by Nancy Schneeloch-Bingham
The mindfulness mantra is everywhere in 21st-century culture. It’s practiced in yoga classes, taught in boardrooms, used by athletes, and even tracked by apps. Put simply, mindfulness is the cultivation of an active, intentional awareness of the present moment.
Experienced multi-taskers, our present moment(s) often overlap. When we have breaks in our day, it’s hard not to fill those gaps by glancing through the Instagram feed or checking email. And the world only seems to spur more and more activity (energy drinks and Starbucks at the ready to keep our productivity powered another couple of hours).
Connecting with the world is easy; plugging into ourselves, more elusive. How to wind our way back to that peaceful mental space of quiet clarity and focused attention? (And how do we get there when we play music?)
Centered, focused, grounded are the qualities of physical and mental awareness we can tap into through mindfulness. Core mindfulness exercises often highlight the present moment by asking us to observe our breathing. I love the elegant notion that breath is both our conduit for connection and the energy that powers our instrument. Mindfulness is closer than we imagine.
I first learned about mindfulness practice through Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, during a busy time in graduate school.
I’d heard that the practice could be helpful for musicians, but I didn’t explore it right away. A few years later, I tried a mindfulness of breathing exercise before one of my practice sessions. I still remember the first time I did the exercise. I figured it could help me feel a little more clarity and focus when I played, but I wasn’t prepared for just how dramatic the difference would be. What if I repeated the exercise? I tested it over the next month and continued to have positive experiences. What’s cool is that it didn’t seem to matter how hectic my day had been up to that point; with the help of exercise, I could count on unwinding to that clear and focused place.
When I make music with this sense of awareness and grounding, I am able to bring the details of playing the flute into focus. I sense a truer connection between my body and the flute, in creating a resonant, expressive sound. My technical work is more streamlined and efficient because I am able to really feel, and unify, my fingers with the instrument’s keys.
I believe that our most satisfying performing happens when we’re completely absorbed in the process of making music. Indeed, the times I am most confident on stage are when I’m most in the moment during the performance.
Practice in the same way that you want to play. Have a clear intention for what you want to accomplish and allow yourself to play with ease, not working harder than you need. When we begin practicing music for an audition, contest, or recital, we often imagine ourselves in the future, playing that music. From the lyrical melodies to the brilliant technical bits, it’s easy to get swept up in thoughts about the culminating performance. Though the performance is the goal, the ways in which we prepare—one present moment to the next—chart our course to that goal.
I have a quote on my studio door. It’s my tribute to the value of mindfulness practice in music making:
“You cannot achieve speed by speedy practice. The only way to get fast is to be deep, wide awake, and slow. When you habitually zip through your music, your ears are crystallizing in sloppiness. Pray for the patience of a stonecutter. Pray to understand that speed is one of those things you have to give up—like love—before it comes flying to you through the back window.”
- From The Listening Book, W.A. Matthieu
Where will mindfulness take you?
Mindfulness Resources Online: (including downloadable audio)
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering program
Check out “Breath and the Body” – Short mindfulness/breathing exercise that is perfect to help you be more in your body before you start a practice session.
Irish Mindfulness expert, Padraig O’Morain has several excellent articles and audio downloads. Check out the special “Mindfulness for Students” section.
Mindfulness books (some of the many):
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are. New York: Hyperion, 1995.
O’Morain, Padraig. Light Mind: Mindfulness for Daily Living. Dublin, Ireland: Veritas, 2010.
O’Morain, Padraig. Mindfulness on the Go: Inner Peace in Your Pocket. Toronto, Canada: Harlequin, 2014.
Nancy Schneeloch-Bingham, flute professor at Appalachian State University, embraces 350 years of flute history. She performs on baroque flute with Harmonia Baroque, on 19th century flute in ASU’s International Summer Program for Irish traditional music, and on modern flute in Dúo Pelliroja.