Mind and What Matters?

A reflection on mindfulness and intention in the context of music making.

First, though, three matters that I would wish not to be confused:

a) Training and Performance. This particular discussion deals mainly with performance, although it will have some implications for training which require further reflection on all our parts;

b)Goals and Process. This discussion refers mainly to the ideals to which I aspire, not the goals I believe I have achieved in my performance. However, if I did not have growing confidence that I have been making significant progress on the path in pursuing these achievements, I would not have the confidence to share these theories.

c) Great teachers have defined mindfulness differently. I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with what any one teaches. It’s just what I’ve come to believe based on my experiences of life (which includes some direct experience with and training in the Zen components of certain Japanese approaches to the martial arts and traditional ceremonies, although even the teachers of these latter may not necessarily concur with my conclusions).

Consider the following notions of mindfulness (or intention, consciousness, etc — fill in each word once for each example) in occasions that are animal, vegetable and mineral:

Does a cat have mindfulness as it finds its way after being tossed in the air to land squarely and gently on its four legs? Your answer may legitimately be yes or no. If yes, then I wish for this kind of mindfulness as I toss my arms about the keyboard and have my fingers land squarely and gently on the keys – and not only on those particular combinations of keys that I have practiced, but also on combinations that I am only considering landing on for the first time in my life. If the answer is no, that the cat is not mindful, then I plead for the same mindlessness as the cat. But above all, let me be like the cat on the keyboard.

Does a sunflower have mindfulness as it poses in all its glory for the great photographers in the heavens? Your answer may quite perfectly be yes, and I may on a deep level concur. If so, then I crave that same mindfulness of the sunflower (or of the ivy or the clematis) as I turn and stretch towards the sounds of singing muses as I might otherwise claim to be improvising. If the answer is no, then I crave instead the mindlessness of sunflowers who are only obeying unseen forces. But above all, may I be like the sunflower.

Does the water (rushing or still) have mindfulness as it finds its own level, even amidst unfamiliar territory of peaks and crevices? Again, if yes, then I aspire to the mindfulness of water as my palms and fingers find their own level among the peaks and crevices of sharps, flats and naturals on the keyboard, especially in the unfamiliar territory of combinations of notes I have never played, or am playing in a new way. If not, then let my hands and fingers be as mindless as water flowing where it is meant to flow, sometimes with ripples and waves but always settling to a level sea. But let me, above all, be like the water as I play.

Depending on your views on humanity, on nature, on the internal and external, seen and unseen forces that govern our lives, you may have different answers than I do. You may have already had teachers that have taught mindfulness in a way that concurs or does not concur with the implications of what I suggest here. One idea that has been crucial in my progress at the piano has been learning to be mindless and not just mindful. Or mindful in a mindless way, or mindless in a mindful way. They are not necessarily opposites. I have discovered forms of mindfulness and intention in both my training and performance that have required ‘paying attention’ in ways that we may not attribute to cats, sunflowers or to water. I have had to especially learn new ways to access the left/analytical side of my conscious brain as I invent new exercises and analyze my experience with exercises and compositions that others have written. But at the same time, the moments when I become truly ‘one with’ my instrument are those moments when I find that my hands and fingers have minds of their own, independent of my conscious direction. We may not necessarily disagree on the definitions involved. It could be toMAto or toMAHto for that matter.

What I do know is that there are many occasions when I have realized that my hands and fingers need to be as gentle, fluid, and yet ‘determinate’ as the water. I have realized that in order to be ‘in the moment’ with my music – and to me this is the more important point — it is not just my physical self, but my mind as well, that must be as gentle and fluid as the water, and the ‘determinate’ aspect of my mind must be the same kind of determinacy as that of water, of the sunflower, of the cat.

If all of this agrees with your definitions of mindfulness, then may be be joyfully mindful together. Otherwise, let us instead revel in complete mindlessness. As animals, vegetables or as minerals.


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