A new short course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama offers performing artists a chance to become aware of their unhelpful patterns of thinking and habitual reactions to stressful situations. Its instigator Chris Cullen talks to Andrew Stewart
Every musician knows what happens when the mind ruminates on a tricky interval already fluffed or becomes preoccupied with that difficult passage over the page. Split notes are bound to follow. Clear attention to the present moment is the best antidote for distracting thoughts about past events or fantasies about what might happen in future. Of course, performers need to understand a work’s long-range form, its landmark expressive contrasts and places of tension and release. But that understanding can easily be scuppered in performance by the natural tendencies of our wandering minds to wander.
This autumn, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama is set to run a mindfulness programme for professional musicians and actors. The course, which has proved a big hit with the conservatoire’s students since its launch in 2010, will deliver training in the skills required to cultivate positive mental states, alleviate anxiety and depression, boost personal well-being and transform an individual’s experience of the world. If that sounds too good to be true, the best test would be to sign up for the Guildhall’s Mindfulness for Performers programme and put its powerful lessons into practice.
Those who dismiss mindfulness as the latest lifestyle fad should at least consider the copious scientific studies of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), interventions tried and tested in recent years, before passing judgment. ‘Mindfulness is more than an approach to better mental health,’ observes course teacher Chris Cullen. ‘It can be used to boost resilience and help people flourish.
In practice, mindfulness reinforces the cognitive skills engaged in paying attention, moment-to-moment and without judgment, to whatever thoughts, feelings, emotions or bodily sensations arise. The approach, partly based on ancient Buddhist meditation practices, enables an individual to observe the arising and passing away of the content of their experience without reacting to or being trapped by whatever is present. Cultivating calm, dispassionate observation of one’s experience offers a gentle route away from repetitive or obsessive thinking, using mindfulness meditation to shift the mind out of ‘autopilot mode’ towards a state of clear awareness.
‘Research suggests that the music profession contains more stress than most others and that conservatoire students are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression than university students studying other subjects,’ reports Cullen, a former choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge. ‘It makes sense to explore how mindfulness can address those issues and help performers acquire positive skills within a non-judgmental group context.’
In recent months Cullen’s colleagues from the Oxford University Mindfulness Centre have offered advice to government on the potential value of mindfulness within education, health, criminal justice and other areas of public sector provision. ‘Policy makers are beginning to recognise the role that mindfulness could play in society,’ he says. ‘Mindfulness for musicians and other performing artists should be included within that development, which is why I’m so delighted that the Guildhall and its director of music, Jonathan Vaughan, are so supportive of it. I believe they were the first UK conservatoire to introduce mindfulness training to students. My hunch is that there will be mindfulness courses at all the London conservatoires within the next five years.’
Demand for the Guildhall’s Mindfulness for Performers programme is expected to be high. The course runs for eight consecutive Thursday evenings, beginning on 17 October with an introduction to the aims and objectives of mindfulness. Subsequent sessions will explore everything from managing performance anxiety, low mood and self-criticism to the cultivation of flow (or focused concentration) and stage presence.
‘Fundamentally, mindfulness is about attention,’ says Cullen. ‘We can see that our practice as musicians or actors, as well as our mental health, depends on what we do with our attention. Mindfulness is a training of the attention that involves practice, something that musicians naturally understand. We’re always practising something in our minds, often patterns of worry and thoughts about past or future. Mindfulness simply identifies the optimal mental habits to practise. Bringing conscious awareness to difficult thoughts and emotions enables us to relate to them more skilfully and to see them as mental events that may not necessarily be true. Whether you’re a high performing musician, a stressed government minister or have suffered three episodes of depression, learning to live with greater awareness, embodiment and kindness can make a significant difference to your levels of resilience, attentiveness and well being.’
The Mindfulness for Performers course is an adaptation of MBCT that highlights three key themes: developing greater embodiment of awareness, leading to a shift from ‘Driven-Doing’ to ‘Mindful-Being’ mode when practising and performing, and relating more skilfully to self-critical thoughts. ‘I hope that, rather like the inspirational students at the Guildhall, participants on this course for professional musicians and actors will create a group dynamic that is caring and supportive,’ says Cullen. ‘Beyond dealing with sabotaging thoughts and mental habits, we’ll also look at higher order aspects of performance such as cultivating freshness of interest and awareness in rehearsal and concert. It will be fascinating to see how individuals respond over the eight weeks and what they gain from their experience of mindfulness.’
Last year, researchers from Cambridge University’s Well-being Institute analysed data gathered from participants in the Guildhall School’s student mindfulness courses. The results charted a reduction in symptoms of depression and stress and an increase in reported levels of well-being. They also found that students derived greater enjoyment from practising and performing following the course. ‘That was very encouraging,’ notes Cullen. ‘We expect to learn more from participants in this autumn’s course for professional performers and discover further ways to refine mindfulness training for those working in the performing arts.’
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