How Mindfulness Helps Musicians Perform - Research and Techniques
By Larissa Hall Carlson
Working as a professional musician is incredibly demanding. Common challenges like intense competition, performance stress, long tours, burnout, and repetitive-movement injuries can prevent musicians from performing at their best. In their study of 2,536 adult musicians, Gembris, Heye, and Seifert (1) discovered that in addition to stage fright, when consistent pressure to perform well triggers music performance anxiety (MPA) in orchestral musicians performance often suffers; they argue that it’s necessary for professional musicians to maintain good health and a high-performance standard to keep their jobs, so access to preventative health practices and reliable performance-enhancing techniques is incredibly important. Fortunately, through simple, short, secular mindfulness techniques that boost relaxation, concentration, and compassion, musicians can reduce performance-related challenges, while simultaneously cultivating conditions that enhance functioning and support a thriving career.
Flow: Optimal Performance
Enhancing performance is a common goal of musicians in a very competitive profession. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creator of the flow theory and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, an optimal performance state, or flow state, is a state of ordered consciousness, enthrallment, and a balanced ratio of skill-to-challenge; this involves having clear goals, having a feeling of control, sensing time has paused or lengthened, experiencing a temporary dissolving of a sense of self, being fully aware, feeling the activity is valuable, and being incredibly focused (2). In a flow state, despite the challenges faced, one experiences ease, effortlessness, and timelessness. Through enhanced concentration, flow states help create order amidst the general chaos often experienced in the mind. Sounds like mindfulness, right?
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow states offer improvement to one’s job, activity, and performance. Enhanced relaxation, concentration, and self-compassion are chief requirements for cultivating those precious flow states “in which attention can be freely invested to achieve a person’s goals” (3). “In flow there is no room for self-scrutiny” (4) and enhanced self-confidence is a precious bi-product of flow. As musicians are constantly faced with the fluctuating opinions of critics, reviewers, competitors, conductors, and audience members, this trained and cultivated ability to maintain inner clarity, ease, focus, and emotional steadiness can be exceptionally valuable in making work a place of flourishing.
In a study on promoting flow states for musicians, researchers Bloom and Skutnick-Henley were primarily interested in “making the flow experience more attainable for music students” (5). Interestingly (and, perhaps, not surprisingly), they proposed that “flow states have much in common with the more established concept of mindfulness” (6), which focuses on restoring and maintaining presence in a relaxed manner. Their survey of adult musicians highlighted the importance of maintaining concentration and performing without self-criticism in order to facilitate flow states (7)--findings in alignment with Csikszentmihalyi’s teachings. So, how does modern mindfulness play a role in cultivating flow states?
Flow theory emphasizes the importance of enhanced ease and concentration for optimal performance, and similarly, modern mindfulness teachings commonly state that boosting both relaxation and focus is foundational for enhanced ease, harmony, fulfillment, presence, and balance. Through their broad analysis of published mindfulness research, Goleman and Davidson (8), conclude that mindfulness practices can decrease anxiety, stress, pain, and self-criticism, and boost focus, compassion, attention regulation, body awareness, and good sleep. Their conclusions show that mindfulness also speeds up recovery time from stress (9). This is great news for musicians (and other performing artists!), as mindfulness techniques can address their most common pain-points and performance-related challenges.
Concentration and Breath
According to mindfulness teacher and author, Andrew Olendzki (10), concentration meditation cultivates mental focus by consistently returning attention to a primary object (e.g. the breath). Through concentration meditations, one can gradually reign in the mind’s wandering and settle into states of mental tranquility “in a way that gathers and consolidates the power of awareness” (11). Similarly, well-known Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein explains that “strengthening of concentration comes about through the continuity of mindfulness” (12).
The breath is a very common object for meditation practice that cultivates focus in beginners and long-time practitioners alike. Typically, the breath is observed at the belly or tip of the nose—noting its natural and shifting path, movement, and sensation. Goldstein argues that the breath is used as an object of meditation because “it leads to both deep concentration and penetrative insight. It is the antidote to distraction and discursive thoughts, and it is a stabilizing factor” (13). Likewise, Goleman and Davidson (2017) state that “the path of concentration begins with a mere focus on the breath” (14), which is a simple, safe, and common way to practice secular mindfulness.
So, here’s the good news for busy musicians: Goleman and Davidson (2017) found that even a small amount of meditation is beneficial. For example, in just two weeks of breath-based meditation, participants demonstrated increased concentration and less mind-wandering (15). A little can go a long way, which is important for these busy, musical members of the workforce.
Putting Mindfulness to the Test: Research on Musicians
In 2015, Czajkowski and Greasley studied the effects of mindfulness on eight university voice majors, to identify whether mindfulness would have a positive effect on their preparation for musical performance, skill development, and practice. Through an eight-week Mindfulness for Singers (MfS) course—which is a shortened MBSR program—singers met for one hour per week to practice walking and eating meditation, mindful movement, body scan, and meditation on breath. Practices were geared towards singers (i.e. common areas of tension in singers were emphasized in movements and meditations, like the abdomen, neck, face, and back), and included a secular approach to theory on suffering related to judgment and criticism of self and others (16).
Results showed significant benefits from the MfS program, including enhanced awareness and focus during tasks; enhanced non-reaction, which included pausing before reacting to unpleasant stimuli and increased ability to accept criticism and be less upset; less self-judgment; and less self-chastisement (17). The MfS program results also showed improved calm and focus before rehearsal and performance, improved efficiency in performance preparation, enhanced productivity and ability to practice longer, as well as enhanced awareness of tone and pitch when performing (18). The positive effects of mindfulness reached beyond practice and performance, as many participants shared that it helped improve sleep, release general stress, and improve relationships (ibid). Participants even shared that the mindfulness practices helped them get into “flow” state or the “zone of practicing” (19). These findings show significant promise for using mindfulness practices to enhance optimal performance in professional adult musicians.
In a separate study on orchestral performance and mindfulness, researchers Langer, Russell, and Eisenkraft (2009) found that “musicians who mindfully engage their performance by adding subtle nuances enjoy themselves more and rate themselves and their orchestra as performing better” (20). This is similar to the flow approach and philosophy, in which a person is absorbed in the activity and finds the activity enjoyable on its own merit. Musicians who practice mindfulness techniques may find increased joy and fulfillment in their work, as they more fully engage in their rehearsals and performances. What a way to create a mindful and thriving work environment!
Interestingly, to solidify a personal mindfulness practice and experience benefits more quickly, frequency of practice is more important than duration of practice. Diaz (2018) surveyed the usage and benefit of mindfulness for music performance anxiety (MPA) in 253 college music students and found that regular meditators tended to have less performance anxiety (21). Remember, a little goes a long way--five minutes daily is better than 30 minutes weekly. Favor small, daily doses. That’s doable!
Also noteworthy, according to Moral (2017), guided meditation is generally easier and more sustainable than self-led meditation practice (22). Luckily, free mindfulness practices are in abundance nowadays, so sample and find a favorite!
In summary, as Gembris, Heye, and Seifert (2018) show, “competition in the job market and the demands made on orchestral musicians will only intensify in the years to come,” so it’s important to apply effective, safe, and sustainable remedies to common performance challenges to ensure a thriving career. Fortunately, breath-based meditation for boosting concentration, body scan meditation for enhancing relaxation, and loving-kindness meditation for reducing self-criticism have repeatedly proven to be particularly effective. So, it’s time to get started!
Try a Mini-Exercise: Breath-Based Meditation
Sample this commonly-used meditation practice for enhancing focus. Counting the natural, uncontrolled breath (instead of simply observing the breath) can be helpful when the mind is particularly busy or restless; the rhythm of the count helps anchor and stabilize the attention of the mind. During this concentration-boosting favorite, attention rests at either 1) the abdomen, 2) tip of the nose, or 3) natural breath moving throughout the entire body.
Potential benefits: enhanced focus and concentration; enhanced presence and awareness
Precautions: Although mindfulness practices are generally considered safe, for mental or physical health concerns, check with your primary care physician before beginning this or any mindfulness practice. If any technique creates discomfort, discontinue immediately.
- Sit comfortably with an elongated spine. Rest the hands on the lap. Soften or close the eyes.
- Anchor the mind’s attention at the abdomen, nose, or whole body.
- Without changing or controlling the breath, follow the natural movement and sensation of breath at your chosen anchor.
- Count as you breathe naturally, silently noting: “inhale 1, exhale 1, inhale 2, exhale 2...” until reaching “8,” then begin again.
- Whenever the mind wanders, gently guide attention back to the anchor of meditation and begin again at “1.” (Don’t give yourself a hard time when the mind wanders, just guide it back to the practice with compassion and curiosity.)
- Continue 2-10 minutes.
- Gently release the practice and feel the effects.
Prefer a Guided Meditation? Try one of Larissa’s free audio meditations on Insight Timer:
Larissa Hall Carlson, M.A., is a mindfulness, yoga, and Ayurveda educator with 15+ years of teaching experience at some of our country’s most prestigious institutions, including The Boston Conservatory, Cleveland Institute of Music, Nashville Ballet, Juilliard School, and Tanglewood Music Center. Larissa leads workshops and trainings around the world, with specialized coaching for musicians, artists, executives, and educators in high-performance environments. She has been featured in Elephant Journal, Men’s Journal, The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, MindBodyGreen, and Dr. Oz: The Good Life. Larissa is known for her exceptional knowledge, deep practice, and professionalism and is the creator of the audio course Mindful Musicianship: Enhancing Optimal Performance available on Insight Timer. www.larissacarlson.com
1. Gembris, H., Heye, A., & Seifert, A. (2018). Health problems of orchestral musicians from a life-span perspective: Results of a large-scale study. Music & Science. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/2059204317739801
2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
3. Ibid, p. 40
4. Ibid, p. 63
5. Bloom, A. J., & Skutnick-Henley, P. (2005). Facilitating flow experiences among musicians. American Music Teacher, 54(5), 24–28. Retrieved from http://ezproxyles.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=16909216&site=ehost-live&scope=site, p. 24
6. Ibid, p. 25
8. Goleman, D. & Davidson, R.J. (2017). Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York, NY: Avery.
10. Olendzki, A. (2010). Unlimiting mind: The radically experiential psychology of Buddhism. Summerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
11. Ibid, p. 84
12. Goldstein, J. (2013). Mindfulness: A practical guide to awakening, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, p. 22
13. Ibid, p. 50
14. Goleman, D. & Davidson, R.J. (2017). Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body, p. 36
15. Ibid, p. 139
16. Czajkowski, A. L., & Greasley, A. E. (2015). Mindfulness for singers: The effects of a targeted mindfulness course on learning vocal technique. British Journal of Music Education, 32(2), 211-233. Retrieved from doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxyles.flo.org/10.1017/S0265051715000145
20. Langer, E., Russell, T., & Eisenkraft, N. (2009). Orchestral performance and the footprint of mindfulness. Psychology of Music, 37(2), 125–136. Retrieved from https://doiorg.ezproxyles.flo.org/10.1177/0305735607086053, p. 131
21. Diaz, F. M. (2018). Relationships among meditation, perfectionism, mindfulness, and performance anxiety among collegiate music students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 66(2), 150–167. Retrieved from https://doiorg.ezproxyles.flo.org/10.1177/0022429418765447
22. Moral, A. (2017). Guided meditation: A regimen for mental health. Indian Journal of Health & Wellbeing, 8(2), 180–182. Retrieved from http://ezproxyles.flo.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=122565568&site=ehost-live&scope=site, p.181
What are your thoughts? Please share comments and questions below.