Aim and connect
We've covered taxidermy...and now broccoli!
In secular contexts (e.g. education, mental health, etc.) mindfulness is often described as having two primary benefits. One is increased self-regulation -- essentially the ability to respond thoughtfully rather than react -- and the other is the stabilization of attention. So far, we have talked a lot about the former but not much about the latter. And knowing how to pay attention is kind of important for musicians...
But even though paying attention (or "concentration") is pretty universally considered an essential component of successful music-making, musicians aren't usually taught in any systematic way how to pay attention. I remember my first tuba teacher telling me that I wouldn't learn to concentrate by constantly admonishing myself, "Concentrate, dammit!" This was sage advice and to this day I think of it when I catch myself trying to muscle my mind into submission.
But for years the question plagued me: If paying attention wasn't simply an act of will, how could I learn to do it?
Well, I have to say, the yogis and the Buddhists have really got the whole training-of-attention thing down to a science. Among the many useful metaphors I have encountered in yoga and meditation, one of my favourites is the broccoli metaphor. In Buddhist circles, the process of learning to pay attention is often likened to the process of spearing a piece of broccoli with a fork:
In order to get the broccoli, a certain amount of aim is required. You could just randomly poke your fork around the plate and eventually you might get lucky and snag the broccoli. But in most cases it is going to be more effective to deliberately aim the fork at the broccoli. By the same token, if you try to get the broccoli by aiming at one particular bud (buds are the little "balls" at the end of each floret -- I googled it) it is likely to end in frustration. The aim needs to be not too wide and not too narrow, but just right.
Then, once you have taken aim, it is important to modulate your energy in order to connect with the broccoli with the appropriate amount of force. If you just kind of half-heartedly wave the fork around in the vicinity of the broccoli, it is unlikely that you will make contact and, even if you do, that it will be with enough force to actually pick it up. On the other hand, if you stab at the broccoli with excessive force, it will probably fly to pieces.
What is needed to pick up the broccoli is a deliberate yet relaxed approach -- enough force to connect but not enough to cause the broccoli to fall apart.
This metaphor applies to meditation as follows: To focus the attention, we need to aim it at something such as the feeling of the breath. Usually, we go for a certain level of specificity and try to focus on the feeling of the breath in certain part of the body such as the abdomen, chest, or nostrils. But we are not so specific as to try to focus on the feeling of the breath in, say, the middle lobe of the left lung. To stabilize the attention -- to ensure that the attention reliably connects with the breath -- we need to be conscious of our energy. Too little energy or interest and the mind wanders. Too much intensity and the mind becomes tight and controlling. When we find that sweet spot where our aim is true and our energy just right, the mind can rest comfortably on the breath. And then it's just a hop, a skip, and a jump to nirvana!
Not really... But it is true that when you learn to aim your attention with clarity and give it just enough of a nudge that it lands where you want it to, the mental chatter really quiets down. And who among us couldn't do with a little less mental chatter?
As a musician I have found this bipartite model of attention to be enormously helpful. Over the years, I been guilty of both poor aim and poor connection. Often simultaneously. The mental chatter (mine, anyway) can be so seductive that it's easy to mistake it for the object of attention. In other words, it's easy to get caught up in thoughts about what we're doing rather than truly attending to what we're doing. My tendency when this happens to try harder, to increase my energy. But unless I also adjust my aim -- away from the chatter and towards the task at hand -- that extra effort is not only wasted, but it also feeds the internal dialogue. It can become a vicious cycle of pseudo-concentration.
Of course, not every musician has this experience. Many people have a hard time keeping their attention in the same room let alone on a specific task, sound, or sensation! And for a lot of us, it just depends on the day.
But, rather than launch into a lengthy inquiry into the multitude of ways in which aim and connection can interact to either fuel or foil practice and performance, I thought I'd switch it up and pose some questions to encourage you to explore this in your own playing. Any of these can be applied to both practice and performance. In fact, it might be interesting to notice if and how your answers change depending on the context.
In general, which do you think is stronger for you, your aim or your ability to "connect" -- to modulate your energy so that your attention goes where you want it to?
How do you decide what to pay attention to? Do you decide what to pay attention to? Or does your mind tend to kind of "latch on" to things all on its own?
How good is your aim? Does your attention tend to be too narrow, too wide, or just right? How do you know when your aim is just right? (Consider your physical, mental, and emotional state as well as the musical result.)
What kinds of things affect your ability to take aim? (Again, consider physical, mental, emotional, and musical factors.)
What kinds of things affect your ability to focus your attention?
In general, are you an aimless fork waver or a vicious stabber?
What kinds of interference does your attention encounter on its way to its target?
What is the result when you don't bring enough energy or interest to the task? When you bring too much?
What kinds of things affect the energy with which you pay attention?
I'll close by saying that attention, like balance, is always in flux. We are always in a dance of finding it and losing it and what qualifies as optimal varies greatly depending on the circumstances. Sometimes attention needs to be focused like a laser beam and other times it can be more diffuse. Some musical situations call for a lot of intensity while in others it pays to back off a bit and just let it happen. What I like about the broccoli metaphor is that it provides a framework for developing a nuanced approach to attention that can adapt to the demands of any given situation. Plus, I love broccoli.
(Having said that, it occurs to me that this metaphor would work equally well with, say, chocolate cake...)
Thanks for reading. Happy practicing!