Being in the Present
Above the piano in my music studio there’s a sign that sums up my entire philosophy towards music learning, practise, performance, the arts… In fact, it sums up my attitude to life generally. It reads ‘PLAY FOR TODAY’, but it could just as easily say play for right now, this minute or this second. Because, for me, the key to enjoying music – as with everything else – is in fully experiencing it; being ‘in the zone’ and living for that moment.
All too often in our lives we invest an awful lot of our energy into planning for the future and looking back to our past. The former is fraught with uncertainty and the urgent need to get things right this time as we find ourselves obsessing about the failings and disappointments that troubled earlier days. Sadly, this type of thinking is considered normal and is even encouraged in some circles, not least when it comes to preparing for events and exams; apparently we should be working hard to learn our pieces and scales right now so that we don’t humiliate ourselves or let our family and teachers down further down the line. I reject this notion in favour of a much healthier approach.
In my view, there is only one good reason to participate in music and that is to enjoy it. This means that enjoyment is the primary purpose of each and every lesson or practise session, and the improvement we make as we approach a performance or an exam is a desirable side effect. In other words, when we play scales we should be doing so because such exercises have inherent value that we experience and appreciate while we’re playing them, rather than something that we hope to gain from at a later date. Fully focusing on what we’re doing right now helps us to value this moment, and in doing so we naturally and easily invest in the future without having to glare into the void looking for it.
Music is often compared to spoken language. A key similarity between the two is the way in which we learn them: it takes many years of exposure to a language to ‘tune your ear’ into it, and only when you are immersed in it over a long period do you eventually become fluent. The acquisition of musical language is just the same: it takes many years of participation and active engagement with other players to become a skilful musician.
In my experience, people who start learning an instrument for the first time generally expect to progress more quickly than is realistic. The road to accomplishment is a long one indeed, but that’s not to say that it has to be arduous. It’s like going on a ramble: the key is to enjoy the journey from the very first step; relax, open your senses up wide and experience everything around you. Before you know it you will have travelled a long way. That is, the journey time will go like a blink as long as you’re not constantly striving to reach the end point. In learning music, there is no final destination, only a long path of discovery.
My musical journey began when I was young and I hope that it will be lifelong – there’s certainly no end in sight at the present. I just take each step at a time, dipping into a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Sometimes I like to play folk tunes on my tin whistle, and other times I transcribe rock guitar solos. If I learn a complete piece then I might perform it or record it, or perhaps neither. If I only learn a fragment of a song, that’s fine too. I’m not trying to achieve anything for the sake of achievement. I’m just making music because it’s a nice way to live my life.
Accepting that the journey is endless can be difficult, especially when we see in the media people who we are to believe have already ‘made it’. But, it takes an exceptional set of circumstances for someone to become a celebrated musician – circumstances that are above and beyond simply being born talented or practising long and hard. Comparing ourselves to those who we perceive to be more successful is a destructive industry, achieves very little and, besides, is often misguided. Mindfulness practitioners learn to accept their individual set of circumstances, be kind to themselves and make the very best of everything. As way of example, when I meet a singing student for the first time I always start by talking about the way their instrument (the voice) has been shaped by an accident of nature – they can do little about the size and shape of their vocal folds, but they can learn to use their voice well, appreciate it and make the most of its uniqueness.
Equally damaging is the strive for perfection, not least because there’s no such thing as a definitive, perfect version of anything in the arts. Instead, we seek out the clearest and most direct expression of our individuality. We accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of being human and, although we use focused practise to fine tune our craft, it’s necessary to let go of errors, and revel in the serendipity of accidental beauty when it comes along.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for combating stress and anxiety by focusing attention on the present moment and being open to whatever it offers. Like mindful meditation, playing an instrument helps to quieten down the chatterbox that most of us have in our heads, bringing us to a more relaxed and stable place. This process is greatly assisted when we let ourselves be open to musical experiences, concentrating on every nuance without trying too hard to achieve.
My role as your music teacher is to guide you along your musical path, encouraging you to fully appreciate and enjoy every step. I’m open to taking whichever route suits you, whether it be learning some songs that you like, or be it preparing for graded exams. The point isn’t so much which paths you walk but rather taking your time, relaxing and looking at the scenery along the way.