Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mind Training ~ Musical Training

A lot of non-Buddhist spiritual practitioners, perhaps Thomas Merton most famously, have felt that the tools of mind training can be used effectively in their own endeavors. Based on the very general framework laid out in the previous post, I think they can be helpful in the practice of music making as well.

One of the basic tools of mind training is simply practicing being more aware of your thoughts and actions in real time. As we go through life, a lot of our ways of thinking about things and behaving is habitual and reflexive. By learning to watch our thoughts and behavior we can get a better sense of what's working and what isn't, which is the first step towards making improvements.

What's really interesting about this, and what correlates so well with music making, is that we're bringing into the conscious realm things that usually reside at a deeper level that we're normally much less aware of. It's like shining a flashlight of attention around a dark factory and seeing the individual components and finding the ones that need work. Then, once we've fixed something up, moving on to another, while that one slips back out of the immediate consciousness.

What the neuroscience is telling us is that in this procedure we're slowly but surely rewiring our brains in various places. If we go about this in the right way, we'll end up with more of our music making flowing in a natural and nearly automatic way.

Another mind training tool that goes hand in hand with this is being clear about your motivation. The lamas often make the point that doing things to simply satisfy the "self-cherishing ego" can lead to suffering. Working towards being more of a benefit to others can lead to more happiness and contentment.

I think the analog to this in music making might be that if your motivation is simply to build technique as an end in itself, you're setting yourself up to be a creature of your "self-cherishing ego". That is, a lot of, "Hey, look at me and how great a player I am", can creep into your mind. If this is the case, one result is going to be being pretty upset when you make mistakes, and that kind of disequilibrium can cascade into some unhappy states of mind.

More importantly, though, if your motivation somehow includes being of benefit to your audience, that's going to color all of the instances of your brain rewiring work. Besides thinking about how to more efficiently make music, you're also going to be thinking about how your music is going to affect an audience. To my mind, that broader awareness of what you're up to has a lot to do with what frequent commenter Jonathan West calls "musicality".

photo - day lily 


  1. More importantly, though, if your motivation somehow includes being of benefit to your audience, that's going to color all of the instances of your brain rewiring work.

    Now, that is an interesting thought. The enjoyment of the audience and the emotional effect on them is what I am primarily interested in with my music. All the technique is merely a means to that end.

    But it had never occurred to me that this was but an example of a more general concern for the well-being of others, which is a major motivation for much of what I do with my life. But once you make the connection, it's obvious.

    I'm also reminded of the headmaster of the local village primary school when I was young. He was very keen to have music as a major part of the life of the school, and to have as many of his pupils learn musical instruments as possible. He simply said "It makes better people." That suggests that the habits of good music-making can spread into other aspects of life as well.

  2. Great comment - thanks. Over here, at least, there's the notion that "music therapy" must just be for severely challenged people. There's also the notion amongst a lot of music educators that music training is mostly about technique. A big part of what I'm up to is trying to get folks to broaden both those views.

    "But once you make the connection, it's obvious." - For whatever reason, here lately have been having a lot of epiphanies large and small along those lines. There's so much to making music that's obvious, but only once you've made the connection.