The idea that we could all benefit from meditation in our busy, stressful lives is relatively commonplace. It’s claimed that meditation can improve concentration, promote relaxation, invigorate and energise us, and increase our overall well-being. Which all sounds great. But to the uninitiated, there is a bewildering assortment of different meditation practices, some religious and some secular, which can make choosing between them a challenge. One form of meditation practice – mindfulness – has recently come under the critical gaze of scientific study, and as a result is now promoted by numerous medical centres for its health benefits, and some enlightened educational establishments for its cognitive gains.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, refers to a particular type of meditation practice that cultivates “a moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness“. We have probably all experienced driving home on autopilot, or mindlessly eating dinner while watching TV, without really noticing anything about the roads or the food along the way – the exact opposite of mindfulness. We are essentially absent in our own lives, failing to notice the experiences as they occur. Put simply, mindfulness is a way of paying attention. For example, focusing on just the breath (on each of the separate sensations in your nose, throat, lungs, ribs, diaphragm, shoulders, etc.) is a powerful method for tuning into the present experience of the body while maintaining a relaxed state of mind, and is one of the central meditations in mindfulness practice.
Perhaps surprisingly for something so apparently simple, there is now considerable evidence that mindfulness practice can help with both physical and mental health. It can reduce persistent pain, alleviate stress, anxiety and depression, and help manage chronic disease . There is also growing evidence that mindfulness meditation improves cognition and memory. Zeidan and colleagues  found that even “brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning” and enhanced sustained attention. Neuroimaging studies indicate that MBSR is associated with increased grey matter in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, and self-referential processing .
How does mindfulness apply to music? Although to date there has been little formal study of mindfulness and music, the two are natural partners. Musicians spend unusually large amounts of time alone practising, in a state of what pianist-composer Rolf Hind calls “solitary absorption”. Mindfulness can make practice more effective by improving mental focus. There should be no mindless practice! The BulletProofMusician has a great blog about mindful practising, which highlights particularly its efficiency gains. People have also reported that mindfulness meditation heightens “their listening experience by increasing their ability to focus on the music without distraction” . As Hind observes in his article in the Guardian, “you would be surprised what an ecstatic cacophony emerges from your mind when there’s nothing around to distract it”. Mindfulness can also help reduce performance anxiety, both before going on stage and during the performance itself, by giving the performer a way of managing their nerves. Given his own experience with meditation, Hind introduced a custom designed MBSR-based course to music students at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which was very positively received.
It seems likely that mindfulness is also directly relevant to musical memory, both for encoding and retrieval of information from long term memory as well as improving working memory. Retrieval cues – snippets of information that allow access to memory – form part of a standard explanation for recall of information from long term memory and have explicitly been linked to expert musical memory. They can be likened to a kind of mental Google for memories. And like searching in Google, some cues are better search terms than others. Importantly, more accessible memories have a higher activation level, and retrieval is less effective if cues are not attended to. For a cue to be effective it should be purposely encoded at the same time as the memory itself. Therefore, mindful practising that purposely focuses on specific retrieval cues will ensure that the cues are consciously formed and reinforced.
A few years ago, in an attempt to control overwhelming performance anxiety prior to undertaking my first piano diploma, I attended a 12-week MBSR course. Although I can’t claim to be a complete convert – I don’t meditate daily, though I probably should – I definitely benefited from the course and now always integrate short meditation sessions into my practice during the run-up to a concert. I’ve found that after meditating, I’m much more alert while playing; I’m able to notice when my mind wanders and bring it back quickly. As my teacher was fond of saying, if you have a mind, it will wander because that’s what minds do. And if a wandering mind can undermine a practice session, it can completely derail a performance! A sudden thought of “what shall I have for dinner?”, or “I must remember to call the dentist”, or (worst of all) “I can’t remember the next note” can be frighteningly disorientating. Constant micro-judgements about how to play each note, or how to shape each phrase, are crucial during practice but destabilise our ability to actually make music during a performance. Control of attentional focus is perhaps the major benefit of mindfulness in music, and is the key to conquering musical memory and delivering a great performance.