The Myth of the Blank Mind

I recently questioned a young student who was preparing for a recital performance: “So, what are you going to think about before you play?”

He carefully answered, “My mind will be blank.”

His answer was one I’ve heard before, and even thought of in the past. The problem is, can the mind ever be completely blank? Is that the goal?

Don’t get me wrong – if you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a proponent of mindfulness, a state of being in the present, and that it is necessary to “quiet” the mind to get there.

But even when we are being mindful, aren’t there hundreds, thousands of sensations and observations flitting through our minds and bodies? How could these ever “go blank”? Even when we’re sleeping, our bodies and minds are quite active, evidenced by REM sleep and dreams.

Instead of willing our minds to be blank, instead, we need to “put” the mind somewhere, to focus it on positive, helpful thoughts that are conducive to doing what we aim to do.

What kind of thoughts are helpful? When performing, it is not specific technical instructions – those have hopefully been automated beforehand in the practice room – that are helpful. We need a broader picture, sometimes called a “process cue,” that describes what we are doing when we are performing well. It doesn’t have to be very specific – just something that pulls us back to our center and reminds us of how we feel when we’re playing our best. When distractions or negative thoughts start pulling our attention, the process cue brings our mind back to what we are doing and renews our courage and commitment.

What are some process cues that are helpful for you?


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!