"Transience is the force of time that makes a ghost of every experience. There was never a dawn, regardless how beautiful or promising, that did not grow into a noontime. There was never a noon that did not fall into afternoon. There was never an afternoon that did not fade toward evening. There never was a day yet that did not get buried in the graveyard of the night."
We tend to respect and admire the development of musical performance skills while overlooking the benefits of cultivating a bit of discipline and training of our ability to listen. By default, most of us have developed a stunning and sophisticated repertoire for blocking out the world around us. We allocate the bulk of our attention inwardly toward the stories playing out in our minds.
Instead of seeing this as a flaw to obsess about, we can instead begin to explore the elements of this personal narrative. With consistent practice over time, we can become intimately familiar with its various component parts. We can even gain insight into the process working to edit it all together and making it seem so dramatic and difficult to ignore. We can become fascinated with the composition of this narrative and less caught up in its content. Paradoxically, the more familiar we become with the flow of our thoughts and feelings, the more directly and completely we experience the objective world around us.
At any given moment, we have a limited amount of attention to spend. Just being clear about what we are noticing can begin to change ordinary experience in simple yet profound ways. Listening to music offers a compelling doorway into this perspective. When we focus on one or more aspects of listening, we strengthen our ability to concentrate. When we explore music as an opportunity to cultivate attention, we also strengthen the ability to hear the musicality within the ordinary sounds we encounter in daily life. With consistent practice over time, we can even begin to experience the sense of wonder which sparks the human impulse to create music in the first place.
Explore this strategy from the beginning to end of a piece of music:
Restrict the main focus of your attention to listening to sounds around you and to verbal thinking.
There will almost certainly be additional stimulus in the background (visual activity, mental images, pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations, and sensations in the body that seem to be emotional in nature). There is no need to wrestle with any of these or to try to suppress them in any way. To the best of your ability, allow them to operate in the background while your primary attention rests on external or internal sounds.
Whenever you become aware that your primary attention has become focused on one of these background activities, gently bring it back to listening.
Let your attention drift and wander freely within the acoustic space around you as well as in the space where verbal thinking seems to be take place. This internal space varies for each individual. Not being completely sure if you are identifying it properly is a significant part of the process of becoming more familiar with it. We give musicians time to find their way into virtuosity, right? Give yourself time to become more intimately familiar with where verbal (and visual) thinking occurs.
Every few seconds, try to be as clear as possible whether you are listening to external sounds or internal sounds. Then just hang out with the activity of sound that you’ve noticed. Savor it. External sounds and verbal thinking count equally in this exercise. Try not to prefer one over the other. There is no need to try to suppress thinking. Get acquainted with it as internal sound. What matters is that you bring some effort to noticing where your attention is and whether it is focused externally (out) or inwardly (in).
You can support this process by using mental labels to help clarify and aim your attention. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of sounds around you, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: OUT. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of internal conversations, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: IN.
That’s it! Just keep going until the end of the song and enjoy. Take breaks between practice periods as needed then try again. You might also want to explore some of these alternative strategies.