It isn’t easy being a musician. Aside from the daily
practising routine, usually done
alone and in isolation, one can suffer from
confidence and self-esteem issues, and
crippling self-doubt, often the result of
looking at what others are doing and thinking
“should I be doing that?”, “am I doing it right?”
“am I good enough?”.
So, why "mindfulness"? My interest in this form of meditation was piqued when a
pianist friend told me about a mindfulness course she had recently followed and how
she was 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 – and others.
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. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in
London is now runs Mindfulness courses for students to help them deal with issues
of confidence and performance anxiety, and to strengthen ensemble work,
communication and stage presence.
How to apply Mindfulness to the musician’s life:
Reaching a state of acceptance
Resolve to stop comparing yourself to others, stop worrying about what others are
doing and trust your musical self. Accept that certain repertoire may not be “right” for
you (I for example struggle to play the piano music of Ravel – but it doesn’t make me
a bad pianist as a result!). Don’t feel you have to attempt certain repertoire just
because others are doing so. Focus instead on developing your playing in repertoire
that you enjoy and which interests and excites you.
Banishing the inner critic
Learn to switch off the voice in your head which tells you
“I am not good enough".
This “inner critic” can be the manifestation of a variety of things, such as negative
comments from a teacher or peer, which prey on one’s mind. Instead, draw
confidence from the positive and supportive endorsements from trusted colleagues,
mentors, audience members and friends.
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-criticism: in essence, to better trust our musical self.
Mindfulness and performance 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
Why not try a little mindfulness? You might be surprised by the results….
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher,
concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as
The Cross-Eyed Pianist.
She is a reviewer for international concert and
opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and
contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site
She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for
‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content,
and contributes guest articles to a number of classical
music and music education websites around the world,
including Clavier Companion and The Sampler,
the blog of SoundandMusic.org,
the UK charity for new music.
Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series,
an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur
musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and
emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the
same formal concert setting
Read more on her blog: www.crosseyedpianist.com