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Of mindfulness, music and avoiding life’s ruts

Before I switched to journalism in college, I half-seriously considered classical music as a career and played in many student orchestras. During each concert, I would try to perform precisely as the conductor had rehearsed us. I wouldn’t call the experiences robot-like, for I always felt the emotional pull of the music, but I do recall actively trying to repeat what I’d practiced and perfected, particularly during solos. (I played the oboe.)

So it was with a slight pang of recognition that I read science writer Tom Jacobs’ article in the June issue of the magazine Miller-McCune on music and mindfulness (the conscious act of paying attention to the present moment). Jacobs describes a recent study by Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer (Mindfulness and Counterclockwise) and Arizona State University music professor Timothy Russell in which they posed the question (in Jacobs’ words): How can orchestra musicians “avoid getting into a soul-deadening rut”?

The study’s answer: Encourage the musicians to play mindfully.

Here’s Jacobs’ summary of the study’s protocol:

Before the first performance [of the exuberant final movement of Brahms’ First Symphony], the conductor told his musicians to “Think about the finest performance of this piece that you can remember. Play it that way.” Before the second performance, he gave a quite different instruction: “Play this piece in the finest manner you can, offering subtle new nuances to your performance.”
Members of a local community chorus — musically sophisticated men and women who are not professional performers — were asked if they heard a difference after listening to recordings of both.
“Overwhelmingly, they said yes,” Russell reported. “The next question was: Which do you prefer? Overwhelmingly, they preferred the mindful one.”
The musicians reported they, too, found the second performance a more enjoyable experience. When asked for specifics, players and listeners offered similar descriptions: “There was more energy.” “The dynamic range was wider.” “The louds and softs were more pronounced.”
In other words, attempting to recreate an “ideal” performance proved somewhat stultifying, while staying on the lookout for new nuances was clearly liberating.

Yes, yes, the study had all sorts of limitations. Most notably, Russell himself conducted both performances, and, as he admits to Jacobs, he may have led the orchestra to be more enthusiastic during the “mindful” one.

Still, in this world in which so many people are bored with their job but can’t leave it due to the recession, perhaps, just perhaps, a bit of mindfulness may help cut through the tedium.

OK. I agree. That’s probably stretching the study’s findings too far. Langer, however, believes mindfulness can transform many repetitive tasks. As she told Jacobs:

“We have data with dolphins,” she said. “We had trainers who were mindful or mindless. In the water, they were instructed either to think familiar thoughts, such as ‘Think about all that you know to be true about dolphins,’ or to think novel thoughts, such as ‘How is the dolphin you’re interacting with different from the other dolphins there? How is it different today than it was the last time you interacted with it?’
“When the trainer is mindful, the dolphin swims to him or her faster and stays longer,” she said. Whether you’re a marine mammal or a Beethoven buff, “You can tell when the light’s on but nobody’s home. And you can feel it in art.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/29/2009 - 04:47 pm.


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