Home Media News & Blog Better Practice Through Mindfulness—Part 2
Better Practice Through Mindfulness—Part 2
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Better Practice Through Mindfulness—Part 2

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Regular practice is the cornerstone of good musicianship. This is particularly true for our instrument.

We have a bag that we need to control and regulate in a steady manner, we have four reeds that we need to keep in tune, and we have a unique chanter that requires good technique to produce a pleasing, musical sound. Without regular practice, we would not be able to manage and control the many variables that go into a good, musical performance.

We have two enemies that can prevent us from practicing regularly: procrastination and lack of concentration. If we put our practice session off until tomorrow, when it could be done today, we rob ourselves of the benefits of daily practice. If we can’t concentrate when we practice, then our session becomes ineffective and we might practice our mistakes.

In Part 1, I discussed the simple act of mindfulness mediation and how it can be used to help us concentrate. In this post, I will cover some basic neuroscience relating to procrastination. I will also revisit mindfulness meditation and how it can help reduce procrastination.

Why do we procrastinate? The truth is, no one really knows for certain. We cannot perform a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) of the brain and see what happens when we procrastinate. Neuroscientists have, however, put forth compelling theories based on how the brain functions.

Consider how our brains are structured. According to Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary, our brains have two systems, the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, that collide when we procrastinate.

The limbic system is a collection of structures on both sides of the thalamus beneath the cerebrum. It evolved early and operates mostly through emotions. It is very powerful and is directly hard-wired to the brain’s pleasure center. When you really crave something, your limbic system is controlling you. Despite its power, a major weakness of the limbic system is that it is concerned with immediate pleasure and pain.

The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the frontal lobe in the cerebral cortex. Psychologists use the term executive function to refer to the actions carried out by the prefrontal cortex. Executive function includes actions such as working toward a defined goal. When you plan to do something, you are using your prefrontal cortex. The major weakness of the prefrontal cortex is that it tires quickly.

Think of it in these terms: raise your hand of you can play a clean, crisp crunluath. I’d venture to guess that, optimistically, 50 percent of you raised your hands. The crunluath is one of the most difficult embellishments to play properly. It may take years to master. One certainly, unless one is a savant, cannot sit down and play it correctly, at professional performance tempo, on the first try. Learning to play a crunluath takes time, effort, and practice. Learning to play a crunluath takes planning and will probably take some emotional pain. One certainly won’t bleed as a result of playing crunluaths but you may experience emotions such as frustration and stress.

In comparison, it is easier to click on a browser tab and watch a cat video. When you watch cat videos, there is a pleasant emotional reward and it is often immediate. As Jessica Gall Myrick suggests in her study Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online, “mediated exposure to cats could possibly result in similar outcomes found in pet therapy studies, although perhaps to a lesser degree given no physical interaction with Internet cats.” Indeed, according to Rebecca Johnson, subjects, in her studies, had increased levels of serotonin in their blood after interacting with an animal. “In addition to serotonin," according to Johnson, "we also are seeing increases in the amounts of prolactin and oxytocin, more of those ‘feel good’ hormones.” While the link between serotonin generation and watching cat videos may be a logical assumption, Myrick did not test for serotonin levels in her subjects, there is little question that cat videos have a positive affect on most viewers. As Myrick notes, her hypothesis "predicted that viewing Internet cats would be associated with an increase in users’ positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions." Myrick's evidence confirmed this. Most people's personal experience would back this up.

If you plan to practice your crunluaths at 7:00 a.m., you are using your prefronal cortex. If you, instead, watch cat videos at the appointed hour, your limbic system has taken over. When that happens, we encounter the problem of emotion regulation. We defer the difficult to avoid the complex, sometimes frustrating, emotions involved in solving problems. We favor of the simpler, and often more pleasant, emotions involved when watching cat videos. In short, we procrastinate. We favor the simple. We defer the complex.

To combat this conundrum, psychologist Tim Pychyl suggests that we have to “downgrade the limbic system.” We have to train our minds to refocus. One technique for doing this, Pychyl notes, is through mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation, as we discussed in Part 1, is a simple concept. It is an exercise for the brain and is easy to do:

  1. Sit with your back straight and eyes closed.
  2. Notice the feeling of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Focus your attention on one spot where the feeling is most prominent, usually the nose, the chest, or the belly.

As we noted, when you meditate, your mind will wander. When your mind wanders, refocus on the one spot where the feeling of your breathing is most prominent. Note that failure is built into meditation. Meditation is nothing more than trying, failing, and starting again. When you meditate, you train your mind to refocus.

If you consider what might happen when you practice your crunluaths:

  1. Start from low A.
  2. Play Low G.
  3. Miss the D grace note on Low G
  4. Look up, spy a browser tab with a cat video.
  5. Set the chanter down, watch cat video.

If you have practiced mindfulness meditation for a few days, you have practiced refocusing. The following might happen:

  1. Start from low A.
  2. Play Low G.
  3. Miss the D grace note on Low G.
  4. Look up, spy a browser tab with a cat video.
  5. Refocus, play the E grace note on Low A.
  6. Play the F grace note on Low A.
  7. Play E.
  8. Refocus and repeat the exercise since we missed the D grace note on Low G.

Of course, it might be beneficial to close the browser tab with the cat videos.

You only need to meditate for five to ten minutes a day. That’s it. You will note that, if you do it on a daily basis, you will improve your concentration and reduce, to a degree, your tendency to procrastinate because you have trained yourself to refocus.

You may note a feeling of calm and relaxation after a brief mediation session, that is a good time to pick up your practice chanter or your pipes and start practicing.

Take Action

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Deliberate Practice and Practice Habits, Part 1
Deliberate Practice and Practice Habits, Part 2

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Mark Olson Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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