Welcome to our introduction to a brand new concept: Mindful Musicianship. Mindful Musicianship involves paying attention in a particular way to the experience of making music. It will help you get deeper into your playing than you have ever been before, help you understand your own experience of music at a more detailed and nuanced level (and so help you get to know yourself that much better), make the experience of listening to and making music more fun, vibrant, and interesting, and even help you avoid potentially disastrous injuries!
Mindful Musicianship is fascinating, fun, and exciting, and we can’t wait to get started! But first, let’s quickly think about what goes on within us all when we make music.
Making music is a physical activity. To make your sound you may pick up a guitar or bass, sit behind a drum kit and pick up your sticks, or stand over a keyboard and let your hands do their thing. Even electronic music producers must interact physically with laptops, mixing desks, and assorted other gadgets in order to bring sounds out of their heads and into the wider world.
As a musician, you spend much of your time engaged in physical activities, honing your skills in the practice room and later onstage and in the studio. But the physical makes up only half of the whole picture. Playing music also engages the mind, the part of you that remembers every song, lick, rhythm, and tricky solo you’ve learnt over the course of your journey so far.
Without the mind, there would be no music. The mind is what allows us to perceive sounds and interpret them as being emotionally meaningful – and what’s more, you don’t even need an instrument in order to train it! Your mind can feel the vibe and groove of a song just by listening to it; the chord structure of a pop song or jazz tune can be memorised or read using a chart; and individual riffs, licks, and beats can be understood and remembered with the aid of musical notation. When it comes to training the mind, you already have all the necessary equipment; in fact, you were born with it! All you need from the outside world is the right information.
As you play music, your body and mind are constantly interacting. This process is so complex that scientists are still trying to figure out precisely how it all works! The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe – and many of the greatest brains on the planet are working tirelessly to unravel its mysteries. Nevertheless, there is still hope for the rest of us. You don’t have to be a great scientist to observe the interactions between body and mind in real time. All you need are the tools you were born with.
Right now, let’s try a few experiments of our own, and use the results to improve our musical abilities. You don’t need to be a musical expert to benefit from these experiments; in fact, beginners who start this kind of experimentation early on may find their musicianship advancing at a faster rate than ever before!
For our first experiment, all you need is your bedroom or other quiet space, your body and mind, and a music player.
Clear a space on the bed (or on the floor) and lie down, using a pillow or cushion to support your head. Leave the music player to one side for now, and get comfortable. Focus on your breathing. Feel the breath coming into the body, staying for a short while, and leaving again. Watch as it happens automatically. You don’t need to do anything – breathing happens all by itself!
See if the physical breath sensations are most vivid for you at the nostrils, or in your belly. While you focus your attention on the breath, let the mind relax and slow down. Note any emotions or thoughts, and just allow them to leave in their own time. Slowly scan your body from the inside, from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Take note of any tension or discomfort, but don’t feel bad if those sensations are present. It’s enough just to note anything that’s happening in your body at the moment. If you need to, feel free to adjust your posture if it helps. All you’re doing right now is learning new things about your body and mind – the same body and mind you use to play music, to make your sound.
When you feel ready, pick up your music player and call up a song that you really love. It doesn’t matter what you choose, whether it’s a song by James Brown, Maroon 5, or Meshuggah – all that matters is that you enjoy listening to it.
As the music plays, observe how your body and mind react. Is there more tension in your body than there was before? Is there less? Are you able to stay still? Are you mouthing the words, belting out the lyrics, or air drumming? How is your breathing? Are you holding your breath, or are you breathing faster than before? Is there no difference at all? What are you thinking about as you listen to this song? What emotions are you feeling? Can you sense any relationship between the emotions you’re feeling, and the physical sensations you’re experiencing in the body?
Make mental notes of all of these reactions, consider writing them down, and play another song that you’re really into. Try something with a different mood to the previous track. If your first choice was a high-energy rock track, go for a mellow acoustic tune. If your first choice was funky, try something straight-ahead. See how your body, your breathing, and your thoughts and emotions react this time around. Make more notes. You’re learning a lot about your own unique relationship to music and sound right now. Whatever information your body and mind may be offering you, it’s absolutely priceless.
Try this same approach with music that you feel indifferent to, or music that you really can’t stand. Note your reactions – they might surprise you! Try it with music that you’ve always been intrigued by, but hardly listened to before. Try it with songs on the radio, or a randomised online playlist. Listen, feel, and see what happens.
Through experimenting in this way, you’re getting to know your body and mind at a deeper, more detailed level than you may have known them before. Your body and mind have plenty to say, and paying attention pays real dividends when it comes to making music. In Part Two, we’re going to take what we’ve learnt here and apply it directly to real-world music making.