The importance of non-judgment

“It’s so out of tune!” “Ugh, that was a disaster!” “It sounds so scratchy.”

Do you ever catch yourself saying things like this to yourself when you practice or perform? Or worse, have you heard someone verbalize them? (I hope not!)

Going hand-in-hand with the state of bare awareness is non-judgment. This is a crucial component of being a fearless fiddler in performance situations. It means noticing what’s going on, without assigning positive or negative values to it.

This can be such a challenge for musicians, who have been subject to many forms of criticism throughout our training, and often are our own harshest critics.

The real challenge, however, is to keep the keen discernment that we have, while staying neutral. Let’s take the examples from the opening. How can they be re-phrased in a non-judgmental way?

If something is out of tune, is it flat or sharp? Do you know by how many cents? What is its relation to the vertical chord structure, or to the horizontal melody line? What caused the error – was it an error in shifting technique? Maybe it’s time to review some shifting exercises. Now we’re getting somewhere!

If the tone is scratchy, why? Where was your bow? Are you using too much pressure or too little bow speed? What kind of sound does the music call for in this spot?

Reframing statements in a non-judgmental way takes more effort, but is more descriptive, more creative, and helps point to a solution. Simply describing something as “bad” is not very helpful – we do not know what is wrong nor how to fix it, and it’s kind of depressing.

Let’s work on silencing the inner mean old teacher, and institute a policy of non-judgment in our practicing and rehearsing.

Cultivating Bare Awareness

It’s bare awareness week here at Fearless Fiddler – no, scratch that, it’s always bare awareness time! Because bare awareness – call it beginner’s mind, or mindfulness, or what-have-you — is the foundation of performance psychology. It’s the way of mindful practice, and the way of mindful, fearless performance.

How to define it? It’s just what it sounds like — being in the present moment, aware of what your senses are telling you, both internally and externally. For musicians, that translates to:

  • listening carefully to yourself and hearing the sounds you are ACTUALLY producing, not what your mind’s ear thinks it hears or wants to hear
  • listening closely to your colleagues, if you are in a group setting
  • being with the physical sensations of playing your instrument
  • feeling the state of your body (pain, tension, relaxation, fatigue, energy, etc.)
  • watching: your bow, your colleagues, your conductor, etc.

The key to getting into this state more often is to practice it! Take a few deep breaths before your practice session or rehearsal, and remind yourself to cultivate a state of bare awareness. If you feel yourself slipping into old mental habits, simply take a few more breaths and gently pull yourself back to the present.

An active meditation practice is helpful to achieving this state. There are so many good resources that I hardly know where to begin, but one piece of recommended reading is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (no relation to the violin guru!)

So, what are the benefits? Here are a few:

  • Increased ability to immediately adapt to unforeseen circumstances or mistakes
  • Decreased stress
  • Increased enjoyment of music-making
  • Heightened self-confidence
  • Heightened self-awareness
  • Ability to quickly notice physical tendencies that could lead to injury, and address them before they pose a bigger problem

Try it and let me know, in the comments, what you notice!