“Learning the basics in a rote, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity.”
–Ellen Langer, psychologist (The Power of Mindful Learning, p. 14)
How does mindfulness apply to music making? When we’re mindful, we notice. We attend to our sound, emotions, execution, and coperformers.
We perceive accurately, without judging ourselves. We bring fascination to every note we play or sing.
If we slip into mindlessness, though, we operate on autopilot, going through the motions without being fully present. We promote boredom and burnout because we fail to recognize possibilities for creativity or progress.
Unfortunately, I’ve observed that young musicians often repeat material mindlessly in practice, believing that repetition alone will cultivate expertise. It won’t.
Only mindful practice breeds excellence; mindless practice cultivates mediocrity.
Harvard University psychologist and researcher Ellen Langer has proven as much and written about her findings in The Power of Mindful Learning.
Here are five characteristics of mindfulness that Dr. Langer identifies along with some of my thoughts about how we musicians might apply them.
1. Openness to novelty
Each day when we play or sing, we can feel a sense of wonder and gratitude. Or we can take music for granted.
Every time we make music with others, we can spark mutual inspiration. Or we can tune others out.
By opening ourselves to opportunities for novelty – such as new ways to interpret pieces we’ve performed for years – we become engaged and our imagination takes flight. Our every note vibrates with meaning.
2. Alertness to distinction
A lighter touch here? A little more body to the sound there? What about a tad more accent on the downbeats?
As we zero in on distinctions in sound and technique, we heighten our perceptiveness, and our creativity expands in step.
3. Sensitivity to different contexts
Such sensitivity keeps us flexible – we recognize that music needs to adapt as moods and performance situations change.
For example, when we’re mindful, we’ll modify our sound and tempos to fit the sonic properties of contrasting performance venues. And we’ll adjust our interpretations in keeping with the flow of our lives, dialing in punchier or smoother articulations, let’s say, to express varying emotions.
4. Awareness of multiple perspectives
In The Musician’s Way, I wrote, “Music is a field so vast that no one person can comprehend more than a slice of its totality” (p. 104). Through bringing both conviction and humility to our work, we can practice and perform with all our hearts and yet be ready to revise our approach whenever alternate perspectives appear, perhaps during an ensemble rehearsal.
In this way, we uphold a healthy awareness that we might be missing something, staying eager to venture beyond the familiar.
5. Orientation in the present
If there’s a central tenet to mindfulness it’s noticing. Does the passage we’re practicing flow? If not, a mindful attitude enables us discern it immediately and then take pleasure in resolving the problem.
Dr. Langer points out that noticing refreshes rather than fatigues us. What tires us, she observes, is worrying about whether we’ll notice ‘correctly.’
With a mindful orientation in the present, we sense how we truly sound without preconceptions or self-judgments. Then, with shining eyes, we mold our music in boundless creative ways.
See Part I of The Musician’s Way for a treasure trove of mindful practice strategies.
© 2011 Gerald Klickstein