Inspiration for this post came from the Lachlan Brown’s article on his blog HackSpirit.com. The original article’s title is ‘6 mindful habits that are hard to learn but will benefit you forever’, which I have slightly altered for the purpose of my writing.
Lachlan Brown starts his article with ‘Mindfulness isn’t just a practice – it’s an art.’ I like this idea and would like to push it further by quoting the 19th century English writer and art critic Walter Pater. He wrote ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ (i.e. the arts seek to unify subject-matter and form, and music is the only art in which subject and form are seemingly one).
Music is the only pure abstract art form, which doesn’t need any external references or symbols. A symphony can fully satisfy a listener without any particular – meaning like a painting, narrative like the literature, or usefulness like architecture. This is what other art forms ‘aspire towards’. And this is where mindfulness (if an art) is getting quite close to ‘the condition of music’. On the highest level, both strive for oneness, for example.
The article follows with ‘Today, millions of people throughout the world are understanding the hidden secrets behind mindfulness, and using its philosophies to improve their daily lives’. The same is not happening in the music world – sadly.
This may sound counterintuitive, as almost everyone listens music nowadays. Music publishing and streaming companies claim growing numbers of listeners and music consumers. But here is one substantial difference – these are passive consumers. They don’t search to ‘improve their daily lives’ through music, other than by being entertained.
Practicing mindfulness requires some kind of an active involvement from a participant if expecting any benefit. The growing passive music entertainment doesn’t need anything else just a click on a smartphone.
The number of people who actively engage with music is declining. There are various reasons for this, from the diminishing governmental support for the arts, through the impact of the social media, to the expansion of various entertainment possibilities.
There is one positive consequence of this situation, at least for the mindfulness movement. People who are not satisfied with the passive music consumption may be turning to various types of mindfulness activities. For the benefits, the current music entertainment cannot offer them.
Here I got finally to my main point. I believe, that the active music making, or ‘musicking’, can become that imaginary bridge connecting mindfulness with a daily life. At least for those, who have a hard time to get into meditating, who don’t believe in it, or are afraid. Because not everyone is comfortable with the philosophy of mindfulness. But many more can benefit from the musicking and potentially find their way through it to mindfulness. Or vice versa.
By the active music making, or ‘musicking’ (term coined by Chris Small), I understand an activity like playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, composing, performing, or rehearsing.
Let me explain this further using six habits from the original article.
‘One of the best ways to start becoming mindful is by realizing when you’re not’, describes the original article. Then musicking can help. Because when the attention starts drifting while musicking, if you allow yourself to ‘go on autopilot’ – you can hear it immediately. A false tone, wrong beat, dissonant accord, or a ‘surprised’ accompanist would give you a clear signal and impulse for a correction.
Unlike in mindfulness, you cannot practice music while on a bus, or in a doctor’s waiting room – unless you opt for an electronic musical instrument in your smartphone, for example. But if you have a hard time just to imagine how to notice thoughts going through your mind, music practice could be a good starting point.
This is about awareness. Famous mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains, that ‘Meditation is to be aware of what is going on: in your body, in your feelings, in your mind, and in the world’.
There is not musicking without awareness. Regardless if you play alone on an acoustic or electronic instrument. Whether you sing solo or with a choir. Or if you partner with another player/s in real life or through the internet, your awareness is tested every moment. Depending on the type of music, your instrument and the number of players, you need to pay attention to what kind of tone you are producing. What feeling you are expressing. How and where the accompaniment evolves. Who plays what and when. How to keep everything together, and how to help if someone gets lost.
This is also great opportunity to check your feelings if things don’t go as expected. To realize your potential anger or frustration, but also joy and surprise – and to learn how to deal with them. And keep playing.
Also to learn how not to judge yourself, nor others. Because the main purpose of your musicking is not to become a music-star, celebrity, or rich. Your goal is to feel better and enjoy life more. As simple as that!
‘Mindfulness isn’t limited to the self. In fact, this becomes clearer, more effective when you are practicing it with others‘.
Exactly the same we can say about music. Music IS about listening. Especially when you are musicking or playing with someone else. It is a constant interaction and communication. If you learn how to observe, how to listen to various subtle nuances of how your partners are musicking – emotions, body language, cues, challenges …, the whole experience could evolve in a transcendent conversation without words.
Music can help you open your ears and learn how to better listen to yourself and to others.
I really like this one, because it is not only the basic requirement in a mindfulness meditation. Breathing is also a critical part of the most basic musical human activity – singing. And more, when playing wind musical instruments like a flute, harmonica or didgeridoo.
If you have a chance, observe children singing. Look how they breathe whenever they need to, resulting in breaking words and sometimes the meaning of a song. They act and breathe naturally. For the most healthy humans breathing comes natural and you don’t think about it.
Singing, though, or musicking on a wind instrument, requires a different approach. You need to think about how and when you breathe, you need to to learn and practice it. You have to breathe mindfully.
With breathing, or the lack of it, is connected my most embarrassing performance experience. As as student I was singing in a choir at my hometown’s opera house. In Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, dressed as soldiers, we had to stand on the stage over thirty minutes. While watching captivating performance right in front of me – I literally forgot to breath and was about to faint. Just the fast reaction of more experienced colleagues saved me and the performance from a potential disastrous disturbance.
The basic element of our music tradition is repetitiveness. We learn through repetition. Popular music hits are being made through endless repetition. Also the enjoyment of music listening comes from releasing ‘pleasure’ hormones in our brains, through building up expectation or tension, and then releasing it. All by repetition.
And yet – no music repetition is the same. Even if you are listening to a music recording. And especially if you are musicking and repeating exactly the same music pattern. While musicking, pay attention and listen how each coming tone is different from the previous repetition. How they sound, tie together, how they appear and disappear – in the space and in time.
Music is ‘art in time’. And time never stops and never repeats itself.
A great example of the repetition in music is the notorious Bolero composed by Maurice Ravel. If you have 17 minutes, listen to the playful rendition by the Vienna Philharmonics conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Watch and listen how the same melody is being passed around from one instrument to another. How the tension constantly builds up. All above the persisting two-part rhythm pattern played by the snare drum. That drum part is considered as the most demanding in Bolero – because it has to be repeated without any change.
Lachlan Brown closes his article with ‘We tend to chase the exciting without even realizing that new things are in front of us. … No single day is the same. Every day we are meeting and interacting with a different version of the world; all we have to do is look closer‘.
And again – music and musicking could serve as great examples and also tools to practice this approach. It may be hard for an absolute music beginner to stop worrying about how your performance sounds. How you look. If your do it correctly.
But if your goal is to reap benefits of the mindful musicking, you need to stop judging yourself and others. Once your mind is free of worries and judgements, you start noticing new things, new sounds, new possibilities. You start realizing your ability to change what and how you play.
Not single tone is the same. Your music can change you. You get excited about small challenges your musicking will put in front of you. Even more about your ability to find new ways how to overcome them. From there you learn how to enjoy more the moment, your life, people and the world around you.
All you have to do is grab an instruments, start musicking … and listen closer.