Mindfulness, Part I

MindfulnessinSchools“I practice as long as it needs, every day,” my teenage student Mary 1 told me, with an air of purposeful self-satisfaction. I almost believed her, sort of, until her more skeptical (perhaps ‘realistic’ is the better word) Mom interrupted, “if only that were more than seven minutes per piece”.

Believe it or not, I am firmly convinced that Mary sincerely thinks she is doing a good job. Despite lengthy lessons, detailed practice plans and frequent preparation checks from me, all indicating that more work on her part is needed, she really believes that she is completing her assignment…in seven minutes.

What’s the problem? Lack of aural skills is a big part of it (I’m working on a future blog post on this). She doesn’t hear what her performance actually sounds like to an outside listener, only how she perceives it as it sounds to her, or as she wishes it sounded. This type of thinking is part of a bigger problem: an absence of mindfulness.

A good definition of mindfulness can be found on the Mindfulness in Schools Project website:

“Mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to our experience as it unfolds, moment by moment, with open-minded curiosity and acceptance. Rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen, it trains us to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.”

The benefits of mindfulness in adults have been well recognized by research. Recent studies have documented even more dramatic improvement in performance by school children who practice mindfulness. A Time magazine article earlier this year claimed startling improvement in behavior and test scores by Canadian fourth and fifth-grade students who participated in the MindUP program, which promotes thoughtful social and emotional learning. These include 15% higher math scores and 24% improved social behaviors.

The Mindfulness in Schools Project has several components, one of which is what they call “The Ten Lessons”. These explain the concept of mindfulness to young students, teach them to handle stress and worry, detail how to make mindful choices instead of simply reacting to each thought with a possibly negative behavior and cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I think each has a lot of worth.

I’ve adapted “The Ten Lessons” from the Mindfulness website to use with my own students. I’ll share my ideas with you in my next blog post.

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Notes:

  1. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.
  • Ross Kalling

    This issue of ‘how much practice is enough’ is a big one and occurs at all levels of playing. After a successful undergraduate ‘career’ as a serious pianist I left the field to study acting and work as a musical director in the theatre. Many years went by and one day I got the idea to start a classical piano trio. I had to confront practicing again. I think because of my training as an actor with the attention given to my inner emotional life that comes with that training, I settled on what was for me a new idea: Practice until you are confident, until you are calm during that passage. It was such a radical idea and I now tell my students “Practice for confidence”. It has become a guide for how big a passage to work on in one section, how close to actual tempo to work at, etc. It’s usually a much higher bar than practicing for mere accuracy. We’ve all had that experience in the early stages of a new piece when we are able to play a passage ‘accurately’ but we are still tense, lacking confidence. I teach voice now mostly to singing actors and it is a very significant concept for them, they take to it quickly. I think if I were teaching piano I would also like to explore “Practice for emotional expression”, an even higher bar still. To become calm and confident requires a new level of mindfulnes during practice. To be focused on emotional expression requires all of that mindfulness and more in performance. For the actors that’s kind of where they start. They’ve usually made their choices about what this song is about, what they want to express with it, before they’ve learned the notes and lyrics… Kind of the reverse of many of us classical musicians.

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