“Mindfulness” has become one of the buzzwords of the decade. We’ve no doubt all seen the regular articles about it in the popular press, exploring the possible benefits of mindfulness practice for our physical and mental health, productivity, learning, and general happiness.
But what of piano players – how can we benefit from mindfulness practice?
It’s a question for which we might hope to find answers in highly respected teacher, composer and pianist Mark Tanner’s hotly anticipated book and much lauded The Mindful Pianist, published by Faber Music this autumn.
According to the publishers:
“The Mindful Pianist presents amateurs and professionals with a fresh perspective on playing and performing. Applying the concept of mindfulness to the piano, this invaluable text explores the crucial connection between mind and body: how an alert, focussed mind fosters playing that is more compelling, more refined and ultimately more rewarding …
Mark starts his book wisely acknowledging that for some, use of the word “mindfulness” might appear to be mere mysticism, but notes:
“Though its origins lie in Buddhist meditation, modern thinkers have been quick to recognise the potential for improving our psychological well-being via activities as diverse as sport, macramé and even bread-making. Hence in this broader, secular sense, mindfulness has acquired a non-spiritual emphasis. It acknowledges the need for inner calm and self-reflection – indeed a more wholesome awareness of how we go about our daily lives.”
This brief statement rather defines Mark’s subsequent path, and while mindfulness practice may provide some subtext and influence to the book, there seems to be no assumption that the reader might practice mindfulness as it is taught in so many classes, books and smartphone apps; nor does Mark even give a particular recommendation to do so.
Instead, he takes a more nuanced approach, placing importance of developing attentive, focussed thinking about our practice and playing, while stressing the benefits of reflection and of methodically planned music making.
A mindful approach here is one with mental focus, discipline, clarity and the agility required for mastery of the instrument. The link between these attributes and structured mindfulness practice may be more obvious to some readers than others.
The Mindful Pianist
The Mindful Pianist appears as the third book in Faber’s ongoing Piano Professional Series, published in collaboration with EPTA (The European Piano Teacher’s Association), which previously includes two books by Murray McLachlan. As with those books, The Mindful Pianist is a slim paperback book, a little smaller than A4 size, and around 120 pages long. Presentation is sober, highly clear, and very well put together.
Mark divides the book into four sections, which cover Focussing, Practising, Performing and Engaging.
I will look at each in turn to offer a favour of the content, which I hope will whet your appetite to read what I believe to be ultimately an exceptional book.
In his first section, Mark talks about the “complex simplicity” of piano playing, the relative solitude that pianists work in, and the frustrations and self-doubt this can lead to. He contrasts this with the possibility of using our playing as a way to take our focus away from life’s other problems, and “enter the zone” in our practice.
At this point, the author diverts a little, looking at how pianists can be more flexible in how they approach repertoire, for example by arpeggiating difficult stretches and chords, or redistributing voices. Such “mindful meddling” can help us sidestep frustrations and feel more comfortable within our own skin.
Mark goes on to warn us of the importance of making and learning from mistakes, moving beyond the harsh judgements we are too prone to make of our own (and others’) playing, instead learning to engage with the beauty of sound. He provides practical examples and instructions for developing our attentiveness to such details as tone, colour and voicing.
Before moving on, Mark discusses the importance of planning, something he admits he has always had a penchant for. He offers excellent ideas for preparing ourselves mentally and physically for the practice session ahead, in particular discussing how thoughtful planning can lead to more constructive and fruitful practice sessions, where we have cleared out distractions and can effectively channel our creative intention.
Mark’s ideas about the importance of focussed breathing and mental stillness resonate with my own Piano Qigong ideas, and it’s exciting to see a major name in the piano pedagogy world explore this theme from a slightly different angle, drawing similar conclusions.
Part 2 develops a wonderful resource of ideas for personal practice.
The first chapter outlines Mark’s idea for what he calls “arpscalepaggios” – variations on the standard technical exercises pianists often use. Encouraging the reader to develop their own variants, he discussed the value of mental-multitasking, and frames his comments with the following observation:
“The moment scales become mindless, they are rendered valueless… In short, hardly any activity we pianists routinely practice will prove more profitable than taking a more mindful approach to our scales and arpeggios.”
Returning to the theme of careful planning, Mark gives examples of how to structure practice over a week, including a full-page example of the sort of “mind map” that the reader might want to spend time creating in order to accommodate a wide range of repertoire and practice goals.
Perhaps more than anywhere in the book, it is striking at this point that Mark writes as a professional performer, and primarily for professionals and the most advanced amateurs. It is for teachers to therefore find ways of adapting the great ideas here for relevant use by younger, less advanced players.
In the particularly thought-provoking chapter that follows, Mark addresses the issue of “what pianists do”, considering the relationship between performance as “composition in reverse”, expression, structural understanding and interpretation.
The closing chapter of this section provides “useful tips for mindful practising”, with 43 bullet point suggestions to help pianists “oil the wheel of progress” in their practising.
These range from the pastoral (don’t practise when you aren’t feeling up to it) to the practical (singing one part while playing another), and from the philosophical (“your playing is only your playing – it doesn’t define you”) to the psychological (“expect your playing to improve and there is a strong chance that it will”). These are tips that can be revisited time and again.
In the third part of the book, Mark Tanner explores his theme of “what pianists do” in more depth in a chapter entitled “Achieving intensity”, which begins:
“The sum of all the structural, stylistic and characterful clues we are able to glean from the score, coupled with our poetic insights and vision for the shape and trajectory the music presents to us, can be thought of as its intensity, its engine or lifeblood.”
He proceeds to analyse this trajectory using four example pieces that will be well known to most readers: Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D Op.23 No.4, J.S.Bach’s Prelude in C minor, BWV 847 Bk.1, Scarlatti’s Sonata in E major K.380, and Chopin’s Prelude No.7 in A major Op.28.
Mark follows this highly analytical chapter with what is perhaps its natural counterpart, entitled “The Playfulness of Playing”, in which he explores the serendipity of chance discoveries when practising, as well as considering “the mindful collaborator”, and developing our knowledge of period instruments. He connects the latter to mindfulness with the suggestion that:
“Pianists need to be mindful of the instruments of the day, at least to a degree, and aware of the priorities with which performers from the Baroque and Classical eras might have tackled the music.”
This is certainly true, but one essentially learns about authentic performance practice from historical study, and associating this with mindfulness seems to me rather tenuous. Similarly, “Exams: a view from the examiner’s chair” contains plenty of useful advice but doesn’t explore the benefits that mindfulness practice might offer as a resource to help calm and focus exam candidates.
What I would have liked to have seen throughout this section is advice about how mindfulness practice might help the musician overcome stage fright, exam nerves, performance anxiety; and how the added focus that purportedly accompanies mindfulness practice can be harnessed in live performance situations. A consideration of these topics could have been truly groundbreaking.
The last section of the book draws together the many strands covered elsewhere, and addresses various topics that have been missed along the way.
“Learning how we learn” is a brief chapter offering insights on “keeping masterclasses in perspective” and “the rise of the independent learner”.
“All in the mind” takes an excellent and sensitive look at tension, perfectionism, and loss of focus. These are topics I hoped to see covered in the section on performing, and it is good to see them touched on here, albeit still without reference to the particular benefits of mindfulness practice.
A particular highlight is the chapter on “Improvisation” which includes an excellent section about “triggers” in which the author offers many fabulous tips to help players develop spontaneity in music creation.
The book concludes with short chapters on “The virtuoso listener”, advice for non-pianists about how to start playing and improvising, and a final “Postlude” in which Mark concludes:
“My take home message is simply this: if we set ourselves up to fail, we certainly will, but if we plan to succeed, and make it possible to achieve something rather marvellous, we just might.”
Mark Tanner has succeeded in distilling his considerable professional experience and intelligent reflection into The Mindful Pianist. Cramming such a panoply of advice, practical suggestion and thought-provoking insight into its slender frame, the book is a richly rewarding read.
The book is written with authority, but is an accessible and easy read. It not only informs and inspires on first reading, but will I believe establish itself as a helpful source of ongoing reference, and of refreshment. One should of course not swallow The Mindful Pianist whole, but take plenty of time to digest its contents with care, critically evaluating, testing and applying its wisdom.
If I have a criticism of this book, it is that it somewhat eschews its publicised intent. Calling the book The Mindful Pianist is perhaps a high-risk strategy, which presents two problems:
Firstly, those hoping for clear, decisive connections to be drawn between piano playing and the benefits of the mindfulness practice popular in today’s culture might find slim rewards in this book.
And secondly, as the prevailing zeitgeist and fashion changes, the timeless advice in this book may wrongly appear dated.
But let’s not focus on what the book “isn’t” and miss the brilliance of what it clearly “is”…
We can enjoy a rich literature of books written about the piano, its repertoire and our approach to playing, but there are few which can be regarded as true classics. The Mindful Pianist deserves to be recognised as such a landmark within the pianist’s literature, becoming one of those few truly essential books for anyone who has an interest in the world of piano playing and teaching.