The Mindful Music Maker
In my “spare” time, I have a professional hobby that I take very seriously. I am a qualified fitness instructor. I teach Les Mills exercise-to-music courses of Body Pump (weight training), Body Balance (yoga/pilates), and Body Attack (High energy cardio sports training). Learning how to deliver these three very different programs in their own distinctly different essences has been a delightful journey for me. It’s a privilege to interact with the public throughout the week, and the reward I get back is immense.
It is the Body Balance class (a hybrid of tai chi, yoga, pilates, and meditation styles) that I will relate to with regard to being a performing musician and educator. Body Balance and the mindful practices it draws from not only make a person fitter, stronger, more flexible, with better posture and mental clarity, but it can help a person fully engage with the moment, enabling them to feel great detail in the body while breathing with awareness. The training I went through to deliver these classes has taught me how to use the breath in order to accept the feelings of the moment in the body, how to fuel movement, and how to “be” with whatever there is.
It’s exactly what we need every time we pick up our instrument.
Taking part in a personal practice of a mindful activity (yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong, meditation) could transform one’s ability to perform under pressure. Sometimes I just spend a few minutes doing a mindful tai chi flow, or I will “rest” in downward facing dog in my dressing room. During mindfulness practice, we acknowledge the honesty of any feelings of tightness, tension, shallow breath and simply allow it to be there. By doing this, we end up diffusing and disarming those unhelpful feelings, thereby freeing up energy for what it is we want to create. Relaxed awareness is a peak-performance state and mindfulness practice is fantastic tool for helping us achieve that.
Mindfulness can help a person analyse their own playing by bringing heightened awareness to the detail of playing the instrument and its pedagogy. When I practice, I often start by getting a sense of how the vibrations feel with a long tone. I feel the breath travelling down the length of the clarinet. I scan my body for any tightness. I try to pull breath in mindfully, experimenting with different ways of drawing in breath, i.e.: pulling the breath in from the soles of the feet, pulling it into the lower back, the side ribs, etc. Then I start to let things happen but I move my awareness around so I’m really feeling it. What does the shape of my fingers feel like? What’s my embouchure doing? My oral cavity? Can I do anything better? More efficiently? Where is my tongue position? Once I have things flowing, I’m then aware and grateful of how wonderful it feels to play. I love the sensation of the breath moving through the length of the tube, fuelling my music making.
I took an eight-week long mindfulness meditation course a few years back. It was very hard for me at the time. I wasn’t in a great place within myself and I found it very difficult to sit with myself and my flaws. I often became emotional. However, there were epiphanies, too! I started to believe that I didn’t have to perfect to be acceptable. I could give myself kindness. I could relieve pain. In time, I was able to apply the skills of mindfulness to playing my instrument. I started to “feel” myself playing the clarinet. I was able to listen better to what was actually coming out. From the mindfulness course, I also learned effective breathing techniques for achieving a sense of calm and relaxed awareness in a relatively short amount of time. This was great for when I would get a wave of performance anxiety, or even when I struggled to fall asleep.
Through mindfulness practice, I have developed better personal clarinet practicing habits for myself which I try to pass on to my students.
A mindful practice starts with being aware of the physical sensations of playing that I mentioned earlier, but it moves somewhat into the direction of goal-oriented practice. This includes other habits such as asking myself:
How do I want this to sound?
What could I do more, or better?
Was it accurate? Why not? Analyse. How can I fix it?
Did I look for all the detail in the music? Tempo markings, dynamics, accents, articulations. Have I looked at the bigger picture? The longer line, the structure, the atmosphere? What is this line trying to say? With whom am I interacting?
Am I breathing with awareness and taking big enough breaths to fuel the music?
Practice is never boring when there’s so much you can bring awareness to! You can work on a single bar or scale on so many different levels.
Finally, if you’ve never tried a mindful meditation, could I suggest this one here by the famous Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of secular, modern, mindful meditation. It’s a beautiful, highly detailed body scan that’s well worth the time it takes.
Happy mindful practicing.