As music educators, we are able to teach the transformative practice of mindfulness to enable both our students and ourselves to become more attuned to the present moment.
Mindfulness has only recently exploded within the western world, but humans around the world have practiced it for thousands of years. Through practicing mindfulness we are able to build an authentic connection to everything we experience in the present moment.
Us moderns are the last people on the planet to uncover the wealth of treasures it has to offer. Engaging in mindfulness with a clear sense of openness and curiosity is scientifically proven to offer a huge range of benefits, most notably boosting our overall wellbeing and reducing stress.
In this article I will share some easy-to-implement mindfulness techniques that you can incorporate within your teaching routine to help your students become more confident, happier and more attentive.
Why Incorporate Mindfulness Into Teaching?
Have you ever wondered why it tends to be at the most crucial moments within a performance we tend to slip up? We are so focused on playing a section perfectly; we forget that in fact we already know how to execute it. And thinking about playing it any better isn’t actually going to help!
Through dedicated practice we build valuable muscle memory that is built through awareness and repetition, and this knowledge exists as inner confidence. Contrary to popular belief, musicians need to get out of our own heads in order to unleash our true potential.
Whilst it ought not to be, music is perceived by many to be a competitive environment. One might argue that only the most popular and prolific musicians achieve worldwide success. Plus, we are used to audiences judging musical performances by their merits. We as musicians strive to improve through practice in order to achieve better performances.
Fortunately, we are able to train the mind. This is important because the ironic process of the mind means we hinder ourselves by trying to be better, through putting in effort not to make mistakes.
Self-doubt, nervousness and lapses of concentration are all types of typical thinking behaviour. Through incorporating mindfulness into your daily teaching life with the following approaches, you can increase your student’s mental capacity for staying relaxed and focused.
1. Take Ten Deep Breaths
Mindfulness is not about having any expectations to eliminate negative thoughts or feelings. But to rather be kindly accepting of all types of thoughts and emotions, in order to create a powerful shift in perspective.
This short breathing exercise is a great way to begin a performance. The exercise requires you to guide your students through ten deep breaths: in through the nose and out through the mouth, with the eyes closed and sat down in a quiet environment.
Invite your musicians to enjoy being still, and to bring a curious attention to the sensations that can be felt whilst breathing. Remind your students to gently focus on each inhalation and exhalation of the breath, and to notice any subtle differences, as well as changing experiences of the body as it breathes in areas including the chest, stomach and throat.
The mind may naturally become distracted by thoughts, and this is expected and normal. There is no need to force our attention anywhere, but to simply allow the thoughts to come and go like passing clouds.
Tuning into the present moment in this way has been proven to decrease amygdala activation in the brain, which is the brain’s stress-response signal, resulting in greater qualities of calm.
2. Listen to Sounds Without Judgment
Just like with the breath, there are other potential objects of focus we can guide our attention towards, and the experiences are always changing, and neither good nor bad by nature.
Sounds make an excellent object of focus, and practicing mindful listening is a fantastic technique for improving concentration and reducing tension within a musical capacity.
During a rehearsal, invite your ensemble musicians to pay close attention to all of the sounds they can hear, and to listen to them without over-analysing what they hear.
There is a range of unique sonic qualities to explore within music. Bringing a mindful approach to music can transform the listening experience and allow students to engage with the music in a more enjoyable way that is free from judgment.
This can be likened to a beginner’s mind - and it is truly remarkable in allowing us to reclaim the intrinsic joy that music provides.
As musicians develop and become more experienced, we are prone to becoming far more discerning and hyper-aware of mistakes and errors. By not taking these thoughts so seriously we can actually step back and appreciate the music with a fresh perspective.
3. Build Bodily Awareness
As a drum tutor, I am well aware of poor posture or improper technique that might arise in my students. Asking my students to draw deliberate attention to their bodily movements whilst playing the drums means they can become self-aware of their own bad habits.
Invite your musicians to pay special attention to the sensations of the areas of contact between the body and the instrument, and all of the muscles that are involved in movements whilst performing. Students naturally make their own adjustments whilst they play.
Maintaining focus on bodily sensations during a performance can feel surprisingly powerful, as we very rarely place focus on it intentionally.
The mind is so often distracted in day-to-day life that we don’t often realise how little attention we pay to the activities we perform, and this includes whilst we play music.
Playing along to music whilst focusing on the sensations of the body can increase attentiveness and focus whilst liberating the mind from the worries and doubts that often cloud the mind.
4. Refocus and Refresh
As music educators we are all too familiar with experiencing stress from long and difficult days of rehearsals and teaching. Sometimes we might even begin to feel overwhelmed, and the thinking mind can create more negative cycles, before we find ourselves spiralling out of control rapidly!
Performing a short breathing exercise is a great way to refocus and refresh our perspective. Learning to recognise our own rising stress levels as teachers gives us the choice to place our focus on the breath, to provide ourselves with the vital clarity to respond to a situation with patience and compassion.
Even one mindful breath can make the difference between losing our temper, and responding calmly and skilfully to a situation.
Whilst music is an art form and musical ensembles are cooperative by nature, individuals are expected to deliver strong performances.
This can bring unnecessary judgment, criticism and comparisons to the forefront of the mind. When musicians are able to shift their focus onto the present moment by focusing on the breath, they can experience greater levels of calm and enjoyment from playing, with more compassion and patience with themselves.
When it comes to training the mind, and also sharing these techniques with other musicians, it’s important to remember that the mind will often become distracted.
The key is to gently bring your attention back to the object of focus in the present moment. Mindfulness is a skill that is developed and nurtured with time.
Gideon Waxman is a London based drummer and music educator. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Westminster and is fully qualified to teach mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. You can find more of his advice at Drum Helper, which is a free online resource dedicated to helping drummers achieve more from their playing.