Mindfulness isn’t just for buddhist monks; for musicians, mindset is just as important as your chops. Stewing on your mistakes and thinking pessimistically about your progress aren’t just bad for your brain – they can have a real hindrance on your actual progress. In this episode, we discuss how mindfulness can help you ignore that negative little voice and focus on your playing.
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Today I want to talk about mindfulness for musicians. This idea came up in our recent episode with Lisa McCormick, whose “Note2Self” methodology for music learning involves becoming more conscious of your inner self-talk and learning to guide it in a more positive way.
This may seem a bit tangential and off-topic compared to some of the nitty-gritty things we talk about on the show, like scales and chords and improvising. But arguably your mindset and ability to direct your focused attention is the most fundamental and important thing to get right in your musical training. And that’s what mindfulness is all about.
I’m going to start off by defining what I mean by mindfulness, and why it’s useful and interesting in general. Then we’ll talk about its relevance for musicians in particular and how it can positively affect the way you practice, perform and create music. Then we’ll wrap up with a simple exercise you can do to start developing more mindfulness today.
What is mindfulness?
Simply put, mindfulness is the ability to be present in the current moment. To be conscious and aware of what is happening – right now.
Not thinking about the future – imagining, wishing or worrying about what might happen.
Not thinking about the past – remembering, analysing, regretting what has happened before.
But being 100% present and aware of what is happening – in your mind and in the world – right now.
I’d like to give you a challenge to try out.
In a moment I’m going to stop talking for about thirty seconds. Try to stay fully present. Not thinking about the future and when I’ll start talking again, not remembering something that happened earlier today or planning how you’re going to do something later on. Not imagining something else entirely and letting your thoughts wander off in a random direction.
I’ll stop talking now – see how you get on.
[ PAUSE ]
How did it go? If you’re like 99% of people on the planet then at least once, and probably several times you found a thought popping into your head and you couldn’t help but follow it. You might have spent several seconds thinking it through, or following the line of thought before you realised “Oh wait, I’m meant to be staying present”.
It’s not easy! It takes practice. We’ll talk in a minute about how you can develop this ability to be mindful and stay present.
But first let’s talk about why this would even be useful.
Why is mindfulness useful?
As you just experienced, our brain’s default activity is to generate thoughts – and our natural inclination is to get lost in them.
Even when we’re doing something, often our minds are somewhere else. Now if you’re washing the dishes, maybe that’s fine. But how often do you have a conversation and realise afterwards you were only half listening to the person – because you were distracted by something that had happened earlier or worrying about something later on?
Or how often have you found yourself getting frustrated or angry as your mind spins in circles on a particular topic. It might be something real in your past like a comment from a friend or family member that rubbed you the wrong way. Or it might be something totally made up, like imagining how you wish that past situation had gone, or planning out how you’ll act in future if a particular situation comes up.
Now don’t get me wrong. Thinking itself isn’t a problem! Our minds are incredibly powerful and we can accomplish amazing things with our thoughts guiding our actions.
But that’s exactly the point: that we want to be using our brain and our thoughts for the purposes we have in mind.
And more often than not, when we’re lost in a whirlwind of thought, or our mind is totally distracted, the reality is that it is totally unproductive. In fact in a lot of cases it’s positively harmful to us and our state of wellbeing!
So mindfulness isn’t about never thinking about the past or future again. It’s about developing the ability to choose which thoughts we want to pursue, and which we want to let go. And that begins by staying present when a thought arises. Not judging it or judging ourselves for having the thought, and not allowing our mind to chase that thought on to the next one and the next that it’s so good at coming up with. But letting the thought come and letting it go again, while we stay present and keep our powerful focus under our own conscious control.
Alright, so maybe that sounds interesting to you: to get better control of your unintended thought processes and have the ability to stay relaxed and present even if something in the past or future is nagging at you.
But this isn’t the “Spirituality Podcast”. It’s the Musicality Podcast.
So what does all this have to do with musicians?
Why mindfulness matters for musicians
I think Lisa did a great job in our interview of painting the picture that so many of us have experienced: when you’re practicing music and you get stuck on something. Our mind’s automatic behaviour is to start getting frustrated. And probably start judging you for not getting it right quicker. And that will probably become a memory that you think of again in future.
So our practice sessions are often bogged down and made negative by these automatic thought patterns.
We actually had a terrific masterclass recently at Musical U, from leading music educator Jennifer Foxx, on the topic of mindful practicing, and she really helped pick apart those negative thought patterns and practice habits that can hold us back.
The danger of our automatic thought patterns goes double for performance situations. We have a training module inside Musical U called “Get Confident” and a big part of that module which really resonates with our members is all about how to handle mistakes. We even touched on that in a recent podcast episode. Because to be a good musician you need confidence that you are a good musician. And when you make a mistake, in practice or during performance, it is so, so easy for your mind to run away with that.
- “I can’t believe I did that!”
- “I screwed it up again.”
- “I’ve been training so hard for this and now all that effort was just wasted.”
- and so on
Imagine if instead of those negative thoughts and getting stuck in the mistake you made you could instead stay relaxed and give your full attention to making the next moment as good as it can be?
If, like Lisa recommended, you had enough self-awareness and mindfulness to see the start of those thoughts – and instead insert your own intended thought – for example her mindset of “problem solving” and the great mantra of “I love this.”
Imagine if every time something didn’t go right for you in music, it caused absolutely zero slowdown. You were able to continue on at full power and full speed, reaching your full potential to be the best musician you can be.
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a superpower. And something that almost none of us are capable of when we start learning music.
The key to it is mindfulness. Developing this ability to choose whether to pursue a thought or let it go immediately. To even have the self-awareness and relaxed-enough mind in the first place that you notice the thought arise immediately – not five minutes later when you realise how much you’ve been stewing on it.
Mindfulness can be the key to maximising the efficiency of your practice sessions.
It can be the key to performing at the best of your ability, whether you make a mistake along the way or not.
It can be instrumental in collaborating with other musicians and locking in with a band when playing live.
And it’s vital to the creative process, whether that’s song-writing or improvising, to be able to let your mind wander only exactly as much as you want it to.
Are you convinced? I hope you can imagine the value of mindfulness to your own musical life.
So how do you develop this superpower?
How to learn mindfulness
This concept of mindfulness is simple enough, and it’s been a long-standing part of meditation and prayer traditions in various religions around the world. It’s perhaps most associated with the Buddhist meditation style called “Vipassana”. If that interests you, you can definitely usefully study mindfulness through the Buddhist tradition.
But I know that a lot of you out there may shy away from adopting a new religion just to accelerate your musicality training!
So I want to talk a bit about developing mindfulness in a non-religious, pragmatic way.
You’ll notice that nothing I’ve said so far about our mind or how we handle our thoughts really has any religious expectations to it. We all have a mind, we all have thoughts, and that means that mindfulness is available to us all, without necessarily pursuing it with a mindset of spirituality or religion.
That said, the most powerful way to develop mindfulness is through meditation.
That may sound funny when I just said this isn’t religious. But more and more, the modern world is coming to realise the power and benefit of meditation, whether it’s inside a religion or not.
I learned about mindfulness though studying meditation as a way to better manage my mood and emotions while running a business. I learned from a book called “Meditation for Beginners” by Jack Kornfield, which I’d highly recommend and will link to in the shownotes. I loved this book because it was 100% practical and gets you started with meditation from the very beginning in a step-by-step way, without requiring any particular religious devotion.
This style of meditation is something I can explain to you right now and would encourage you to try, whether or not you want to get a book and study it further. Because it’s really not much more complicated than what we tried at the beginning of this episode. There’s plenty you can study and it is absolutely like a muscle that you need to train and build up over time. But fundamentally what we’re talking about is just this:
- Step 1: Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Step 2: Focus on your breathing, in and out. Not particularly fast or slow, just try to pay attention to the air coming in and going out again.
- Step 3: When a thought arises, as it inevitably will, your task is just to notice as soon as possible and bring your awareness back to your breath.
That’s it. It really is!
What you’ll find is that it’s harder than it sounds. You might start by setting a timer for just 3 minutes. You’ll be amazed how many thoughts pop up as you sit there breathing, and how hard it can be to bring your attention back to your breath before your mind gets lost in those thoughts.
Over time you will get better and better at this, and there are two abilities you’re going to be developing, both of which will help you in music.
The first is to be self-aware enough to notice a thought arising and observe it without necessarily believing it or taking ownership of it.
The second is the ability to release that thought and return to whatever you want to focus your attention on.
These two things together can transform how you practice, perform and create music. And it’s not something that requires careful planning or conscious careful application of the technique. What you’re going to find is that if you start doing these little meditation sessions regularly your mind automatically evolves and you’ll be able to bring these two powerful abilities to all your musical activities naturally.
If you find yourself enjoying this and finding it useful then I definitely have some more resources to recommend – I’ll put a few suggestions of books, websites and apps in the shownotes for this episode.
But I want to keep it simple – because it is.
Mindfulness can transform your effectiveness and enjoyment as a musician because it’s so often our automatic thoughts which slow us down, hold us back and trip us up.
By becoming more mindful we get to choose which thoughts are useful and which we let go. That frees us up to focus on what we want to, what is most useful, and to be our best selves in music.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. And if you’ve studied mindfulness – or you plan to now – or if you just want to let me know how you got on with the exercises in this episode, I’d love to hear from you. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
I know this has been a slightly different episode – but I hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it interesting for your musical life. And if you try it out, I hope you will find mindfulness as valuable and transformative as I have.