Have you ever noticed that certain students play with confidence and ease some days while other days they seem to struggle? I’m not talking about students who you know don’t practice with any degree of regularity or who lack the technical or musical ability to perform certain works. I’m talking about the students who work hard, are capable, practice faithfully, who can sound absolutely fantastic, but who sometimes seem to lose the connection between their brain and their fingers and lack consistency and confidence in their performances.
I was this student. As much as my inconsistent playing bothered my teachers, it frustrated me even more and I was determined to figure out why this happened. What I’m sharing with you here is the result of over a decade of professional research and personal development that has revolutionized my own playing and that of my students. I discovered that my problem was this: the communication between my mind and body was not strong. When I practiced, I was relaxed and my mind and body behaved in certain ways, but when I was under pressure, my mind and body behaved differently and I had no idea how to control what happened.
Through my research, I discovered that there is a very simple, effective concept that develops awareness and communication between a musician’s mind and body: relaxed concentration. In a musical context, this means developing the ability to be fully present in each moment of playing while maintaining just the right amount of energy, muscular control, and focus that enables musicians to play with a high level of consistency and confidence. While there are a variety of approaches to developing the art of relaxed concentration, below are four techniques which are particularly effective for students that can be incorporated into their daily routine from their first lesson: breathing, progressive relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness.
Did you know that researchers have discovered that the type of breathing a person engages in directly reflects the level of tension carried in their body? Musicians who have an awareness of their breathing possess the ability to determine the state of their mind and body and to change their breathing patterns to create a desired state of relaxed concentration. Deep breathing also encourages mental calm and enhances concentration, which is beneficial for all musicians, especially ones who perform by memory.
The technique is simple: take a deep, long, slow breath in through the nose, and exhale through the mouth. As you inhale, imagine your lungs filling up from the bottom to the top. Have a little fun with the exhale and make it as loud as you can—kids love that! Repeat 3-5 times, each time adding an extra second to the length of your inhalations and exhalations.
After developing an awareness of their breathing, students can extend the idea of awareness to include their physical body. Developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson, progressive relaxation is the intentional creation and release of muscular tension, moving from one muscle group to another throughout the body. The goal of this skill is to train the mind to recognize when and where tension is present in the body, and how to release it. Our bodies and minds can do strange things when we’re under pressure and if we are not prepared, this can be surprising or difficult to know how to handle. Some students experience unexpected muscular rigidity or perhaps the opposite: the feeling of their arms or legs turning to jelly. As with the breathing, there is a simple technique that develops an awareness of excess or insufficient tension and promotes strong communication between the mind and body. Once students gain mastery of this skill, they can use it in moments of pressure, to create or relieve tension in specific areas of the body as needed.
First, remember to breathe. Then find a comfortable place to sit or lie still. Take a moment to do a quick head-to-toe muscular scan to determine where there is excess or insufficient tension. Pinpoint the exact area of tension and label the feeling. Be as creative as you like, but only use one word or image. Now, scrunch up that muscle (and only that muscle, don’t involve secondary muscles in this exercise) as tightly as you can and hold it for 10 seconds. Label this feeling as well. Finally, fully and completely release that muscle. Again, focus only on that muscle, no others. Label this feeling. This exercise can be conducted with each muscle group that is uncomfortable either due to excess or insufficient tension. It is important for the student to name each feeling as this naming manifests a connection between their body and mind that makes it easier for them to access in times of stress.
Practicing the habit of relaxed concentration includes cultivating an awareness of the power of the mind. The purpose of meditation is to bring the body and mind to a place of unity in which things can be experienced in the moment that they occur. Meditation in the context of musicianship increases the connection between a musician’s mind and body by teaching the student to quiet both. As with the breathing and the progressive relaxation skills, there is a simple, yet powerful technique to introduce the skill of meditation to students.
Begin by finding a comfortable place to sit and take a few deep breaths. Then choose a one- to two-syllable mantra. This is helpful for two reasons: first, the mantra offers a concrete way to connect with the exercise (which is beneficial when practicing this skill with younger students who haven’t yet developed their abstract thinking), and second, research has shown that using a mantra blocks most of the signals from the brain to muscles, resulting in a quieter physical state. With eyes open or closed, inhale deeply and slowly to the count of three, then exhale while articulating the mantra. Repeat this as many times as it takes until the student begins to feel a connection between their breathing, their mental clarity, and their presence in the moment.
I saved mindfulness for last because it encompasses all the previous skills. It combines physical relaxation with cognitive awareness through the passive direction of thoughts. It allows students to be thought observers and gentle guides, capable of redirecting unwanted thoughts or feelings during performance. This is a vital skill for students to develop. They need to understand that it is completely within their control to direct their thoughts while they play or perform. Too often students’ minds run unchecked while playing and they only realize the danger of this when a mistake occurs. Practicing mindfulness allows students to decide which thoughts are allowed and which are not.
Imagine you are standing by a river and imagine all your thoughts as leaves floating gently by. Don’t dwell on any of the thoughts, but gently push the “leaves” along when they appear. Do this for one minute. Ask your students to make a connection between this exercise and any anxious, uncomfortable, or distracting thoughts they may experience when they play and remind them that when these thoughts come, they may gently push them away and return their focus to their music perhaps by thinking of their mantra.
Imagine giving your students the gift of utilizing these skills to create powerful moments at the beginning of each lesson and practice session. Imagine the stillness, the quiet focus, the relaxed concentration that might blossom within them, opening them up for instruction and a productive time of learning. It requires zero equipment, only time. If your students can achieve this level of mental focus, they have made great strides toward securing a consistent, confident performance.
For more detailed information on these topics, visit www.mindfulmusicpedagogy.com and search the “articles” section. While you’re there, download my free supplemental student worksheets on breathing, progressive relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness.
Jessica Koebbe is Instructor of Piano at MidAmerica Nazarene University (MNU). She is an active soloist and collaborative pianist, performing frequently with the Midwest Chamber Ensemble and with internationally recognized instrumentalists including those from the Fort Worth, Kansas City, Omaha, Topeka, and Santa Fe Symphonies as well as with singers from the Fort Worth, Nashville, and Cincinnati opera companies.
A proponent of new music, Jessica has premiered and recorded works by several US and Taiwanese composers, recordings of which have been released on the albums Collage by Harbor House Records and Voices From the Middle: New Music from Kansas City by BRC Audio Productions.
In addition to her position at MNU, Jessica maintains a private piano studio, and is the founder of Mindful Music Pedagogy (www.mindfulmusicpedagogy.com). She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Kansas (summa cum laude), a Master of Music degree from Texas Christian University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
 Edmund J. Bourne, The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, 5th edition (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2010), 82.
 Edmund Jacobson, Progressive Relaxation: A Physiological & Clinical Investigation of Muscular States & Their Significance in Psychology & Medical Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931).
 Dorothy V., and Bette L. Harris, The Athlete’s Guide to Sports Psychology: Mental Skills for Physical People, (New York: Leisure Press, 1984), 66.