One of the best musical lessons I ever learned was during a collaborative piano masterclass with Martin Katz at the University of Michigan. I was playing a Beethoven sonata and at one point he stopped us and asked the pianist if she liked how I had played a certain phrase. The pianist said no, and Mr. Katz then asked, “But how did you play the lead-in to her entrance?” The pianist then played the phrase differently, which completely altered how I played the subsequent phrase.
“What will come next will be determined in large measure by how we are now.” -Jon Kabat-Zinn, Where You Go, There You Are
This sort of attention is crucial to being a great musician. It has to do with being able to listen and respond, but also understanding and attention to one’s own role in the present moment.
It is also a difficult skill to practise. We can ask ourselves, “Is it in tune? Is the rhythm good?” and these are fairly straightforward questions, even if the execution may be difficult.
But this skill of listening and responding must be practised with another musician(s).
The practice of mindfulness can help, however, for it trains our minds to be aware.
Why not try 20 minutes of mindful ensemble practice? I suggest the following for a string quartet:
Choose a movement to work on, one that you are comfortable playing.
Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Record your playing.
The upper 3 voices focus on the cello line. This focus will be similar to the focus on the breath during mindful meditation - you will find your mind wander to all kinds of things, but keep bringing it back to the cello line.
The cellist focuses on something physical - the breath, or the feeling of the feet against the floor. But just one focus for the whole 20 minutes.
There should be no speaking during the 20 minutes (clarify repeats before you start the timer!). Assuming your piece lasts less than 20 minutes, continue to cycle through it, each time reminding yourselves to refocus your attention.
At the end of the 20 minutes, listen to the recording and see what you notice!
Feel free to leave comments!
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.