Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword lately. I keep coming across articles about meditation retreats, drop-in yoga classes, even mindfulness sessions at the office. It seems that nowadays people are finding it more and more necessary to find ways by which they can counteract their stressful, fast-paced lifestyles, and mindfulness practice seems only logical. I guess this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Our modern culture is so saturated with technology and social media to the point that we are constantly being bombarded with all kinds of distractions. As a result it is becoming more and more difficult to absorb ourselves in the present moment, fully aware of where we are or what we are doing, without being overwhelmed by all the things going on around us.
But this has got me thinking.
For us musicians, mindfulness is an integral part of our daily lives. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? Every time we practice, we have the opportunity to immerse ourselves completely in the present moment. We become totally aware of our physical gestures, our sound, our technique, and our intentions. In a sense, the practice room becomes a kind of sacred space of heightened awareness, in which we can freely unpack our thoughts, experiment with ideas and follow whatever impulses we so desire. The best and most productive kind of practicing, I think, occurs when we tap into this fully present, nonjudgmental mindset.
If this notion sounds unfamiliar to you then I encourage you to start thinking about it as a kind of foundation for your practice. Next time you warm up, try this as an experiment (these guidelines are intended for cellists, but if you play a different instrument feel free to make any necessary adjustments):
Before you even put your bow to the string, just sit calmly in your chair and take three deep breaths, paying attention to the naturalness of your posture, the feeling of balance in your body, your feet resting on the ground and your butt resting on the chair. Take this opportunity to center your focus and gently let go of all the unhelpful thoughts and distractions in your mind.
Now take any ordinary scale, three or four octaves, starting with long held notes, then changing to 2 notes per bow, then 4, 6, 8, 12, 16 and finally one bow all the way up and down. This is a fairly conventional and universally-known scale exercise. But rather than going through the exercise mindlessly, use this as an opportunity to cultivate deliberate mindfulness.
Observe the way you anticipate the string crossings with your right elbow; notice any sudden or jerky shifts and calmly find ways to change positions more fluidly; pay attention to the regularity of your breath, particularly when it becomes difficult; listen for an even sonority in the sound regardless of what string you are playing on or where you are in the bow; try to keep your neck loose and your head in a natural, objective position, even as you travel into the upper registers; listen to make sure that the sound doesn’t dip at the bow changes; if you find yourself holding muscles then find ways to release them.
There are so many things to think about! You can do the same with arpeggios and double stops or even difficult passages in the repertoire.
Warming up in this manner establishes a calm, focused foundation for the rest of your practice, and allows for a feeling of oneness with the instrument.
I’ve never really seen the benefit of warming up with lightning fast scales and arpeggios. It just doesn’t help me feel grounded in any way or allow me to enter into the right kind of mind space. When you’re focused, however, your mind can act like a radar, objectively monitoring your movements and allowing for small adjustments to take place, seamlessly and naturally.
If you find it difficult to tap into this state of mindfulness when practicing, you are not alone. Sometimes odds are simply against us, with various thoughts vying for our attention—personal dilemmas, relationship troubles, that paper you’ve been procrastinating, that laundry you need to take care of—making it impossible to focus. But I find it helpful to try to remember that practicing, in a sense, is a unique kind of luxury. And it is important to try to make the most of that sacred time. Time set aside for nothing but ourselves, our instruments and our music. Not everyone has this kind of opportunity to block out the chatter and noise of the outside world and immerse themselves completely into the privacy of their inner worlds and chosen pursuits. When you think about it this way, it becomes such a precious source of joy and fulfillment, and encourages us to make the most of it each and every day.
Imagine if we could apply this kind of mindfulness to any other activity, whether it be writing, reading, cooking, hanging out, running, or whatever else you enjoy doing.
I believe we would be able to draw so much more meaning from normal everyday pursuits. Mindfulness in conversation could lead to a more empathic and engaging discussion. Mindfulness when we walk in the park could open our eyes to the beauty of nature and the landscapes that surround us. Mindfulness when we are reading a book could allow us to identify more deeply with the characters and their individual plights.
So often I will find myself having cooked a nice meal, only to destroy the experience by trying to multi-task, phone in hand, while I eat it. Wouldn’t it be a more fulfilling experience simply to focus wholeheartedly on enjoying all the wonderful aromas and flavors of the food? At other times I’ve caught myself looking through emails whilst trying to have a conversation on the phone with a friend. Again, wouldn’t it be far more engaging and worthwhile if I were just fully present?
In this sense, mindfulness is more than simply a state of focus. It opens the door to curiosity and creativity; empathy and kindness; gratitude and appreciation; joy and contentment. It allows us to let go of the clutter in our mind, valuing and paying attention to things that are right in front of us. Through mindfulness, we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us; we can discover new passions and pleasures; fresh insights and perspectives. It reinvigorates our lives with meaning, reminding us that the world around us is a miracle that ought to be experienced with our full attention and empathy.
Perhaps above all, it encourages us to be present. And in the end isn't that what is most important?
As musicians we are lucky because when we practice we are being mindful without even realizing it. But practicing is only the beginning. There is certainly something to be said about applying this kind of mindfulness to all the other areas of our lives. It could only make life more rich, more meaningful and more fulfilling.