This post outlines some of the psychological and neurological research on mindfulness in the lives of musicians and describes ways you can incorporate mindfulness into your life today.
Research on Mindfulness (and Musicians)
Review of the Basic Research on Mindfulness
Mindfulness is defined as a mental practice that focuses one’s attention on the present moment with non-judgmental awareness. It originally stems from Buddhist traditions but has found its way into popular media in the past couple of decades, especially with the rallying of celebrities like Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Jerry Seinfeld, and many more.
The practice mostly involves meditation techniques, such as breathing awareness and control, body scan and awareness, attention on thoughts and feelings, and problem solving.
Although the practice of mindfulness is ancient, the rigorous study of it in the behavioral sciences is still relatively new (yes, 20 years is considered young for a research field). There are countless studies on the topic. Despite the many articles reporting the mental benefits of mindfulness, however, we still know relatively little regarding how it actually interacts with and changes your brain.
This is to say that there are many studies that “prove” it changes your brain, but because these studies haven’t yet been replicated and because they are mostly cross-sectional (short term) rather than longitudinal (long term), we can’t say with full authority that mindfulness does everything the media reports it to. Most of these reports are personal accounts. These are acceptable, but it is important to understand that we can’t simply say that “science proves it” because there is a lot of research still to be done.
The reported benefits and the studies of mindfulness to this point, however, are pretty convincing and include changes in mental structure (in large-scale networks that affect attention, emotion regulation, and self-awareness) and overall life satisfaction.
Mindfulness, if all of the reports and studies are accurate, can help us deal with the difficulties of life. But what about in our music studies?
Mindfulness for Musicians
Surprisingly, despite the assertion that practicing mindfulness meditation can help with problems specific to musicians, like performance anxiety, there haven’t been many studies on mindfulness and musicians.
The most rigorous and long-running study I found was conducted by Anne-Marie Louise Czajkowski, Alinka Elizabeth Greasley, and Michael Allis (and published this year, 2020) at the University of Leeds (UK) where mindfulness is actually a two-year program that students participate in.
The study followed 25 students through their two years in the program. Through both interviews and questionnaires, the [study runners] collected both quantitative (more numbers) and qualitative (more storytelling) data. Doing so allowed them to understand the reasons behind the students’ reported feelings.
They found that the body scan technique helped students with instrumental technique. This was related to specific body awareness, tension, and sound (which is also related to problem-solving). By practicing being aware of every part of their body for a few minutes every day, musicians were more aware of how their posture and muscle tension affected the sounds of their instrument. This possibly contributed to the report that these mindfulness techniques increased the participants’ efficiency in their practice sessions.
In addition to these body awareness benefits, participants also noted mindset changes, better relationships with their instructors, increased responsiveness, ability to take criticism better, and that it was easier to notice and correct problems in their sessions. Overall, they were more aware of the objective nature of situations and less caught up in their feelings toward these situations.
What Mindfulness Can Actually Do for Musicians
Not only does practicing help with performance anxiety, but it could potentially change the way you practice. Your practice sessions could be become more enjoyable (less banging your hands down in frustration). You learn to problem solve, stop getting so caught up in future or past worries, and allow yourself to just be.
Like any spiritual practice or religion — I wouldn’t call this a religion or spiritual practice in the traditional sense, just personal psychotherapy — it does require a good deal of discipline, but reminding yourself of the benefits and finding someone to help keep you accountable
Part 2: How to Include Mindfulness in Your Life and Musical Practice
In this part of the post, we’ll go over the basic techniques you’d encounter in mindfulness meditation practice and how to incorporate them into your practice sessions.
Breathing is one of the first techniques we learn in mindfulness. It’s something we literally do all the time, so you really can’t do it wrong. There are a couple of ways to use the breath in mindfulness practice.
The first is simply to become aware of the fact that you’re breathing. Don’t try to change the speed or depth of your breath. Just notice that you’re doing it. Feel how your chest, belly, and even your back expand or rise when you inhale and how they fall when you exhale.
Breath awareness is often used to anchor us to our bodies and to the present moment when we meditate. When our minds wander — everyone’s mind wanders; it’s natural, so don’t beat yourself up about it — we can refresh our focus and presence by coming back to our breath.
In the app I use, I love how she says, “When you get distracted, come back to your practice.” It makes me feel accomplished to call breathing a practice because I’m already doing it all the time, but somehow I’m succeeding at a task by doing it.
The other way breath can be used in mindfulness is to help calm our minds and relax our bodies. In this technique, we breathe more intentionally by counting or breathing as slowly as you can.
Triangle and square breathing are common ways of talking about counting. In both, every action (inhale, exhale, hold) is one side of the shape.
For example, a square might look like: inhale for 4, hold your breath for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4, and repeat. Because there are four actions in the pattern, we call it a square.
Triangle breathing is similar, but you don’t hold after the exhale. So it would be: inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, repeat.
You can use whatever count feels right for you.
Another one that helps me is to inhale as slowly as I can, fill up completely, hold for 5, then exhale as slowly as I can. Empty completely.
I also like to sync my counting up with my heartbeat. As I calm down more, the counts are longer because my heart slows down, and that helps me calm down even more. It helps to have something to count along with as well.
In the practice session
Just like breath is used in multiple ways for meditation, you can also adapt your breath practice to suit your needs.
You can begin with breath control practice to calm you down and give your mind some transition time, so you can be fully present when you officially start your music practice. Pick whichever breath technique helps you calm down.
If you want someone to talk you through it, there are a ton of apps and Youtube videos, or you could even use the gif of square breathing above.
Then, while you’re practicing, if you find your mind wandering, you can pause your session for a moment, close your eyes, and bring your gentle attention to your breath. Just pay attention to it to bring yourself back to the present moment.
In the body scan technique, you focus your attention on single places in your body, taking note of any sensations that are there. It could be tension, lightness, tingliness, heat, any physical sensation.
Usually, you start at either your head or toes and then slowly work your attention across your entire body, noticing and not changing the way your body feels.
It can help you calm your mind and lean into unpleasant feelings with compassion. I find it especially helpful for when my mind is racing before bed. If I do a body scan with my app to direct me, I usually don’t make it through the entire meditation before I fall asleep. It’s that relaxing for me!
Body scan also teaches us body awareness. It’s very easy, especially if we’re sitting at our desks all day, to forget that we live in a body. Honestly, how often do you think about your lower legs?
We tend to just use the body without noticing it because we don’t need to think about activities like walking. But gentle body awareness can help us feel more at home in our bodies and can make us aware of unhealthy tension. You’ll naturally relax it if you’re simply aware of it.
In the practice session
Body awareness techniques are nothing new to music instruction. Alexander Technique and Body Mapping are taught at many major music conservatories and universities. Even my tiny undergraduate university held a body awareness clinic every year!
Body awareness is vital to good tone in every instrument, maybe especially for singers. We talk a lot about reducing tension and using [creating, upholding] good posture because it truly has an impact on the sounds we create.
In the study from the University of Leeds discussed above, participants explained that body awareness helped them problem solve in their sessions. If their tone wasn’t how they wanted it to sound, they were able to make small adjustments in their bodies and identify which movements and postures contributed best to good tone.
This study noted, however, that body awareness may not be due solely to the body scan method, as the participants also practiced yoga and took part in Alexander Technique classes. But, if you’ve never practiced any kind of body awareness, body scan is a great place to start. I also advocate for yoga (which can be considered a type of meditation)!
Thoughts and Emotions
Technically thoughts and emotions are treated separately in meditation, but I’m going to group them together because the technique is similar, at least from what I can tell.
When we take time to process thoughts and emotions, we first have to be open to letting them come and go as they naturally do. We let them appear, look at them individually, acknowledge their presence, and then let them go.
I like the image of letting them go like gentle rain drops on the surface of a lake. The app has me notice which ones leave bigger ripples than others but to also be aware that deep at the bottom of the lake, everything is still and undisturbed by the rain of thoughts and feelings.
Typically this kind of practice partners with the breath or some other physical anchor point. You look at one thought or emotion, let it go, and return to your breath before moving onto the next one. This return teaches us to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings but not to get caught up in them, which has honestly been life changing for me.
In the practice session
Thoughts and feelings can be so distracting when we’re in a practice session! Your to-do list, your stomach, regret over past decisions, anxiety for the future, they all come out while we’re practicing. Maybe it’s because we’re tapping into emotions when we play music. But mostly, it’s just a normal human thing.
We can use the thought and emotion technique even if we don’t meditate.
If you find yourself frustrated in a practice session, overcome with anger at yourself or your fingers, you can take a moment to acknowledge that you are feeling frustrated and that feeling is valid. It makes sense you’d feel frustrated if things aren’t going your way, so stop and let yourself be frustrated for a moment. Physically take your hands off of your instrument and allow yourself to feel your feelings.
When you do this, it’s a way of showing compassion and understanding to yourself, and you should already begin to feel the frustration lighten. As it does, come back to your breath or some other external anchor (maybe the sounds around you, or your instrument). Once you’re back, you can dive back into the practice session, no longer distracted by that big emotion. And you might feel successful for not letting it conquer you.
Use this practice for any thoughts or emotions that distract you.
Focus is the final technique we’ll discuss in this post. It is the practice of focusing your attention on one thing for a long time.
Usually in meditation, this point of attention is somewhere in your body that is connected to your breath. It could be where the air touches your nose when you breathe in and out. It could be your belly as it rises and falls. Or your back.
As long as you focus your attention on one thing, you’re doing it.
This technique does acknowledge that your mind wanders. The point is to notice when that happens and gently bring your attention back to the place of focus.
Like any skill, it gets easier as you practice, and you’ll be able to focus for longer periods of time as you practice it more.
It teaches your mind how to focus, so if you practice this technique frequently, you’ll find that you won’t be as distracted by thoughts or external stimuli as you used to.
In the practice session
Because the benefits of practicing focus gives us more ability to focus, this technique might be something you practice outside of your music practice sessions. That said, focus is something we use when we make music, so the more you choose not to look at your phone and just let yourself exist as you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
You can also choose an anchor, like your breath or your hands, to bring yourself back into your music practice when you notice your thoughts wandering away. Having an anchor that we always return to helps us to focus much easier than if we just tell ourselves to focus.
There are more mindfulness techniques than the ones discussed in this post, but these are the ones I’m personally familiar with and that are easy to incorporate within your practice sessions.
As I mentioned above, there are countless studies showing the benefits of mindfulness practice, but like anything in science, we can also say that these studies leave a lot to be desired. If you personally feel open to trying mindfulness, then do it! There isn’t really a downside to trying.
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Until next time,
Baer, Ruth, ed. Assessing mindfulness and acceptance processes in clients: Illuminating the theory and practice of change. New Harbinger Publications, 2010.
Czajkowski, Anne-Marie Louise, Alinka Elizabeth Greasley, and Michael Allis. “Mindfulness for musicians: A mixed methods study investigating the effects of 8-week mindfulness courses on music students at a leading conservatoire.” Musicae Scientiae (2020): 1029864920941570.
Davis, Daphne M., and Jeffrey A. Hayes. “What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research.” Psychotherapy 48, no. 2 (2011): 198.
Tang, Yi-Yuan, Britta K. Hölzel, and Michael I. Posner. “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, no. 4 (2015): 213-225.