Mindfulness is a simple, yet powerful concept that we as musicians can use as a tool to our advantage. Mindfulness practice offers a considerable number of benefits, including stress reduction, improving focus, boosting confidence, and offering the opportunity to reclaim the joy that music provides—and it can add a whole new dimension to your musical life too.
But what exactly is it all about?
The simple answer is that it helps build an authentic connection to the present moment, allowing one to enjoy the flow of life as it unfolds. But another core component of mindfulness is the enhancement of self-compassion, and this is what can help transform a musician’s perspectives regarding their own beliefs, judgments, and self-critique.
I recently completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction program that equipped me with a range of practical skills; and I’d like to share these skills with you. Here’s how you can use mindfulness to experience greater joy and unlock your musical potential.
Why do musicians need mindfulness?
I often find it challenging to perform well under pressure—whether in the studio or live on stage—especially if it's an important show where the stakes are high. And like many musicians, I'm guilty of putting myself under immense pressure to perform the best I can.
I often exert maximum effort to focus my thoughts and execute every rhythm on my drum set with fluidity and control. But I've learned that this effort is, in fact, very unhelpful. It's ironic, but true that all these judgments and thoughts are actually interfering with the natural flow of a performance. When musicians, athletes, and actors slip up, it tends to be in the most crucial moments.
What do you see when you see the world's best performers on stage? Relaxed concentration, fluidity, quiet confidence, and joy. It would appear that top-flight musicians seem to be under very little pressure, even though the reality is that the opposite is true.
Let’s have a look at the following formula:
Performance = Potential - Interference
Potential refers to our musical ability, talent, and practice. That's the time we dedicate as musicians to building our technique and learning a song note-for-note. All good musicians practice, and this is what helps us to achieve our goals and progress. Interference is talked about much less often, yet it’s something we all experience; we are not robots, and we can’t just put our minds on mute. Interference manifests as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and pressure from expectations.
In the above formula, the outcome of your performance is dictated by how well your potential can minimize the distractions interfering with it. Now let’s talk about the first part of this equation: potential.
Unlocking your true potential
Most musicians learn that practice makes perfect. But most musicians are never taught the value of training the mind until it’s too late and bad habits and self-doubt have taken hold.
Yet mindfulness plays an integral role in reducing the impact of negative thoughts and self-criticism. It doesn't make these thoughts go away; however, we can certainly learn to take them less seriously, and to step back from them and acknowledge them without investing wasteful mental energy into them.
Focusing on the present moment and carrying a mindful approach when performing music liberates us from the doubts and worries that often cloud the mind. While practicing mindfulness, we allow thoughts to come and go without judging the content of them. We let them pass us by like cars on a highway or clouds above the sky.
Emphasizing mindfulness is about engaging with the present moment and placing deliberate attention on objects of focus, such as physical sensations, sounds, sights, smells, or the breath.
How to practice mindfulness
Mindfulness requires no tools to begin practicing. A great way to start is with a short breathing exercise. All you have to do is sit down in a chair (with your eyes closed), and to relax and focus entirely on your breathing. Try and find a place where you'll be undisturbed throughout the practice.
Focus on your breath and the sensations in through the nose as you inhale and out through your mouth as you exhale. Take a deep breath in, and then a deep breath out. Notice what it feels like as your stomach and chest expand as you take in the fresh air, and then what it feels like as you release the air when you breathe out.
Start with ten deep breaths in and out, one or two times a day. You can then proceed to try ten minutes of undisturbed mindfulness breathing. If you would prefer to try out a guided mindfulness exercise, there are lots available on YouTube and useful apps, including Headspace and Calm.
It’s definitely a skill that requires dedication and commitment to practicing though. It may take some time for you to become comfortable with simply sitting still, and focusing on the sensations of your breath.
The likelihood is that the mind will become distracted; and that’s okay. The purpose is not to divert your attention aggressively, but to kindly accept these thoughts and allow them to pass without judging the content of them. It can help to shift your perspective by seeing thoughts as simply involuntary patterns of brainwave activity. There is no need to feel responsible for them.
Applying mindfulness to musical performance
Mindfulness is scientifically proven to increase the activity within the parts of the brain responsible for memory, emotional regulation, and gaining a wholistic perspective. It's also proven to reduce the amygdala - the body's stress-response signal - and enable you to feel calmer in stressful musical scenarios.
There is no real objective besides being in the present moment. We simply bring our awareness to what we feel, see, and hear with each passing moment. Enjoy being engaged with the present moment and allow the experiences to unfold naturally.
As we step back from doubts, insecurities, pressures, and judgments while performing music, we begin to trust in our innate ability more. It is the valuable muscle memory that retains the information without one needing to try and tap into it.
Mindfulness practice reduces the impact of thoughts and the interference they have on our performance. We learn not to take our thoughts so seriously, and to trust in our own abilities better.
By not taking thoughts seriously, and even giving ourselves the freedom to make more mistakes, it allows us to feel more relaxed throughout our musical journey, whether in rehearsal, recording in the studio, or performing live on stage.
Gideon Waxman is a London based drummer and music educator, who holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Westminster. You can find more of his advice over at Drum Helper - one of the web's most popular free online drumming resources.
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