All in Practice

PRACTICE: The 7 Dwarfs

Here at MUN, and at music schools all over North America, we are ramping up to jury and recital season. It’s an exciting time of the academic year and also a time when many musicians get stuck in that awkward place where their repertoire is pretty much learned, but not quite at the level they want it to be, whether technically, musically, or both. In this place, the intended result seems so close and at the same time inordinately difficult to reach. Maybe we can image imagine what we want but can’t quite get it to come out. Or, we know what we’re doing isn’t exactly what we intend, but we struggle to find clarity in our interpretation. It is easy to fill this gap with a lot of grinding of gears and spinning of wheels in an effort to just get. it. right. It seems like if we just play it enough times, it should get better, right? Well, sometimes repetition does the trick. But there is often a cost that is paid in frustration, wasted time, and physical tension and we inadvertently cultivate the opposite of the kind of freedom and authenticity we ultimately want on stage.

Don't shoot the second arrow

In this post, I'd like to introduce you to one of my favourite metaphors for unhelpful reactivity -- the second arrow. The concept of the second arrow comes from a Buddhist parable, the gist of which is this: If you got shot with an arrow, it would be bad. It would hurt a lot and could be life-threatening. There are certain actions you would likely want to take immediately such as get the arrow out, stop the bleeding, go to the hospital, etc. 

What would NOT be helpful would be to get, say, angry -- either with the person who shot you or with yourself for being stupid enough to get shot. If you did get angry, you would be in physical pain (and possibly mortal danger) AND, on top of that, you would be...well, angry, which generally doesn't feel good. So, not only would your discomfort have increased (pain of arrow + pain of being angry), but your anger would likely to distract you from taking the actions that would be most helpful.

In effect, it would be like shooting yourself with a second arrow. 

The Art of Celebrating Small Victories (Or: How Not to Fail in Advance)

The art of celebrating small victories lies, to paraphrase the great Kenny Rogers, in knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Sometimes we intend to celebrate small victories but get gluttonous about improving. Something goes well and we think, “Maybe, if I keep going, I can improve even more.”

It can be good to push on, sure. But pushing on can, for some of us, lead to a feeling of never really achieving anything. Consider this: Have you ever had an experience where you achieved something that felt meaningful or significant to you and told someone — perhaps a friend or a parent or a teacher — and they said "Congratulations!” but then immediately pointed out the thing that you haven’t achieved yet? Instead of feeling great about the thing you just accomplished, you end up feeling like you failed in advance at the next thing.

Tuning In

The ability to sense our internal experience in an embodied way -- as opposed to thinking about our experience in a conceptual way -- is an important first step in learning to regulate our nervous systems for optimal learning and confident performing. We can't regulate what we can't feel. 

More than that, though, if we can learn to sense (and therefore respond to) the subtle signals our bodies are sending us all the time we are less likely to get hijacked by overwhelm.

Let's start with self-compassion

Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves with kindness. It is different from self-esteem in that it doesn't require us to be (or to be perceived as) special in comparison to others and it is not dependent on our success. Self-compassion recognizes our basic value without reference to how we do or do not "stack up" next to others and irrespective of success or failure. 

The number one reason we gravitate towards self-criticism instead of self-compassion is that we believe we need self-criticism in order to motivate ourselves. Does this sound familiar to anyone??? BUT, Neff's research has demonstrated that in fact the opposite is true, that self-criticism actually undermines our motivation because it stimulates our stress physiology.

Pace Yourself

I have observed over the years that many students return to school slightly less “in shape” than when they left in the spring. Lots of music students, including those who are otherwise dedicated to their development as musicians, practice all year, perform their final jury or recital, and then put the instrument in the case for the summer.  

Process vs Product

In my very first post, How I Got Hooked on Mindfulness, I talked a little bit about a weird paradox that I encountered when I started practicing yoga and meditation. In both of these practices we are taught to focus on the quality of attention and presence we bring to each moment and not so much on the results of our efforts. This is called non-attachment and at first I thought it was for suckers. Focusing on process rather than product seemed to me to be, at best, inefficient and, at worst, a surefire way to encourage mediocrity. 

PRACTICE: Make good on the good

This practice is inspired by and adapted from "Take in the Good" in Rick Hanson's book Just One Thing and it is all about the deliberate cultivation of positive states of mind. I have posted a bare bones version without the backstory over on the Practice page. But the backstory is kind of interesting, so if you're up for it, read on...

I can see clearly now... (Judgment vs discernment)

To make up for last week's slightly incoherent post, and to give myself a bit of extra time to work on some more research-intensive posts, I'm going to (try to) keep this one short and sweet.

We haven't really talked much about judgment except to say that the practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to experience in non-judgmental way. My sense is that non-judgment is right up there with acceptance as a concept that is counter-intuitive for musicians and other excellence-minded folk. Judgment seems kind of integral to the whole process of getting better, doesn't it? We play it, we judge it, we play it again -- isn't that pretty much what practicing is?  

Just Say Yes: Practicing Acceptance

One of the big goals of mindfulness practice is to learn to accept what is -- whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. (Another goal is to stop categorizing experience as good, bad, or indifferent...but we'll save that for another post...) But the whole idea of acceptance -- particularly the acceptance of mistakes, practice ruts, or poor performances -- can be a tough sell among classical musicians. After all, we attain mastery by refusing to accept anything but the very best, right? Well, that depends on how we define acceptance.