A Musician's Toolkit

In my teaching, I show people how to work with a broad variety of sense-based techniques, exercises and practices to enrich and enhance their music-making. Together they form a 'toolkit' we can carry with us on our musical journey and weave into the fabric of all musical activities.

I group the various 'tools' in the categories below, which overlap and reflect one another in many respects.

Mindfulness • Meditation • Reflection • Compassion • Relating • Time • Place
Aural Awareness • Visual Awareness • Proprioception • Touch • Interoception

Breathing • Movement & Dance • Imagery & Narrative • Emotion & Mood • Felt Sense



Mindfulness practices form the basic architecture of this toolkit. They teach us ways we can listen closely as musicians, improving our sense of rhythm, pitch, musical structure and form - our Aural Awareness. In turn, we become more sensitive to sounds, their content, timbre, feel and dynamic level, how they appear in different acoustic spaces, and the affect of their combination. Our Visual Awareness can also be strengthened and useful for our work, clearing out minds, connecting us with our instruments, and focusing our attention,

Beyond that, mindfulness hones our ability to 'listen-in' to our mental, emotional and physical states without judgement. In attending to the body, we gain much more awareness of our physical selves, fine-tuning our sense of our body's position in space - our Proprioception - as well as our capacity to feel what's going on inside us - our Interoception - and our sense of Touch as we make contact with our instruments. A range of already-existing practises offer great insight in this area - Feldenkrais, Qi Gong and Alexander Technique, for example, or other body-mind methods - and they can be explored and experimented with to find those that suit us. Over time, we more readily notice our posture, alignment and internal balance, places of tension and relaxation, and the feeling of Movement and Dance as we play, sing or create. This kind of knowledge helps us to avoid or recover from strains or injuries, and turns music-making into a fully physical experience, releasing our creativity.

Through mindfulness, we can also get a better sense of our Breathing, which both reflects and affects every aspect of our being. Conscious breath-work and other forms of Meditation help to reduce stress and anxiety brought up through the challenges of studying and working in music. They also aid concentration and wake us up in our senses, making us feel more alive, receptive and ready.

With a friendly attention on our minds - our thoughts, emotions, associations and images - we learn to see how our mental habits may be helping or hindering us. From there, we find ways of regulating negative or inhibiting patterns and cultivating a positive outlook for our music-making. We see how the mental, emotional and physical aspects of ourselves mirror each other, and then learn how to work with our bodies to benefit our mental faculties as musicians, and vice versa.

Other mindfulness exercises help us become aware of our sense of Time, the different ways we may conceive and perceive it and how they affect us. Knowing this, we can better manage our work patterns and improve our productivity. We can also get in touch with and feel the moment of our music practice, which is the source of our creativity.

Related to mindfulness is the tool of Contemplation, which can be defined as an act of 'marking out a space' for observation and seeing what freely arises. Our practise in this respect is one of opening to our internal world. We can use this pratise to sense the Mood or character of a song, a piece, a recording, or a musical moment, as well as any apparent Imagery and Narrative that comes up in our minds. Researching the people, places, ideas and histories associated with the music can also help us to form a better notion of 'what it is about'. A richer musical expression follows, simply because we have much more to convey.
Similarly, we can contemplate our shifting internal Emotions as we make music, and notice how they manifest within us. We come to really know, from the inside out, sadness, fear, frustration and anger. But also joy, happiness, excitement, tranquility and belonging. We can enter a state of awe and ecstasy, or touch upon the ineffable. In seeing all of this in ourselves, we more easily see it in others, maturing our sense of Compassion, empathy and forgiveness. This in turn greatly serves productivity and ability. A variety of talking practises can be used to reveal and foster these fundamental qualities within all of us.
We also benefit from exploring how our music-making is shaped by how we Relate with our own history, the people around us, our life circumstance and surroundings. Through Reflection exercises we get a sense of the shifting nature of musical selves over time and how they are woven out of our changing experiences, connections and associations. In short, we come to recognise the bigger picture of who we are as musicians: to understand the interdependence and interrelatedness of our creativity with those whom we have listened to, watched, been taught by and played with. This then informs and releases our individual sense of musicality in the moment and for the future.
Through other exercises, we evolve our sense of musical Place and environment, both in terms of acoustics, but also our emotional response to the space, objects and layout. We sense the room's dimensions and - through association - its 'atmosphere', which we can even learn to generate somewhat.
Our toolkit also includes means to help us become more aware of our intuition, in both mind and body. We each experience a personal Felt Sense of right and wrong, do and don't do, should and shouldn't, as well as desire, aversion, doubt, sincerity, and various moods, emotions, thoughts and images. In creating or practising music, we can learn to 'check-in' with this intuition. We can observe our creative impulses, get a feel for 'what works' or 'what doesn't work', for when we have done 'enough' or 'too much', or whether we 'like' or 'don't like' what we are doing or have done. Encountering a creative problem or block, we can sense the mirage of a solution within us and know better how to allow it to emerge and serve us.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, we need to make room to talk about Transcendence through music: what it is to lose our sense of self, place, time and activity altogether, be in a state of creative flow, lost in the moment, somehow beyond our thoughts, doubts and inhibitions. We all know what it feels like to go 'there', but we can also learn how it enhances our musicianship, and ways that help induce that internal state. We can even begin to sense it - hear it, see it, and feel it in our bodies - when other people - in the studio, teaching room, or in our bands, groups and ensembles - go to that 'place'. If we open to the experience, and talk about it freely, we can connect with those others on a deeper level. We can work as one, go futher together, and help each other's creativity.
This 'musician's toolkit' is a way of practising music that includes our whole self, giving us access to more of our creativity, more receptivity, more insight, and more understanding. Our music-making can then become much more dynamic and alive - because we are connecting with our whole aliveness. Indeed, we can come to really know what it means to be alive. We can do so through music.
© Robert Szymanek 2020