Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: mindfulness

A Bit on the Science of Mindfulness

Love these images from Headspace.com, showing the difference between meditators and non-meditators.

Love these images from Headspace.com, showing the difference between meditators and non-meditators.

In my last two posts, I've talked a little about what mindfulness is, and how it affects our daily life, from practicing, to stress, to focus, and creativity.  Now, let's take a look at the science of mindfulness and meditation and its benefits for the brain.  First of all, for research purposes, scientists are often comparing the brains of people who practice mindfulness meditation practices regularly vs. people who don't.  Meditation doesn't have to be Buddhist, involve sitting on the floor, or incense.  Teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield have taken the benefits of Buddhist meditation to people of all faiths, occupations, and "ability" levels (i.e., never meditated before).  There are other mindfulness practices that don't include meditation, including yoga, martial arts, chi gong, etc.   Here are some of the major benefits to integrating mindfulness practices into your life:

Think of mindfulness practices as training your brain to be more versatile!  

Think of mindfulness practices as training your brain to be more versatile!  

1.Your Brain Changes: Your brain actually can change the way it works thanks to a process known as neuroplasticity, which means that the way you regulate emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc., is changeable ( lots of other brain things like motor control and movement are changeable too).  Scientists have found that meditation changes cortical thickness (i.e., the size of your cortex), "particularly true for brain areas associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing."  Amazing!  There has also been noticed changes in the size of the brain stem, grey matter density, and white matter density.  

2.  STRESS: Mindfulness practices can transform chronic stress (sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system) to the rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system).  When you stay in a constant place of stress (fight or flight), your body's fundamental functions of sleep, digestion, and libido.  I've found mindfulness practices to be extremely helpful in preparing for auditions, concerts, recitals, and dealing with stressful colleagues.  Study here!

3.  ANXIETY:  Similar to the above changes with stress, your relation with anxiety can change by implementing mindfulness practices into your life.  (This could be in conjunction with other therapies or treatments).   Chronic anxiety and depression can be positively affected by contemplative practices (including meditation, mindful movement, yoga, etc.).  See the study here!

4. FOCUS: We all know that focus and attention is hard to come by these days, between phones, TV, computers, and all manner of digital media.  Mindfulness practices can help to hone our ability to focus on tasks, resist distraction, control impulses, and sustain attention.  I've seen this first hand in my own life and practices, unquestionably!  Think about practicing with keen attention to focus and detail, even for short periods of time.  See the study here!

Image from Headspace.com, but I love this idea of constantly being overloading with information and not being able to turn OFF.

Image from Headspace.com, but I love this idea of constantly being overloading with information and not being able to turn OFF.

5. CREATIVITY: We know there is a focus between attention, problem solving, and creative inspiration, but a 2012 study concluded that mindfulness and creative problem solving go hand in hand.  One of the things this and other studies looked at was "cognitive rigidity," as opposed to a freer approach to solving problems, creative endeavors, and thinking outside of the box.  One of the conclusions was, “that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be ‘blinded’ by experience”. You know this in your own practice and performance life- there will be times when you are calm, focused, and profoundly inspired to practice, write, teach, or perform, and when you have creative musical ideas, new ways of teaching, or new solutions.    See the study here!

So do you believe me now?  Meditation practices can profoundly affect all people, but I think they are particularly relevant to the physical and emotional stresses of musicians, administrators, and music educators.  Two great places to start are Headspace, which is an online secular guided meditation program that can be downloaded to an iphone, ipad, computer,etc, or the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which is a meditation practice implemented in medical communities, clinics, and private practices throughout the world.  

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!

Why am I practicing and what do I hope to accomplish today, right now, or in the next 20-30 minutes?

Why am I practicing and what do I hope to accomplish today, right now, or in the next 20-30 minutes?

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.   

How does one bow hold LOOK different than the other?  How does it FEEL different, and how does it SOUND different?

How does one bow hold LOOK different than the other?  How does it FEEL different, and how does it SOUND different?

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. 

Mindfulness and Music

Mindfulness is a buzzword in modern society, but what exactly does it refer to?  I love Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh'ss definition of mindfulness, "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality."  For me, that means being aware of my body, my breath, thoughts, actions, and interactions with the world.  That may sound simple, but we live in a time of mindLESSness. 

When we walk, we are often so distracted by thoughts, feelings, the past, the future, etc., whereas we could be aware of the walk, the weather, the scene, etc.  This is very true in the practice of music, performance, and preparation!

When we walk, we are often so distracted by thoughts, feelings, the past, the future, etc., whereas we could be aware of the walk, the weather, the scene, etc.  This is very true in the practice of music, performance, and preparation!

Ex. People walk, drive, and eat while looking at their phones or tablets, ignoring people around them, other cars, the food they're eating, or where they're walking.  We go out to eat and people put their phones on the dinner table.  Our phones are also getting more and more distracting- more "updates," "reminders," "notifications," and so forth.  Our digital distractions prevent us from interacting with the world around us wholeheartedly, or at least noticing when things are happening.

Mindfulness is brain training- refining your ability to pay attention, to stay focused, alert, and adaptable, things musicians need!

Mindfulness is brain training- refining your ability to pay attention, to stay focused, alert, and adaptable, things musicians need!

Musicians are by nature, training mindfulness, attention, and mental focus when they practice their instrument, rehearse, and teach others.  When you perform a recital, play an audition, or even play in studio class, you are probably quite aware of your body, the music, the space, and your breath.  What if you could apply more of that attention on a daily basis?  We've seen musicians who have astounding attention and mental focus- conductors who conduct hefty works without a score, pianists playing challenging works without music, singers sustaining difficult operatic roles, and performances of contemporary music.  We've also experienced the opposite- when you can't focus on practicing, when you're attention is on your email inbox, your to-do's, cleaning, eating, or just about anything else. 

If you're a wind player, you're probably aware of your breath, but for the rest of us, we only notice it when we're nervous, performing, or auditioning.  Can you become more aware of your resting breath?

If you're a wind player, you're probably aware of your breath, but for the rest of us, we only notice it when we're nervous, performing, or auditioning.  Can you become more aware of your resting breath?

In yoga and many meditation disciplines, the study of mindfulness is called a practice.  The daily practice of musicians is very similar- it's an exploration of mindfulness in application to creating sound.  Mindless practice might be running through repertoire without really noticing what happened, or repeating a passage over and over again with the same objective, playing scales while watching TV or reading (something many kids, including myself did), or just being unable to focus on the task at hand. 

I'll talk a bit more about this next time, but can you "keep your attention focused on the work," whether it is practicing, orchestra rehearsal, teaching, an admin task, or listening?  How often does your mind wander while practicing?  While at rehearsal?  How can you bring your attention back?

Your Phone is Trying To Kill You (or at least prevent you from ever practicing)

Last week I drove to Dallas at 5 AM in the morning, and while this is not recommended, I made it safely with the help of Amy Poehler's audiobook, "Yes, please."  The final chapter is entitled, "The Robots Will Kill Us All: A Conclusion," and it details the ways in which phones have taken over our lives.  Few would disagree that phones are a distraction for any person- you try to do work and it pings and zings, but for a musician trying to practice or accomplish anything, it is like a spoiled child constantly wanting food.  Poehler writes, "My phone sits in my pocket like a packet of cigarettes used to.  I am obsessed and addicted and convinced my phone is trying to kill me."  I totally agree, and here are some of my reasons of why my phone is trying to kill me (and possibly all of us):

I don't remember where I saw this, but it makes me laugh.  I am guilty of being obsessed with the phone like everyone else.

I don't remember where I saw this, but it makes me laugh.  I am guilty of being obsessed with the phone like everyone else.

1.  Text message sounds: you can't do anything without the pinging of the text sound.  It's ubiquitous and can kill any practice session in seconds.  I love being able to reach people, but sometimes I just turn everything on airplane mode so I can actually get something done.

2.  Every app now gives updates, including Facebook which then pings to tell you that someone commented on your status/your friend's status/your mom's status/your friend's baby photos.   More pinging/zinging/bells sounding.

3.  We carry our phones everywhere because they still act as watches.  I am completely embarrassed to say that I don't wear a watch and I just bring my phone with me.

4.  We have tuners and metronomes on our phones, which then justify keeping them on the stand.

Smartphones invite us to slouch our spines and bring our heads forward to look down.

Smartphones invite us to slouch our spines and bring our heads forward to look down.

5.  We interact with some people less in person, and more via text.  I know more than one colleague who is incredibly awkward in person, but a very verbose texter who uses abundant emojis (something I only recently discovered).

6.  Musicians now bring phones onstage, in rehearsal, to lessons, and everything in between.  In my day (10 years ago), people turned their Nokia phones off or got in major trouble for disrupting rehearsal.  Now, everyone thinks they've turned their phone off and then a phone goes off in rehearsal or a concert every few weeks, and it's so normal that few people react.  We don't need our phones with us all the time.

7.  They breed comparisonitis.  You can essentially stalk people and see if they win auditions, went to auditions, music festivals, etc., and

8. We check it all the time, as though something interesting and exciting is happening.  67% of cellphone owners check their phones even when it isn’t alerting them to incoming information, according to a recent Pew study. 

See how this person is lifting his shoulder to talk on the phone?  It can be super painful!

See how this person is lifting his shoulder to talk on the phone?  It can be super painful!

9.  We overuse our eye muscles by keeping the object the same distance from our face, giving us the tunnel vision effect.  Then we slouch our spine and bring our head forward to text.   We sometimes lift our shoulder or contort our body in other unpleasant ways to use the device.

10.  We have no idea what the radiation/cellular waves will do to us, especially since so many people keep phones in pockets and on their person.  The electromagnetic waves are no joke, but since the influx of cell usage is new, we don't know the long term consequences.

11.  They invite us to be more distracted drivers, more distracted practicers, more distracted everything.  I know so many people who can't have dinner or drinks without their phone on the table, despite being with other people.  *Please don't text and drive.  It's stupid.*

12.  Lastly, they contribute to our inability to focus on tasks for long periods of time.  (Obviously, the internet is also to blame).  It's so easy to get distracted while practicing, writing, listening, studying, watching TV, or anything.  We just so rarely do one thing, and do only that thing. 

A few suggestions:

1.  Unless you have to be reached for some reason, try turning your phone off or into airplane mode sometime.  I usually do this for walks, practicing, and runs, and find I'm less distracted.  See if you can practice better free of that distraction.

2.  Don't carry your phone in your pocket.  Radiation+proximity to genitals=a curious and possibly dangerous mix.

3.  Don't drive and text/facebook/whatever.  Tell Siri to do something and if she doesn't do it (she's a righteous robot sometimes), pull over and get thingsworking.  I'm terrified when I'm driving near someone  (or in their car) fiddling on their phone.

4.  Notice if you hold your cell phone by lifting your shoulder up.  Please don't do that- switch sides, hold it in your hand, or get a headset. 

5.  Don't forget to be alive in the present, not just on the internet.  I find myself occasionally obsessed with checking my emails or looking at blog stats, and I have just to remind myself to get a life and do something better.




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