The mind is like a puppy: it won’t just automatically do what you tell it to do – you have to train it. Interestingly, training doesn’t just apply to the things we need to focus on, but we also need to practice how to relax mentally and physically, and how to develop the habit of beneficial attitudes, in order for the mind to do what we want rather than going off on its own. And I’m sure you know the mind will go off on its own if we let it.
We don’t need to be slaves to the mind’s whims, the stressful thoughts, the fears, the distractions. We own our minds, not the other way around. But untrained, our minds will do as they wish and will run our lives. Everyone who is very good at something has learned to be at cause, not at effect, of their thoughts. As musicians we can – and must – train ourselves to focus and to relax into our music during practice. We can have “Attention Benefit” instead of “Attention Deficit”.
Focus and relaxation are intimately related. Focus, unlike what is commonly assumed, is not stressful concentration. It is relaxed concentration, the only kind that works. Stress causes the mind to lose focus. Relaxation enhances focus. I like to call relaxed focus “concentricity” (yes, I made up that word) because it also implies centering. The term “centering” is another term for being aware in a relaxed way of having an inner core from which you can effectively operate.
When we relax, we can focus. When we focus, it creates further relaxation. But how do we get that good feedback circle going when we play?
- Take the time to be sure you are seated or standing comfortably and ergonomically before starting. That’s just as important as the practice is.
- Create a moment of silence before starting. Do this in both practice and performance.
- Breathe deeply, visualizing relaxation entering on the inhale, and all else but beautiful music leaving you as you exhale.
- Make the first note important.
- While playing, “hear” each phrase of the music just before you play or sing it.
- Imagine good tone and expression in advance of each note.
- Put feeling into your music instead of worrying about accuracy during performance: you should have practiced enough for accuracy to happen automatically.
- Feel the tempo and rhythm.
- Imagine the beauty of the music flowing through your voice or instrument, out to the audience, back to you, and out again, in a circular fashion, each time becoming more beautiful.
Another technique for achieving a relaxed body and state of mind for performance is to arrive at your performance location earlier than you normally would, and after getting everything ready for your performance, find a quiet spot where others won’t disturb you, and sit with your eyes closed. Visualize the stage, the lighting, your instrument, the audience, and breathe deeply. See your music as coming from the center of yourself. (If you have a spiritual practice, you can incorporate it also.) After several minutes, when you open your eyes, you’ll find yourself feeling quite peaceful.
I also like to sit for a few minutes as the audience arrives and is seated, watching them from an inconspicuous place. I notice what they are wearing, what kinds of personalities they seem to have, and so on. Sometimes I pick out a few particularly cheerful or friendly-looking people in whose direction I will look when I’m talking between pieces. All of this helps me feel like I know the audience, like they are not strangers.
Another practice that I find very helpful: for several minutes just before a concert, I sit quietly and bring to mind all the things in my life for which I am grateful. It’s amazing how many things I can name. By the time I get on stage I am in a great state of mind!
Being relaxed in performance is essential. We all know we can’t do our best when we’re stressed. Training the mind may require adopting a contemplative practice that you do every day. Some prefer meditation, some contemplative prayer, some enjoy various mindfulness exercises. Even walking in the woods and noticing very purposely every plant, animal, color, and sound, is a mindfulness exercise that promotes the production of endorphins which are beneficial to the body and mind. All of the above activities have been shown through research to enhance the immune system as well.
One last idea: try expressing your emotions through your music. All of them, not just the “good” ones. Studies have shown that it is the appropriately channeled expression of all of one’s emotions that enhances the immune system and keeps us healthy.
Make a habit of these things and see how your music becomes a joy to play in any situation!