by Andrew Eales
“Mindfulness” has become one of the buzzwords of the decade. We’ve no doubt all seen the regular articles about it in the popular press, exploring the possible benefits of mindfulness practice for our physical and mental health, productivity, learning, and general happiness. But what of piano players – can we benefit from joining the craze for mindfulness practice?
Doug Hanvey is a Mindfulness Teacher and Pianist from Oregon. He explains that the benefits for pianists are many-fold, suggesting that we can apply mindfulness:
To reduce stress
To increase concentration
To improve technique
To better convey the emotional content of music
To reduce the impact of negative thoughts on practicing
To reduce performance anxiety
As a teaching strategy
In his excellent article “Is Mindfulness Relevant to Piano Playing?” Hanvey explains each of these benefits in detail, backing up his claims with research, personal experience and practical advice.
Pianists often live very busy, stressful lives. We try to fit in as many hours of practice as possible alongside professional and family responsibilities, and our daily living. But setting aside just a few minutes each day for mindfulness practice can offer potentially huge benefits, even enabling the rest of our time to be spent more productively.
And mindfulness practice costs almost nothing. There are many excellent introductory books available, and a proliferation of phone and tablet apps to lead us through simple mindfulness meditations. For those who want a guide to help them jump in whole-heartedly there are plenty of great courses, workshops and retreats to choose from.
From Mindfulness to Qigong
The mindfulness that Doug Hanvey and many other popular teachers promote is predominantly rooted in the practices of Zen Buddhism, emphasising a still mind, calm breathing and mental body scanning. However, the term mindfulness properly applies to a range of other practices, including Qigong (or “Chi Gung”).
Qigong incorporates moving as well as still meditative practices, and is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine and martial arts. Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Zen Meditation, was also the patriarch of Shaolin Qigong, a form of mindfulness practice that he taught at the Shaolin Temple.
I have been practicing Qigong for nearly a decade, and can testify that it has not only changed my life (including my physical and mental health) but also my piano playing. This has led me to develop my Piano Qigong resource, an ongoing series of stretches and breathing exercises specifically for piano players.
As an adjunct to mindfulness, Piano Qigong offers two clear benefits in addition to those already identified:
- The mindful stretches involved in moving meditation enhance the mind-body connection, specifically addressing issues that pianists face
- The focus on coordinating breathing with movement helps pianists develop their awareness of breathing while playing.
The importance of this second point is underlined in a great quote from concert pianist András Schiff, who made the following observation in an interview:
“For me, it is breathing that is vital. You must breathe naturally, like a singer. Pianists and string players often tend to forget the necessity of breathing and they can become very tense; then they get back pains and wrist pains and so on. Usually it can be sorted out through the breathing.”
There's no doubt, then, that the mindful breathing can help us directly as pianists, and Piano Qigong includes several exercises that will help you to start directly coordinating breathing and playing. Practising Piano Qigong enables us to follow those suggestions instinctively and with ease.
When I started practising Qigong a few years ago, I quickly noticed significant improvements in my piano playing. This “secondary benefit” astounded me, and has become an ongoing focus of my practice, as well as having an impact on my teaching. But perhaps I should not have been so surprised, given that many Qigong exercises actually focus on important issues for pianists:
developing good posture
regulating weight distribution
smooth, flexible, controlled movement
release of tension
awareness of breathing
It dawned on me that Qigong complements piano playing in ways unlike any other activity I had tried. Mindfulness practice in general, and Piano Qigong in particular, can in a short space of time help you to experience these benefits for yourself – so why not get started right away?
Andrew Eales is a well-known writer and piano teacher based in Milton Keynes, UK, where he runs his busy private teaching practice Keyquest Music. He is the creator of Piano Qigong and owner of the popular Pianodao blog site, where you will find many free resources supporting this article.
 Doug Hanvey: Is Mindfulness Relevant to Piano Playing? pianodao.com
 Pianist Magazine (No.76, Feb-March 2014)