All We Need Is One Scale

Technical routines, like housekeeping, are an opportunity for mindfulness.

Posted Oct 06, 2020

Fikret Kabay/Pixabay
Source: Fikret Kabay/Pixabay

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh describes how the practice of mindful meditation can transform the most mundane task into an act of cultivating wellbeing. In the illustration I am thinking of, he discusses the act of mindful dishwashing, and how this ordinary aspect of daily life can become an opportunity to live in a more fully-engaged way. I find a complementary experience in my daily music practice routine.

In music, as well as in everyday life, there are tasks that we must do to maintain and cultivate our ability to play, or to live, as we wish to. Many musicians find technical studies and scale playing much the same as housekeeping and laundering. Others find scales and technical exercises to be comforting and relaxing; like vacuuming or dusting the house can be calming. There seems to be something flexible about chores, whether they be musical or domestic, some aspect that can transform a mundane experience into one of pleasure.

Vocalists, wind, and string players know the pleasure of holding a tone for a period of time. One of the basic exercises for wind players is to hold “longtones” in the middle and low registers to get the muscles loosened and ready for more heavy and flexible motions. In holding a single tone, say for a 16-beat count at a slow pace, mimics the breath control needed for a typical 4-bar phrase. That is the practical side of the exercise, but there is also a more phenomenological experience waiting to be discovered.

We can use the longtone as a point for concentrative meditation. Not unlike a bell or a candle flame, the tone can be a mantra point upon which we focus our attention. If we hold each tone of a 2-octave, chromatic scale for 16 beats at m.m.= 60, we have the opportunity for a 6 and 1/2 minute meditation practice. We can experience the tones in different ways, through different sense organs. Feeling the vibrations in our face and bodies, as well as focusing our attention on the vibrating soundwaves as they bounce, like sonar, in our environment. Closing the eyes and attending to the vibrations in this way permits us to become aware of the sounds we produce in a more subtle and sensitive way.

We can take our instrument into different environments and experience the surprising ways that our sounds interact in various places; the woods, a chapel, on a lake, or at the ocean. Once, while studying in Switzerland, a teacher guided us to a place in the mountains where we sat and meditated on the patterns in a swirling, Alpine stream. After some time sitting with the swirling patterns, we took out our instruments and improvised with the stream. This offered us, a group of classical musicians accustomed to reading from the page, an opportunity to experience our instruments, and ourselves, in a new way.

The 5-finger exercises on the piano offer a similar opportunity for mindfulness practice. We can direct our experience to the raw, tactile phenomenon of the keyboard, feeling the tone as it resonates through the keys into our fingertips. Glenn Gould tells how, as a child, he would practice the piano with his mother’s vacuum cleaner running, to drown out the piano sounds. In this way, he described shifting his focus to the tactile experience of playing. Later, he claims to have kept a piano with the strings removed for similar practice. We can use concentrative meditation to direct our volitional attention to different raw sense-experiences of the tones or sounds we are producing.

Getting lost in articulation can be another way of experiencing our technical study routine. Feeling the legato, tenuto, and staccato through the lips or fingers is an opportunity for mindful awareness. I find interesting subtleties in the experience of making different articulations or volumes on a single tone, maintaining an awareness of how legato or staccato, piano or forte feels in my body as I produce it.

Tempo is another opportunity for mindful technical study. Contrasting the experience of playing a scale at a tempo in whole notes, and then in sixteenth notes, allows for a different experience of the scale. After this, contrasting by playing a simple, two-octave scale as if it is a solo piece can be a beautiful experience. There is nothing less musical about a scale than any other organization of tones. In this way, all we need to do is play one scale well to find musical fulfillment.