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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. 

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