Tag Archives: Practicing

Mindfulness, Part II

Here are my own ‘Five Steps’ to piano mindfulness, adapted from those found on the Mindfulness in Schools Project website.

mindfulness1. Taming the animal mind

That’s what the Mindfulness people call this step, and they’re right. Most students’ brains (and sometimes even those of piano teachers…cough) are ranging all over the place, everywhere except where they need to be: on the sound. I assign calming exercises, focusing on the breath and on the feeling of being anchored and settled. Directed visualization helps, too.

2. Pay attention

This is the key. Many students aren’t really listening to themselves and when they try, they don’t know what to listen to. My task is to gently but persistently direct students’ attention to the task at hand, and to provide benchmarks to measure themselves against. These may include verbal directions or asking them to model on my singing or a recording. Or both! Even more useful is asking the students to give their own verbal directions to themselves or to sing the phrase without me, modeling the sound each wants to achieve.

3. Respond, rather than react

Reacting is what students are doing when they repeatedly stop and start, talk while they are playing, begin again and again or continue to make the same mistake even after correction. They hear something that bothers them, panic and act out. This doesn’t work. What we want them to do is: respond. Responding is thoughtful. The act of responding dispassionately recognizes and acknowledges a problem. It has nothing to do with playing on autopilot.

4. Make a plan—and work the plan

mindfulnessI ask students to assess what they heard during their “response” and to come up with an improvement plan. I asked Mary (from my last blog post) how many times she “stuttered” on the first page. She had no idea, which in itself is part of the problem, and had to play it once more to come up with an answer.

She agreed that her task would be to practice one phrase at a time, at a slow tempo, without stopping, no matter what happened. I asked her how many repetitions she though necessary for each phrase. Her answer was “seven”, which surprised me. I was going to suggest five.

The overall objective: at the end of the seven repetitions, the number of “stutters” should be reduced.

5. Assess and repeat

Proper assessment involves three parts:

  1. Did I follow my plan? If Mary didn’t play at a slow tempo, if she let herself stutter or if she didn’t repeat seven times, then she didn’t accomplish her tasks. The practice plan needs to be repeated until she reaches her objective.
  2. Did accomplishing my tasks improve my performance? If not, or not enough, the practice step needs to be repeated or adjusted.
  3. What’s the next step?

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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.

Notes:

  1. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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