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, the our session becomes ineffective and we might practice our mistakes.
In Part 2, I discussed mindfulness meditation and how it can be used to reduce procrastination. In this post, I will discuss research into mindfulness mediation and how this might apply to reducing procrastination and increasing concentration.
While it might seem to be, mindfulness meditation is not some New Age woo. There is a body of evidence suggesting that it does, indeed, change the brain. Psychologists and neurobiologists refer to this as neuroplasticity.
In graduate school, Sara Lazar, an instructor in psychology at the Harvard Medical School, planned to run the Boston Marathon. She injured herself during training. Her injury was severe; her physical therapist advised her that she shouldn’t run. The therapist recommended yoga. In her yoga class, Lazar's instructor made several claims about yoga. “It will make you more compassionate, it will open your heart.” Lazar was incredulous at the instructor’s assertions and rolled her eyes. However, she continued the class because she wanted to keep herself in shape. She noticed, after several weeks in the class, that she was calmer and able to better handle difficult situations. A tenant of yoga is mindfulness, bringing your awareness into the present moment without judgment or reaction.
She decided test the calmness that she was feeling in order to determine if it was result of the mindfulness she had learned in her yoga class. Dr. Lazar examined the MRI scans of 16 subjects before and after they participated in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class. Each of the participants spent “an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises.” After the program, they reported significant stress reduction on a questionnaire, and analysis of their MRIs “found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”
Dr. Lazar also had her subjects complete the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire, a 39-item scale to measure five factors of mindfulness: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging of inner experience, and non-acivity to inner experience.
In comparison to the control group, the study group had significant increases in three of the five mindfulness subscales:
- Acting with awareness - attending to one’s current actions, as opposed to behaving automatically or absent-mindedly.
- Observing - attending to or noticing internal and external stimuli, such as sensations, emotions, cognitions, sights, sounds, and smells.
- Non-judging of Inner Experience - refraining from evaluation of one’s sensations, cognitions, and emotions.
Of these results, it seems logical that acting with awareness would increase. If we reconsider the steps for mindfulness meditation:
- Sit with your back straight and eyes closed.
- 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.
- If your mind wanders, repeat step 2.
These procedures can be distilled into the following steps:
- Start again
In a five-minute meditation session, we might have practiced refocusing our attention hundreds of times. It would follow, then, acting with awareness scores would increase.
It also seems logical that non-judging of inner experience would increase. In mindfulness meditation, we are focused on one thing, the spot on which the feeling of our breath is most prominent. Since we quickly refocus when our mind wanders, we practice sublimating an evaluation of our sensations, cognitions, and emotions.
From a practice perspective, if we can focus on our practice, we can improve our skills. Since any practice session is going to be filled with periods where our minds wander, concentration will wane, we need to be able to refocus. With mindfulness meditation, we practice refocusing numerous times in a session. This applies directly to practicing on the pipes or the practice chanter, if our minds wander, we can immediately refocus because we have practiced it.
This also has implications for procrastination. If we procrastinate to avoid the complex emotions involved with a difficult task, learning to refrain from judging our sensations, cognition, and emotions, we may be less likely, as a result, to procrastinate. In addition, if we have trained our minds to refocus, through mindfulness meditation, the task of refocusing on the music becomes much easier when we look up and see a browser tab with a cat video.