Mindless versus mindful practice – the benefits of a nuanced and self-reflective approach

In today’s fast-paced and over-stimulating world, few of us feel like we have the luxury to stop, breathe, and take a moment to reflect on our internal experience. Personally, I’ve had many days when I felt so busy that I found myself operating almost entirely on habit and instincts. Harvard psychologist Elaine Langer has described this habitual way of dealing with the world as “mindlessness”. When we are “mindless”, we lose our ability to notice novelty or distinctions, and operate on habit rather than on thoughtful and deliberate action.

As musicians, this type of mindless approach can be costly. This is especially true during practice, when it can be too easy to convince our selves that by simply playing through music or engaging in some kind of daily routine – no matter how mindless or habitual – that we will somehow reap at least some minor benefit from our practice. However, when we are mindful, and engage in practice deliberately and with appropriate focus and self-reflection, we are often more likely to progress and might even reap the benefits of an increased sense of motivation.

One way to be more mindful during practice is to engage in strategies that promote self-regulation. A self-regulated learner, as explained by McPherson and Zimmerman (2002), is someone who can remain motivated while planning, engaging in, and assessing their own work. Last year, my colleague Peter Miksza from Indiana University presented a guest lecture to my psychology of music class on the topic of self-regulated practice. He was is the process of completing a study, now published in the journal Psychology of Music, that demonstrated how collegiate wind players’ performances improved significantly when they were exposed to self-regulation techniques.

The details of the study can be found here, but essentially, Miksza’s findings illustrated that compared to a control group, musicians in a group that engaged in self-regulation strategies made greater performance gains after a five-day period, and chose more nuanced objectives (for example, dynamics versus notes and rhythms) than their counterparts. But improvement is only part of the potential benefits of engaged practice. In a study led by Elaine Langer (2009), orchestral musicians were asked to perform the finale of Brahms Fourth Symphony under two conditions. In the first condition, the musicians were asked to perform the excerpt with the goal of imitating the finest performance of it that they could remember. In the second condition, they were asked to add subtle and individualized nuances to their performance.

Langer explains that in the second condition, musicians would have needed to be more mindful, since they were asked to actively engage in their musicianship rather than perform based on learned or previously established models. This active type of involvement might also be characterized as self-regulated, as musicians would have needed to plan, engage, and react to their performance in the moment. One of the results of the experiment, perhaps not surprisingly, showed that the musicians preferred to play under the second directive rather than the first. More surprisingly, though, is that when the excerpts were played for audience members, they too preferred the second excerpt to the first, without knowing which condition they were listening to.

So how might we promote more mindfulness during practice, and reap the benefits of increased self-regulation? I think part of the solution is to encourage questions that will help us to be more deliberate as well as more reflective about the strategies we choose and the ways in which we evaluate ourselves during practice. During the last few years, as several of my colleagues at the University of Oregon have asked me to present research on effective practice to their studios, I’ve put together a list of questions that I believe might help in promoting a more mindful approach. The questions are listed below, and although these are certainly not comprehensive, should serve as a good foundation for promoting mindful practice sessions for those interested. Happy practicing!

Mindful Practice: 20 questions to ask your self before AND after practice

BEFORE

Goal Setting

  1. What are my goals for this practice session?
  2. Can I articulate them clearly and specifically?
  3. Are they realistic and attainable?
  4. How will I know if I have achieved these goals?

Strategy

  1. What strategies do I want to use in order to achieve these goals?
  2. How much time will I dedicate to each strategy?
  3. Are the strategies appropriate for the goal?
  4. Are the strategies varied?
  5. How much rest will I need between sessions?

Environment

  1. How do I feel right now?
  2. What is my general attitude towards this session, my goals, myself?
  3. What can I do to create an appropriate physical, mental, and emotional environment for this session?
  4. What can I control? What is out of my control?

AFTER

Assessment

  1. Did I accomplish my goals?
  2. How do I know?
  3. What worked, what didn’t work, what was interesting?
  4. What did I learn?
  5. How will I remember this?
  6. What will I do next time?
  7. What should I be asking?

References

Langer, E., Russell, T., Eisenkraft, N. (2009). Orchestral performance and the footprints of mindfulness. Psychology of Music, 37, 125-136.

McPherson, G. E., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Self-regulation of musical learning: A social cognitive perspective. In R. Colwell, & C. Richardson (Eds.), The new handbook of research on music teaching and learning (pp. 327 – 347). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miksza, P. (October 8, 2013). The effect of self-regulation instruction on the performance achievement, musical self-efficacy, and practicing of advanced wind players. Psychology of Music. DOI: 10.1177/0305735613500832

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