I confess that during my practise session this morning, I was writing my most recent blog post in my head. It’s a subject I feel passionately about (I want to tell musicians how awesome they are!) but it totally hijacked my practise session.
A fellow violinist posted on The Mindful Violinist Facebook page that her “mind is so cluttered with the business side of the profession that [she] suddenly started to find it hard to focus at one thing at a time”. This got me thinking about the various things that grind us musicians down - aching bodies, long hours, early starts, low pay, lonely travelling, funding cuts...the list goes on. So this blog post is dedicated to you, my friends and colleagues, a tribute to the hard work you put into to realise your dreams.
An interesting correlation to the mind wandering is the fingers wandering. I set out to do five minutes of open D strings, and found my fingers repeatedly wandering to other notes, improvising chords and sexy suspensions. I kept bringing my bow back to the open D string.
One of the main reasons I never bothered looking into mindfulness after my initial experience at Guildhall was my deep suspicion of airy-fairy nonsense. We’ve all experienced a conductor who tells an orchestra, “Your colour must be like the silken wisp of a fine summer’s morning on the Galapagos Islands,” followed by someone, usually the principal double bass, saying, “Do you want that louder or softer?” Poetic nonsense? No thanks. Give me some hard facts.
After a morning of purchasing domain names, Googling SEO tips, creating a new website, and publishing my first blog, I decided it’s time to do some actual mindful violin practice.
I should clarify that I have absolutely no idea what that might be. I sort of understand mindfulness and I’ve been practising the violin for 21 years, but this is a whole set of experiments to see how they might coalesce.
The point of mindfulness is anchoring oneself through the body. I wanted to try using the violin and bow as anchors, rather than my own breath.
So I set a timer for 10 minutes and started playing long open A strings. The following happened:
I got bored and started thinking about creating a second Twitter account and getting new headshots.
I brought my mind back to the bow.
I got bored and started thinking about what a brilliant idea my blog was. Visions of fame and glory passed before my eyes.
I brought my mind back to the bow.
Then something cool happened. I started noticing my sound. Really noticing. I didn’t have an entirely sustained sound - it came in and out a bit. I just noticed. Didn’t try to change. I tried to accept that I was opening my ears. I started to hear more and more details - what do my bow changes sound like? Is there a sound when I change? Do I want that sound?
Then my left arm started hurting. I thought this was a bit cheeky - I played an Elgar symphony last week that lasted approximately 3 hours (ok, 50 minutes) and my left arm was fine, but five minutes of an open string and it hurts?
Then I wondered if maybe it always aches like this and playing lots of notes distracts me from the pain. I notice a similar phenomenon when doing mindfulness breathing - I often have a gag/choking reflex about half a second after I feel very calm - in both cases, something is tugging at me to pull me away from the calmness.
So I did a few left arm stretches and here I am writing this blog!
Back to the violin now.
Update: 30 minutes later. Perhaps this is just my imagination, but I think I sound much better - a bigger, rounder tone. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that I am paying much more attention to the middles and ends of bow strokes, and simply noticing something automatically improves it (sometimes, at least). And when my timer went off, I shut it off and kept playing!
More update: next week's post will feature audience participation! I am creating a 5-minute mindfulness/violin session for you to try and comment on. Stay tuned!
What is mindfulness, you ask? Well, I was introduced to mindfulness in 2013 when I was studying violin at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. I'd seen some flyers around advertising an evening of mindfulness and performance anxiety reduction, and as I have a mind, I perform, and I experience anxiety, I seemed like the ideal demographic.
So I arrived with a yoga mat and zero expectations, which was good as after introducing ourselves and saying what we hoped to achieve (I remember being shocked that someone in the room described her anxiety keeping her from sleep...how young and innocent I was - I just wanted my bow to be a bit steadier in auditions), we spent ten minutes eating a raisin. Not just eating, mind, but examining its every wrinkle, feeling the texture against our thumbs and fingers, biting off a small piece and feeling its texture in our mouths, chewing very slowly, swallowing attentively, and repeating until the raisin had disappeared. I recall resting between bites, as though I had accomplished some great feat, and I suppose it was a great feat of focus.
Then we did a guided body scan. The presenter (with a soothing English accent, less surprising given that we were in England, but still quite affective and effective) had us lie down on our mats and examine the sensations in our left big toes, then the next toe, then the next, and so on up through the ankles and shins and knees and through the entire body. This took about 40 minutes, and we finished to the sound of gentle snoring of a few students who had fallen blissfully asleep.
I wasn't sure quite what had happened, but I knew I was pretty chilled out.
I took a train to Liverpool the next day for an audition. I downloaded the body scan onto my phone and did one on the train and another in the hotel room the morning before my audition. I played a fantastic audition, got a trial, and a few months later got a job with the first fiddles of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
At that point, I figured I had mastered mindfulness, and also the violin, and perhaps even life generally, so I sailed off into the future without considering the possibility of continuing mindfulness.
Fast forward to 2016. I am living in London again, freelancing on the violin and working at Encore, a tech startup, having experienced lots of personal growth (i.e. working through heartbreak, confusion, depression) and rather annoyed that any time I try to sit down and have a cheeky ale in my sunny garden I have this feeling of anxiety as though I should be doing something productive. So I decided to go back to mindfulness.
What follows is my still-unfolding story of my experience of mindfulness with the following Life Events: performing so many concerts in a week you think you might explode, performing so few concerts in a week you have to shop at Tesco instead of M&S (for America, substitute Kroger for Whole Foods), spending more time travelling than on-stage, dealing with all of the annoying people who stand in your way at the train station (while of course never standing in the way yourself), keeping calm while trains magically disappear from the London Bridge platform (seriously, why haven't we faced the fact that aliens are stealing the trains?), not having time to practise, having time to practise but no motivation, having motivation to practise but no time, and having no time or motivation but a definite need to practise, investing time in stretching and taking care of my body, accepting that nagging, nameless anxiety that comes up whenever I am quiet enough to let it through, and generally just living the 21st century life of a musician and entrepreneur.
Disclaimer: I have begun practising mindfulness again for 5 days now (I have a chart on my wall). I aim to do a 10 or 20 minute meditation session each day. My track record in such endeavours suggests that I will do this for about three more days and then fall off the wagon and start watching Full House on Netflix. This blog is an attempt to keep me honest as well as to delight, amuse, entertain, and possibly edify you, my dear reader. If I do fall off the wagon, I apologise for the wasted effort you have undergone in reading this blog post.
So you do not feel you have entirely wasted your effort, here is a picture of some puppies.
I am an Irish-American violinist living in Cambridge, UK. I perform with the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, and many other top groups, and am also the Business Developer for Encore Music and am on the Makers Academy course for programming.