Music is Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword these days. And for good reason: there’s a national shortage of it.

Since smart phones have become part of our daily lives, we increasingly live in two places at once.

While we inhabit the physical world — working, running errands, eating dinner, going to concerts, taking vacations — we also commentate, photograph, document and upload what’s happening for our friends elsewhere to see, online, usually through Twitter and Facebook.

When smart phones first came on the scene, I think most of us looked at them as fun gizmo, novelty, a shiny, high-tech afterthought. If we were at a restaurant sitting down to an especially impressive-looking plate of food, we might snap a picture and post it online. But then we’d go back to whatever we were doing and forget about snapping and posting for a while.

Years on, I’ve noticed that we’re art directing our lives a bit, even choosing our experiences based on their post-ability.

And of course this has changed the way we listen to live music. At most gigs, I can look out at the audience and see people at any given time, arms out in front of them in that now-familiar pose, watching the band through the touchscreens of their phones.

And once the moment has been captured and posted, invariably it’s mission accomplished and on to other things — talking, eating, drinking, emailing, texting.

For whose benefit are these moments being documented?

Are your friends on Facebook really going to watch the tinny-sounding, 20-second phone video you posted, or will they just “like” it out of courtesy and move on?

Maybe we’re recording and posting these moments as a way of letting ourselves off the hook, of deferring the burden of paying attention now to sometime in the indefinite future? We’ll just record this now and save it for later, when we feel like paying attention.

Let’s be honest: paying attention is hard, it takes effort. And so much in our culture now encourages not to do that. But I think we need a break from living in two places at once. And playing an instrument is one way to do that.

Playing an instrument requires all of our mental resources. I often tell students that a violin is a biofeedback machine. If you’re feeling nervous and your muscles are tense, the instrument will tell on you. You’ll hear the muscle tension in your playing. Your phrasing will be stiffer, your bowing won’t be as fluid. You might play slurs with a faster bow, giving what you’re playing a slightly out-of-breath feel. You might use too much bow pressure. But as you relax, you’re playing will relax. And as you’re playing relaxes, you’ll relax. And so on.

When we play an instrument, we pay attention, we listen, adjusting our playing based on what we’re hearing. Then what we hear, shapes now we feel, then back again. We create a feedback loop within ourselves, as we listen and adjust. Listen again, adjust again.

I think this is very similar to how meditators meditate. Choose something to pay attention to, whether it’s a word or a phrase or your breath, and when your attention drifts away, redirect it back.

The effect of both meditation and playing music is a deepening of awareness. And I don’t mean this in the mystical, unicorns-and-rainbows sense. Just on a very practical level, we’re  more aware of what’s going on around us, we’re more focused, less fritz-y and distracted.

And when we’re relaxed and focused, we not only play better, we work better, think better and, I would say, live our lives better.

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