Mindfulness and Music: On Practicing
Last week, I talked a little bit about the general principles behind mindfulness, which Thich Nhat Hanh defines as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality." Let's apply those general ideas more specifically towards practicing music. If you've taught children, you know that practicing can be really tough for them. They are spending time alone, specifically practicing towards an abstract goal, and often would rather do anything else. Most teachers just wish their students practiced at all, because they are able to acquire skills in a lesson but not reiterate them throughout the week. This happens for adults and young adults too, who are unable to focus on the specific task of practicing without distraction.
Start by thinking of places where you practice efficiently-often in retreat settings, places other than your home, school practice rooms, etc. When you choose a place away from your home to practice, you can often reduce your distractions and tell your brain that it's time to do work. This is no different than a meditator or yoga student who finds that going elsewhere and being part of a community is more valuable than going it alone. A community of people with a similar goal can help you stay on task. You can also do the same thing in your home or apartment by creating a practice space or nook, even if it's a corner of your bedroom specifically for practicing. This can tell your brain- this is the space for this task, let's do this!
Let's go back to the act of practicing, though. When you were younger, you probably remember that no one taught you how to practice, and you ended up repeating things over and over, or running through the piece multiple times, or practicing while reading or watching TV. Most teachers don't teach students how to practice, and how to look at an issue (technical, intonation, bow, breathing), diagnose it, and address it, because it's a difficult thing. When you teach people to practice their instrument, you're essentially showing them how to teach themselves, and how to learn, which is a large undertaking. We all know people who just mindlessly repeat things over and over to memorize and perfect pieces, and we also know people who practice minimally, but accomplish great things because of their attention, focus, and specificity.
Here are some things to ask yourself in the practice process: Why am I doing this- what is my desired goal in practicing this? Is what I'm doing right now bringing me closer to my desired technical/musical/physical goal? What are 3 issues that I need to address in this piece/excerpt? And when you're practicing, also ask the questions: how does it sound, how does it look (i.e. if I look in a mirror, is my bow straight, am I moving oddly, lifting shoulders up.,etc) , and how does it feel? Most of us focus exclusively on how it sounds, which is obviously a necessity, but addressing the feeling in your physical body is essential, especially for injury prevention, performance anxiety management, changing technical habits, and building a stronger understanding of musicianship. These are all excellent questions to ask students, especially if they are apathetic or slow to change ingrained habits. If you make a technical adjustment to a student's setup, asking them how it feels can be profoundly helpful, especially if they are not the most embodied of people. Also asking them to describe the new sensations can also be extremely helpful. Recording video or audio of yourself can also be a great way to ask those questions after the fact, after a run through of a piece or passage of music. You can then ask how it sounded in relation to how it felt or how it looks on video.
If I find yourself distracted by my to-do list, emails, cleaning, homework, errands, etc., I find it helpful to write down all of those things before I practice, and then trust that I will deal with those things later. Rather than worrying about what future you needs to do, focus on what needs to be done now, like warming up, practicing orchestra music, etc. Lastly, I always recommend using a timer to stay on task, especially if you're easily distracted (like I've been lately). It might also be useful to turn your phone onto airplane mode! Timers can be an excellent way to focus wholeheartedly on the task in front of you, and practice mindful attention with your instrument.