Having taught both piano and mindfulness (at Indiana University Bloomington from 2007 to 2014) I am going to have a lot to say about mindful, present-moment attention and its relationship to piano playing in this blog. In this post, I will touch on the value of mindfulness for improvisation.

One of the most important – and, I think, often neglected – foundations of improvisation is staying present. I’ll define “staying present” by what it is not:

  • Spacing out and not even noticing the music you are creating
  • Becoming identified with and distracted by uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety about how well you’re playing
  • Getting carried away by thoughts, particularly self-judgmental thoughts like “I really suck at improvising!”

We human beings are experts at not being fully present. Instead, our minds are usually somewhere else. They may even be somewhere else while we are teaching!

Be a Mindful Piano Teacher

Now I don’t think it’s possible to help our students to stay present to their unfolding creativity if we ourselves are a model of distractedness. So we can begin with ourselves. At the beginning of each lesson, we can notice whether we are feeling calm, embodied, attentive when our student is speaking to us, and able to pay undivided attention as they play. At the beginning of each lesson we can take a few deep mindful breaths in order to return our attention fully to the moment. (The breathing body is always here in the moment, unlike the mind, which is typically adrift in thoughts of past or future. That is why attending to the body or breath is a wonderful way of establishing present-moment attention.)

How to Help Students Stay in the Moment During Improvisation

Present-moment attention is even more important when we are teaching a student how to improvise. The creative process happens in this moment, not the last moment or the next moment. Here are some things you can say to help a student (and yourself) stay present during the creative process:

  • “Before playing, close your eyes and feel the sensations of your body sitting on the bench.” Or: “Attend to your breathing for several breaths. Let your breath do its thing, and simply pay attention to the physical sensations of breathing in your body. These might be the sensations of air flowing at the nostrils. Or it might be the sensations of the expansion and contraction of your body as it breathes.”
  • “Also before playing, become aware of whether there are any thoughts or beliefs that you are holding that might interfere with your improvising or cause you to be self-conscious. Thoughts like ‘I’m no good at improvising’ or ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.'” (If you discover a student is entertaining thoughts like these, you could tell them that “not knowing what you are doing” is a wonderful state of mind for any improviser!) “If you notice such thoughts, recognize that they have no power over you except to the extent you believe them. Choose to see them as just thoughts and to not believe them.”
  • “As you improvise, attend to each moment of music. Let go of the past moment, whether you judge it good or bad, and stay in each fresh, new moment by listening to what you are creating.” (If you are improvising with your student you might also suggest he switch his attention back and forth between what you are playing and what he is creating.)

All Music Happens Now

Cultivating present moment awareness during improvisation can be a wonderful way to introduce the idea of staying present while playing the piano. While it’s true that music is a time art – unlike painting, it takes place over time – it’s also true that the only music we ever play or hear happens in the present moment. What a gift it is to inspire our students to stay present to their music as it unfolds from moment to moment to moment.

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