Mindful Listening

I suspect that some of you will have heard of this “Mindfulness” thing, which is gaining popularity at the moment. It’s a kind of meditation which comes from Buddhist practices and the most common way to learn it is by spending time focussing on your breathing and trying to maintain that focus, with the aim to become ‘always present’ for every moment.

I got into Mindfulness around the start of 2016 mainly as way of clearing my mind and relaxing (I get bad ‘monkey mind’ where it just won’t turn off!) and found it very helpful in my day-to-day life, I slept better and felt generally more relaxed which is a big positive. Then I discovered Mindful Running where instead of focussing on the breath you move your attention to the fall of your feet and let that become the sole focus of your attention. Great, I could get my morning run and my meditation done in one go. But what’s that got to do with guitar practice I hear you ask.

This year I’ve been trying to make time each day to listen to music. Like really listening closely, not just having music on in the background or be listening ‘for work’. I think it’s something many of us forget about and it’s incredibly important on many different levels and something I notice many of the great players I admire talk about often. With music being so available these days, I think taking time to really appreciate the good stuff is a big deal and something we should all try to do more of.

So I thought I’d try and mix in this ‘mindful’ practice with my listening and I’m loving the results so I have to share! I feel I’ve regained that deep kind of listening I used to do back when I’d have to order a new album from the record store, wait months for it arrive and would then spend weeks listening to that one record and really absorbing it and appreciating its value to my life.

Some experience in Mindfulness will probably be a big help to get yourself started – I used an app called Headspace for a few months to get going with and found that to be really helpful but there are many web sites devoted to the practice which you can seek out on your own (or start with Mindful.org). Or check out this practical 'actionable guide'.

When it comes to transferring the ideas to music, I start in the same way as normal meditation, getting comfortable and trying to get myself ‘still’. I prepare a playlist in advance (usually 30 minutes) or just pick an album I’d like to absorb. Then while listening I start by letting my focus wander over the music and see where it lands, and then try to get really into that aspect and drill deeper into it. It might start off being the guitar tone and then specifically how it sits in the track and then maybe into the sound of the pick hitting the strings. It might be the drum groove and then the high-hat and then the locking in of the high-hat and the acoustic guitar, or the pattern it makes – it’s not really important where your focus ends up but I think it can be helpful to try to guide yourself deeper into wherever your focus drifts.

I’ve found that it’s really opened up some albums that I was already very familiar with and I’ve discovered new depths to explore. I now sometimes listen to something with a very specific aim, for example, I wanted to explore Angus Young’s vibrato, so while AC/DC is probably not the kind of music one would associate with meditation, I found myself completely in a mindful state with all of my attention centred on this one thing. Another thing I got into was exploring the ‘pocket’ of funk grooves and trying to focus in on the relationships between the instruments and how tight (or loose) the instruments were rhythmically. Music production, focussing on reverbs and textures, and exploring guitar layers are also fascinating journeys. You can choose to get into the zone with a goal to explore something, or just let yourself get absorbed into the music. It’s all good - there are no rules, just fun things to explore.

If you’ve been following my column then you will know that I recommend using a timer for practice, and learning to keep your focus while practice is pretty much the ‘Mindful’ approach anyway! I hope you find this idea of some benefit and that at the very least it inspires you to get into deep listening. Happy days!

Food For Thought