May 072011

Mindfulness is a technique often missing when a musician performs. An audience will sometimes hear a musician perform and feel like something has eluded them. He hit all the correct notes, played with expected and accepted tempi and dynamics, and thus accomplished quite the athletic feat. But besides these technical points, the audience feels like something else could have happened, but it didn’t.

The mindful musician plays as a person, not as a robot repeating the muscle-memorized actions. She is aware of the music’s structure, has emotional investment in the sounds, and opens herself to a connection with the audience.

How does a musician practice and prepare to add more mindfulness to her performances? One great approach is to rehearse away from the instrument. Here are several ways this can be done while sitting quietly, lying in bed, taking a walk, or doing some chore around the house.

1. Know the musical content

Go through a piece of music in your mind, imagining the physical actions of playing the notes. If your thoughts become fuzzy around measure five or at the first word of the second verse, stop there to refresh your memory. This form of practicing is like a quiz, to make sure you really know the piece well enough to recall it not only in your muscles, but in your mind.

Go through a piece of music and name all the notes of the melody. Go If your piece has chord changes with it, go through the chords and name them. Go through the melody and chords again, this time giving the numbers, such as “1, 5, 6, flat 5, 5 … ” Go through it again and use the solfage names of the notes. (If you are not familiar with the common number and solfage systems, take time to learn them. They are great ways to grow in musical literacy and ear training.)

If all this memory work sounds boring, well it certainly can help on a night when you’re having trouble falling asleep. It can also clear up fuzzy thoughts and alleviate boredom when you do return to your instrument. This mental sharpness is a lot more rewarding than mindless muscle memorizing of scales and exercises.

2. Know the interpretation

Go through your piece and think about dynamics. How loud at the beginning? What is the first sound the audience will hear when you start the piece? Where do the dynamics change? Is there a section or verse where you surprise the audience by becoming very quiet or loud?

Go over the tempi of your piece. Does it have one unchanging tempo, as in dance music, or does the tempo change? Imagine what it feels like to dance to your piece, even if it is not meant as a dance number. Better yet, get up and actually do the imagined dance, if no one is looking.

Do you find yourself saying, “I just play the whole thing at one volume and tempo, so what?” If that is your thought, perhaps you could add some variety and interpretation to the piece to make it more interesting.

Talk to yourself about the concept of the piece. Is it a story song, a program piece, a tone poem, a traditional dance tune, a love ballad, a novelty song, or a piece of purer musical content that goes past conceptual description? What do you expect the audience to say about the piece after they hear it for the first time? What about the hundredth time hearing it?

3. Find the emotional connection

How do you feel about this piece? Did you choose it? Did the conductor or band leader choose it? If you don’t like it, can you see the emotional reason why someone else would?

What emotional response did the composer intend? Is there a story behind the piece to explain its emotional intention?

Imagine performing this piece as an actor. What emotional work do you wear in your role as performer?

Imagine that you are explaining these emotional questions to another person. Tell them about the piece in terms of its emotional content and connections.

4. Increase efficiency

Without your instrument, imagine what it feels like to play the first phrase of your piece in a state of relaxation and strength. String players, imagine your fingers moving fluidly, efficiently, effortlessly, with the bow, pick, or fingers sounding the strings with ideal attack and tone.. Singers and wind players, imagine strong control of your breathing, relaxed muscle movements, and the desired tone for the phrase. Imagine the physical sensations and pleasures of performing the piece in an optimal state.

Notice any physical tension that arises while imagining the phrase. You will find it easier to isolate and work on tense spots without the instrument, just focusing on muscles and mind. Once you have played through the phrase with efficiency and relaxation, play the next phrase in your muscle imagination.

The goal here is to stop going through the motions mindlessly. Mindless muscle memory makes for impersonal performances, shallow interpretations, and risk of injury.

Speaking of injury: If a musician is experiencing pain or recovering from an injury, these forms of mental practice can round things out while resting and recovering. A singer with a cold or a blown-out voice can work on his music quietly sitting in a chair for thirty minutes while letting the vocal system rest. But a healthy musician can also benefit from these forms of practicing to sharpen mental and emotional focus.

For more on mental practicing and the broader topic of the relationship between mind, body, and music, pick up Julie Lyon-Lieberman’s classic book, “You Are Your Instrument.” Here is a link to this book at Amazon:

You Are Your Instrument: the Definitive Musician’s Guide to Practice and Performance

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