once the pain has dissolved and you’re in a more relaxed state, you can take a fresh start.
Sometimes, however, if the pain doesn’t dissolve so quickly–if you feel really heartbroken–you can just let that feeling pour into the music. Like the string player named David that I wrote about in an earlier article, some musicians give their most powerful performances when their heart just breaks open.
When you work in this more open and human way, you are not only practicing notes and phrases, but you are also cultivating an open heart. You are practicing being an artist.
Three: Clear Your Mind Before You Practice
This last approach can be the most helpful of all, because it trains your mind to continually recognize when you are tense or confused, in any situation, and to come back to a state of natural ease. It is so effective in increasing focus and creativity that major corporations—including Google, Facebook, and eBay—are now making it a part of the daily schedules of their employees. This is the simple practice of mindfulness meditation, which is now practiced by 20 million Americans.
Scientific American magazine, in an article called “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” cites meditation and nature walks, along with naps and a full night’s sleep, as valuable parts of the lives of exceptional artists and athletes. When you consider that scientists have recognized that practicing music is the most complex neuromuscular activity that people engage in, it logically follows that regularly giving your mind a break is a powerful key to high-quality practicing. In the break that meditation provides, your mind has time to process some of the overload of information that has been hitting it all day so that you can unwind and really use your mind effectively.
In contrast to the frenzied, 24/7 approach that many musicians take with practicing, research reveals that top performers are markedly more relaxed than “average” performers. They typically get an hour more of sleep every night, and they also balance work time with leisure time, rather than practicing a lot throughout the entire day. This kind of balance allows the brain, and the whole person, to recharge and be ready for focused, insightful, and enjoyable work. As you probably know from your own experiences with taking vacations, when your mind is refreshed it can analyze technical and musical problems more efficiently and come up with effective solutions more easily. A session of mindfulness meditation is like a mini-vacation from stress and tension.
You will find basic mindfulness instructions in my article Creating Space for Music to Flow, as well as in Chapter Four of The Art of Practicing. The main thing to remember is to go easy with it. Our minds can be like children—wild and chaotic, and needing gentle discipline. If we treat our mind harshly, judging it for wandering and being confused, we may succeed in “whipping it into shape” somewhat, but we will also inhibit its natural brilliance. It’s better to accept its chaotic aspects and to gradually encourage it to settle down and become clearer and stronger. This is mindfulness with heart.
In healthy mindfulness practice, you relax with your mind as it is, letting yourself be human, so that your human beauty and natural playfulness and coordination can come out. By slowing down and attuning yourself little by little to the movements and sounds you make, letting yourself enjoy them, and not worrying about doing it right or getting a particular result, you encourage your body to gradually relax into its natural coordination and precision. You also encourage your heart to open further and further to the music you love.
Why It Works
The reason that this more balanced and human practice of mindfulness leads to confidence in performance is that instead of struggling for results, you are simply returning over and over to what is naturally always within you. Emotional sensitivity, joy in movement, and keen appreciation of details are all part of your innate makeup. Mindfulness simply trains you to tune into these abilities. It introduces you to yourself so that you discover who you really are.
As you gradually uncover your natural musical precision and warmth, your confidence gradually grows stronger until it eventually become unshakeable. You may still feel scared to walk onstage, but as you are walking you will know, from the inside out, that the abilities you carry with you are real.
If you are ready to break through to a new level of confidence in performance, I invite you to apply to the API Online Video Groups. These 90-minute sessions take place live with musicians all over the world twice each month, and each session includes mindfulness practices, group discussion, and a 45-minute music workshop session with me for one of the participants. They are designed to guide you in the gentle, precise discipline of mindfulness, through practices with and without your instrument. You will learn about how to let your mind settle and become clearer, stronger, and more flexible, and to experience how that transforms your practicing. You will also benefit from the feedback of our faculty members, and from the supportive company of other participants.
If you’re considering joining us and aren’t sure if it’s right for you, please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.
Everything you do with music depends on how you choose to spend your time and energy. Mindfulness maximizes both, and I hope you will consider trying this gentle but powerful discipline. It can make all the difference.
I wish you much joy and success.