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Five attitudes of mindfulness for the performing musician

Comedian Jack Benny made famous the old joke, “Pardon me, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The punchline, of course, is “Practice, practice, practice.” And yet, it’s not entirely true.

Musical success does require many hours of repetition, the careful refinement of difficult passages, and a high standard of excellence. It demands intense scrutiny and a highly critical ear. Mistakes are corrected and phrases are fine-tuned until they’re nearly impeccable. Even then, they can always be better. A practice mindset requires striving, achieving, and the curious “divine dissatisfaction” famously articulated by choreographer Martha Graham.

This perspective, however, is limited. The same qualities that fuel a practice session have the potential to derail a performer on stage. In a public performance, we don’t have the luxury of stopping to fix mistakes or hone interpretations. The striving that propelled our rehearsals can suddenly make our performances sound labored, even contrived. Few performers can truly experience a flow state of consciousness when every musical gesture is analyzed.

Mindfulness may be the gentlest and most nuanced of all practices, but it is also perhaps the most powerful.

Perhaps surprisingly, a world-class performance integrates dual mental perspectives. Because these viewpoints are somewhat paradoxical, they can be difficult for musicians to reconcile. In contrast to a practice mindset, a performance mindset allows the performer to release many of her perfectionistic ideals in order to hear herself from the perspective of the average audience member. Through objective awareness, she can perceive the larger picture, which might include the character of the music and her own expressive personality. Listening from this broader perspective requires a performer to surrender a great deal of the criticism and self-judgment on stage that served her so well in practice.

Mindfulness is the mental skill that can help musicians practice the more abstract philosophies of this performance mindset. A trendy synonym for awareness, mindfulness is simply the deliberate and nonjudgmental focus of attention on the thoughts and events of the present moment. The following are five counterintuitive attitudes of mindful awareness that can help self-critical performers adopt a healthy performance mentality.

  1. Non-striving. This attitude implies that we can accomplish a necessary task without effort. When the motor skills required to play a musical instrument are rehearsed to the point of automatic execution, the need to work hard begins to diminish. When we stop exerting and start allowing, our performances can begin to sound more effortless and spontaneous.
  2. Nonjudgment. Concerts are rarely note-perfect, and musicians seldom perform free from distractions. When something goes awry (and at some point, it will), we can view the event objectively before moving on. If we can perceive all performance events with the relaxed awareness of an impartial witness, without ascribing positive or negative qualities to them, we may find it easier to stay focused on the task at hand.
  3. Acceptance. It’s easier to accept positive events than negative events. Yet, accepting is not necessarily the same as condoning—it is ability to acknowledge the present moment by seeing things as they really are. By the time we recognize that something has happened, whether a missed note or forgotten lyric, that event is already in the past. Acceptance can help us quickly return our attention to the present, making any necessary adjustments.
  4. Trust. Few musicians feel as prepared as possible when they walk out onto the stage. The very nature of the performing arts presumes that our preparation could always have been better. By learning to trust our groundwork, talents, and abilities, we can begin to silence the chatter of our hardworking inner judges. Trust allows a musician to direct her focus away from her own self-doubts, and pay closer attention to what she is communicating to an audience.
  5. Letting go. It is indeed a paradox to struggle toward the pursuit of artistic excellence, and then let all of that go as we walk out onto the stage. Clinging is sometimes rooted in insecurity. Once we are able to identify our anxieties, frustrations, limitations, and biases, we can learn to detach ourselves from the tyranny of our own thoughts. The realization that we are not our thoughts is a brave step in the direction of mindful awareness.

Mindfulness may be the gentlest and most nuanced of all practices, but it is also perhaps the most powerful. If you had told me thirty years ago that acceptance, trust, and non-striving would be my most important mental skills for performance success, I would have laughed you right out of my practice room. I would have enumerated my unfinished tasks, my technical flaws, and other responsibilities that demanded my immediate attention, before politely closing the door. In a culture that celebrates busyness, it is a paradigm shift to experience allowing, trusting, and being. But in that space of present-moment awareness, we can begin to recover our freedom as creative, expressive, joyous musicians.

Featured image credit: “Guitarist in an Art Museum” by Mariya Georgieva. Public domain via Unsplash.

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