Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mindfulness and Good Luck

Here's a brief article on a simple study suggesting that people who consider themselves lucky display more mindfulness than those considering themselves unlucky. It gives a wonderful illustration of how mindfulness can ease problem solving.

Here's the final paragraph:

People who we often consider lucky are more relaxed and open to what's going on around them. They're not focused on a single task, blocking out everything else so much that they miss something important and unexpected. What this experiment demonstrates is that luck may not so much be luck, but whether or not our mindset leaves us open to opportunities we would otherwise miss because we're so absolutely sure of what we want.

That last sentence also gets at why giving some thought to your motivation can be helpful.


  1. I'm reminded of the quote from golfer Gary Player. "The harder you practice, the luckier you get."

    When dealing with a difficult task, if you have it sufficiently mastered it means that you have attention left over for seeing what else is going on. And so you have the means to react to the unexpected.

    And you can only master a task by diligent and effective practice at it.

  2. Jonathan -

    I take your point, especially the attention left over part. What I liked about that ingenious study was the notion of the answer being found by being open to the gestalt and not laser focused on one aspect of it to the exclusion of others.

    Remember, I feel my path to music, which was mostly solitary for years, has been different from yours, which was growing up in a musical home where music vied for being the primary language. You picked up stuff by osmosis that I had to figure out. You lived in a gestalt environment when it came to music, so all the bits and pieces of technique and musicality were present to be appreciated and taken on board by a young and very plastic brain.

    So for you "practice" has an effective meaning far different (and all encompassing) than it did for me for years. It's my position that people such as yourself, and the people described as "naturals", don't fully appreciate the more plodding layers of learning you've skipped straight through. You're already mindful of various issues I'm still figuring out I need to pay attention to.

    Thanks for the comment, as it made me try to explain something I've been trying to verbalize for quite some time.

  3. I rather agree. In addition to practice at home on the technical aspects of mastering the horn, I've also done many, many hours of practicing co-ordinating my playing with others. We just don't call it practice, we call it rehearsals.

    But if you're bright about how you approach a rehearsal, in almost any rehearsal you can learn something about playing in a group, even as you are achieving the primary aim of preparing for the group's next performance.

    In a rehearsal with a conductor, you learn more about how the conductor beats, and more importantly, how all the other players interpret the beat. Being the one person in a band who is interpreting the beat "correctly" is no use if as a result you are out of time with everyone else.

    And I think that the training in awareness that group music making gives you develops skills which are transferrable to other aspects of life. To take a random example, I suspect I am a better and more careful driver because of my music, because the awareness I have extends to an awareness of the likely actions of other road users. That helps me steer clear (literally) of potentially dangerous situations.

    But its very hard to do awareness training as a direct object of practice. That is because practice on technical skills requires concentration, and awareness requires the opposite.

  4. Jonathan -

    This comment delights me because of my long held feeling that group work is a wonderful mechanism for learning. Back when I led group therapy sessions in psych hospital, I was amazed at how they could bring about such gains in insight on the part of the patients, way more than could ever be achieved on a one on one situation.

    A key element of the learning materials I'm working on developing is that they're geared for small ensembles without being instrument specific. I feel that if I can help people make music together in small groups, and have fun doing so, all sorts of benefits will flow.

    As a therapist, I couldn't agree more with your, "I think that the training in awareness that group music making gives you develops skills which are transferrable to other aspects of life."

    That last bit, "it's very hard to do awareness training as a direct object of practice. That is because practice on technical skills requires concentration, and awareness requires the opposite", I need to think about. I think you're correct that there are two different modes of learning involved, but would like to think there are ways to get them working (consciously) in tandem.

    In my approach I don't want that awareness you speak of to be on the hidden agenda you've suggested tone quality should be on. For people immersed in music making that may work, but for people just doing it as a side line, my feeling is you have to lay out more clearly all that's involved so they know what they're shooting for.

  5. I doesn't need to be on the hidden agenda. You can mention it from time to time as part of what you are trying to achieve. But it may often happen that direct instructions to change an approach to openness and up being counterproductive.

    Just because you're not talking about it doesn't mean that you're not teaching it.

  6. Jonathan -

    That final sentence is to me a wonderful point, given my interest in all the non-verbal aspects of music making -e.g. gesture and proprioception. A post I keep wanting to write has to do with verbal language about music making being so slippery, given one's distance along the experiential path having so much to do with what the same words are saying to each different person.

    Another deep point you're touching on is how one teaches. We need to come up with a more neutral or positive phrase than "hidden agenda" for how you're thinking, as that phrase is redolent of covert manipulative behavior.

    It seems you're saying that you know more than the student about how one needs to go about learning making music and that they need to trust you on that and go with the flow.

    As a therapist, I'm much more interested in getting at all the different aspects of music making with each client, and making an assessment of what they are strongest in, and developing a path based on those strengths.

    I have one student now (flute) with astonishing tone for a beginner and I talk about it a lot with her, not wanting her to loose sight of it in pursuit of other areas of music making. Others have a great feel for rhythm, or feeling harmonic changes, or sight reading and theory and so on.

    So that importance of motivation comes in here. Your motivation is to teach someone how to make music (or however you would state that) - mine is to help people better know themselves and others through the process of learning how to make music.

  7. Remember the previous articles on my blog about mimicry. You can teach an awful lot just by example, and having the pupil work out a way of doing the same thing that works for him or her.

    As for a pupil happening to have a good tone, I would avoid talking about it overmuch. Instead, I would praise the tone periodically so the pupil realises both that it is important and that she is doing it right.

    I'm hesitant to press my own analytical approach onto others. Not everybody likes to think consciously all that hard about how they are doing something, if in fact they are producing a good sound. As a generality, we can probably say that people will play better if they understand more of what they are about, but I suspect that there are quite a few exceptions to that, e.g. people who happen to have hit on a good embouchure, people who who find themselves playing musically through feelings rather than thought.

    If they are doing well, then it seems to me that holding them up so that they can analyse what they have just succeeded in doing is not all that productive. Leave the analysis for when it's needed, to sort out a tricky problem where the more "natural" approach has hit a wall.

    I quite accept our different emphases. In terms of what I've been describing, making good music which the players and audience can enjoy is the objective. You aim to do that was well, but in addition, your music therapy activities use music-making as a means to a different end, a tool for better self-knowledge. In general music learning, that happens as well, but it's a bit of a second-order side-effect. It commonly happens, but it isn't the main object, except that some of the very best teachers are aware that they are slipping in stuff along these lines as part of their teaching.

    One thing I have noticed, and that is how nice as people the great majority of amateur musicians are. There really are extraordinarily few unpleasant characters in the ranks of amateur musicians who play in groups.

  8. Jonathan -

    I do remember the mimicry posts, and along with mirror neurons, think it's much more important that most people realize and that the neuroscience will bear that out over time.

    And yes, I'm just praising tone, not talking about how to produce it. In general my approach is as much positive reinforcement as possible of what going right. Very much agree with your point about not getting all analytical except when called for. Focusing too much on what's wrong can take the fun out of it.

    Really like your final point about how nice so many amateur musicians are, especially given your much longer and deeper experience of ensemble music making. Back when I worked with emotionally disturbed children, a lot of it was using music making to model social interaction so as to increase social skills. What you're saying is that that seems to work at the higher end as well.

    One thing I've meant to mention, a difference more of degree than kind, is that your model of teaching shares a lot with the master / apprentice approach, which has worked well forever.

    Part of what I try to do is help the client become a self teacher - to be more self reliant in the pursuit of music making (which, of course, you do as well). The difference is that you can assume your students want to go on to the canon, whereas I need to be helping a client get to whatever is best for them. For some, taking on the canon is fine. For others it might be some other genre. It's a subtle difference I'm not explaining well, but in some cases what's best for an individual client's self discovery may not be the pursuit of the canon, or techniques associated with it. It might be the blues, or Bob Dylan, or music for contra dancing.

  9. You mention the master/apprentice approach, and there is much truth in what you say about it.

    But the greatest pleasure of a master teaching an apprentice is to see the apprentice learn to teach himself and move on to greater achievements than his teacher. One wonders how proud Aubrey Brain must have been of Dennis, both as his son and as his pupil!

  10. Jonathan -

    Agreed. After I wrote that previous comment, though, it occurred to me the real difference may be in the apprentice. They're choosing what the master has to offer - in this case the canon - and more importantly, they must feel it's something they can do and are willing to commit to time and hard work.

    I often have to deal with clients feeling inadequate in their music making abilities, especially if they've been rejected from an education program, or simply because they're comparing themselves to recorded music or professionals they're heard.

    Again, thanks so much for helping unwind these thoughts.