Friday, April 2, 2010

Silent illumination: a study on Chan (Zen) meditation, anxiety and musical performance quality.

This article published by “Psychology of Music” 2008, features a study by P. Lin (Columbia Universit), J. Chang (City University of New York), V. Zemon (Yeshiva University), ad E. Midlarsky (Columbia University). The purpose of the study was to investigate the effect of meditation on musical performance quality, and on performance anxiety. The hypothesis was that practising meditation would lead to control anxiety resulting in better performance quality. The literature review establishes connections between performance anxiety and other types of phobias. It also enumerates the usual strategies used to cope with performance anxiety such as drug use and relaxation techniques. The Chan meditation technique applied to an experimental group in the study aims at experiencing life fully as it unfolds—moment by moment. This is referred to as silent illumination.
Opposite to the hypothesis, the results of the study found that the experimental group performance quality increased as the anxiety level increased too. The researches then speculate on the correlation of the variables. Furthermore, the details of the method admit great inconsistency in the application of the treatment. Overall, it is not clear to me what the study argues. However, the fact that such a study took place did trigger some thought in regards to the issue of performance anxiety.
I notice in the study is that the meditation technique was never part of the practise routine of the musicians. They did probably practise meditation before practising music, but meditation was not embedded in the music practise time, combined with musical activities as intrinsic components of the items in the musical exercises. We don’t seem to realise that the way we practise, or the way we encourage practice is anxiety provoking; we don’t realise that performance anxiety is in part the result of how we teach and practise. This separation between what we uncritically assumed to be correct (i.e.: practise), and what seemingly out of the blue creates a conflict (i.e.: performance anxiety), could be compared to an obese individual jogging daily basis to lose weight, without changing an unhealthy diet. I observe that many of the issues that music education aims to address are applied as “ad on” as opposed to change. In the case of the study mentioned above, the practise habits remained the same with the ad on of meditation. I suspect, and I have proved it to myself, that in order to rid the player form anxiety, there must be a change in the relationship with music, that is the daily practise and beyond.
In our practise habits we tend to resist change a great deal. Practising performance, with increasing levels of pressure such as performing for teacher, then to colleague, then to family, then to friend, then to concert hall, then on TV, does not address the reason at the bottom of the problem. It is a similar approach at increasing the number of hours to develop more technique, when the reason for ineffective technique may be bad posture, lack of concentration, or tension. My theory is that we do not practise performing on daily basis. What I mean by practising performance, I don’t necessarily mean practise in front of someone else. I believe that the intelligent pedagogue has to identify which cognitive and mental faculties are necessary for successful performance, and then, through different strategies, those faculties need to be addressed, exercised and assimilated on daily basis. For instance, one faculty that we seldom include in practise routines is the full minded playing. Kenwood Dennard, to whom I have referred to in the past, suggests 15 minutes of daily practise with 100 per cent focus of mind; this is practising the state of mind we use in a performing situation. Even if we perform for a friend we would be using that mental state that would be unprepared. Another quality we do not practise is the cancellation of the inner dialogue. From the readings, it becomes clear that the inner negative mental dialogue with one’s own minds (“I am about to make a mistake”) is very common—I thought it was just me. By performing in front of people more and more, all we do is exposing ourselves to the mental dialogue more frequently to the point of becoming familiar with the malfunction, but I ask the intelligent pedagogue, what are we actively doing to remedy this problem. I do disregard more public exposure as a solution. From the ones I have tried that are effective I can mention engaging the mind in a musical task such singing the lines or humming the rhythm. The mental dialogue is a diversion of attention, therefore practising attention is an important item in the routine. The performer need to find ways to keep the mind engaged in activities that bring the focus into the music.
I can say now, that when I perform my best is indeed in front of an audience; this is also in part because I came to understand that the most important element in a performance is indeed the audience. I think that the N. 1 problem with performance anxiety is the presence of the ego. As a music educator, the hardest obstacle to teach, and for the student to make progress is the student’s ego. In fact, many of the affirmative thinking recommended but some of the meditating techniques I would argue would have counter-productive effects because they are ego-reaffirming. For instance, a visualization of a successful performance, leads the performer to see himself as a successful performer not connected to reality and to who he is, but rather to who he wished we was, i.e. his egotistical image of himself. The reason why live performing is anxiety provoking, is because the performer is not using the performance as a means to communicate with the audience; in fact, the anxious performer misuses the performance to satisfy his ego, making a bunch of innocent people sit and watch how well—or not so well—he can do this or that. What the anxious performer seeks is not rapport with the audience but approval. I think that music education needs to develop an approach to performing in which several forms of live performance accommodate for the varying levels of personal maturity of the performer. As educators we need to develop other aspects of performing in performers such as establishing rapport with the audience, and enjoying the attention of an audience through strategies that are well paced, increasingly graded, even removed from musical material. As instrumental teachers we spend the time working on the technique and the expression of the music; none of that teaches performance. We assume that because we know the music we can perform. Nothing more far from the truth.

1 comment:

  1. I find your observations ring true with what I'm starting to discover about my relation to the music I play and the instrument I use.

    I do find that a more mindful, full-body (I would argue, embodied) engagement with the music seems lacking, at least in how I am most inclined to perform. I continue to challenge myself to feel the instrument (in my case, the keys), to listen and hear the sounds I produce, and to acknowledge the presence of others in the room (rather than try to block them out). Not having been rehearsed in this throughout my music education, I echo your sentiment that we need to practice a different, more musically engaged, state of mind.