Mindfulness is the final concept addressed in the developing relaxed concentration series (go here for the first skill: breathing; here for the second skill: progressive relaxation; here for the third skill: meditation). I chose to address mindfulness last because it is a beneficial way to practice all the previous skills cumulatively. It is a skill that combines physical relaxation with clear, careful cognitive awareness and the passive direction of thoughts. It allows us to be thought observers and to gently redirect thoughts or feelings that we don’t wish to entertain at certain times. This is a vital skill for students and performers to develop as they need to understand that it is completely within their control to direct their thoughts while they play or perform. A word of warning: practicing this skill often results in buried emotions and thoughts rising to the surface. Keep pen and paper or a note-taking device nearby as you work through this.
When musicians are in the process of practicing and creating, it’s not unusual at all for latent emotions or pushed-aside thoughts to emerge. We’ve all had that happen, right? We’re working on a passage and suddenly we remember that dry cleaning we forgot to pick up weeks ago (which, by the way, why do they never call?!), or a poignant memory seems to rise out of nowhere. This isn’t surprising to veteran musicians, and in fact this process can be quite healthy, however it can surprise some younger students and if left unaddressed, can set them on a path of letting their minds run a bit wild during practicing. The trick is understanding how to access and use certain thoughts and emotions in a positive way to enhance a performance and how to redirect those that are only going to distract. There are times when what rises to the surface is not beneficial to the moment and a musician must learn how to redirect without being thrown off course. This, of course, requires practice. We must practice learning how to observe and acknowledge each thought and emotion while assigning each one to its appropriate space. This is why having a way to take notes is helpful; when a thought or feeling emerges that is not beneficial to the moment, but that does need to be addressed at some point, it can be noted and then set aside without fear of being forgotten.
The practice of mindfulness helps bring awareness to these thoughts as well as gives us the power to decide when and how to utilize them. Often we let our minds run unchecked when we practice and perform and we’re not even aware of it until a mistake occurs. Practicing this level of mental awareness reminds us that we can decide how and when we allow these thoughts to take up space. When we’re training our minds to concentrate on something (like channeling a desired emotion or level of concentration in a performance) during a certain period of time, our focus should be steadfast, unmoved by the many thoughts that fight for our attention. This exercise shows us how to awaken our awareness.
First, sit or stand comfortably and relaxed with your eyes closed. You may wish to use your mantra that was introduced here aloud or silently to achieve focus. Set a timer for one minute and remain still and quiet during that minute while silently observing your thoughts. After the minute is up, describe what went through your mind and write it down.
Now imagine you are standing or sitting in or by a river and imagine all the thoughts you just observed as leaves floating gently by or around you. Or perhaps envision yourself in a comfortable, protective bubble. Don’t dwell on any of the thoughts, but if some persist, gently push the “leaf” along, or imagine the thought as gently bouncing off the bubble. Engage yourself in the sounds and feelings of your imagined scenario. Do this for one minute. Continue to extend the time length of this exercise. Begin to make the connection with this exercise to any anxious, painful, or uncomfortable thoughts and remember that when these thoughts come during a practice session, a lesson, or a performance, you gently push them away and return your focus to the sounds and feelings you do wish to experience. You aren’t trying to ignore these thoughts and emotions permanently, you’re simply setting some parameters for them, gently guiding your mind down the path you wish it to go.
This is perhaps the hardest exercise of all the ones discussed up to this point. It requires a high degree of stillness and concentration. But it arguably gives the highest benefit. If you and your students can achieve this level of mental focus, you have made great strides toward securing a consistent, calm performance.
For audio files of real-time guided mindfulness exercises to use with your students, download Strategies for Successful Musicianship.
For more information and worksheets on mindfulness, including teacher discussions, student discussions, activity pages, observation worksheets, step-by-step exercises, reflection pages, and daily practice charts, download the Relaxed Concentration Workbook for Musicians (for yourself) or the Mindfulness for Musicians: Workbook for Teachers and Students (for your students).
Also, check out the free mindfulness worksheets if you'd like an additional hands-on resource to use with students to help you get started.