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Who's Running This Show?: The Body/Mind Ego and How It Affects the Results of Music Practice


"I can't do it! This is too hard! I'll never get this right!" These are the words of your own invisible judge, jury, and executioner. The "voice in your head" is a constant companion for many people. It is the internal dialog that compares, weighs, analyzes, projects, sorts, and reacts to events in your current environment.

It goes by several names. Some call it the conscious mind. Others call it the ego. The most accurate label I have heard applied to the voice of the mind is the term "body/mind consciousness". This voice is the voice of conditioned habit based on your past experiences. Its job is to react to incoming data from your environment and use prior experience from your memory to recommend a course of action that keeps the physical body safe and cared for.

This consciousness known as mind is literally the action of consciousness on the brain. It is the "operating system" of your computer - a program that has been in development since you were born. It is a "body/mind" because we interpret the world around us through the body's senses. The mind program is formed by and in service of the physical body.

The problem with the body/mind is that it does its job too well. In its efforts to keep the physical body safe, the mind prevents you from taking risks. It also steers you away from activities that will place the body in a state of discomfort.

In terms of learning a musical instrument, the body/mind ego delivers a continuum of commentary. When a student can't perform something correctly the first or second time they attempt it, the ego usually begins a commentary about how the music is too hard. The mind is focused on whether or not continued attempts are worth the effort rather than being focused on analysis of the task at hand. This is particularly the case if students have already developed a history of perceived failure.

Redefining Failure

Public education has been fighting the battle of dualistic thinking for years. Young students very quickly develop a personality program around success and failure, right and wrong, good and bad. True learning comes from the process of acquiring knowledge, applying that knowledge to real life situations, and experiencing the results. The results then dictate the next step, whether it is gaining more knowledge or altering the experience to get better results.

Students learn to attach their sense of self-worth to their performance very early in life. Failure is to be avoided in their minds, where it is in failure that the true learning occurs. Even if a student understands this process, many still respond "But failing makes me feel stupid. Why would I keep doing something that makes me feel bad?"

Thomas Edison's famous quote applies here: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Students of music often say that something is "too hard" after being exposed to a new concept or musical task. I often tell them that "hard" and "easy" are labels that are relative only to their level of experience right now. A task is hard because it is unfamiliar. The student has not had enough experience with the task to master it. I often demonstrate something from their early day son their instrument and say "Remember when you thought this was hard? Now you think it's easy!"

I also use the analogy of learning to tie their shoes. Think back to when you learned to tie your shoes. Most likely, someone gave you a list of ten or so steps that you had to follow in order to get the task done. Tying one shoelace in the early attempts was a five-minute endeavor. How long dies it take to tie a shoelace today? Can you do it with your eyes closed? What is the difference between that time long ago and now? There have been thousands or repetitions of these motor skills to the point to total mastery.

Redefining Challenge

Another part of the dualistic thinking that is rampant in public education is the notion that a strong challenge is insurmountable. Students' sense of self-worth is attached to the notion that a challenge presents a "fight or flight" situation. The ego either says "I am superior to this challenge - I will prove it by my actions and announce my superiority" or it deems "If I accept this challenge, I will prove it is greater than I am, and I will be diminished and small in comparison."

One of the most difficult things to teach students is to avoid attaching one's self-worth to the outcome. It is natural, of course, to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment if one conquers a challenge. It is equally as natural to feel inadequate if a challenge proves to be too much. The important thing for students to realize is that both success and failure are temporary conditions in the present moment. If this challenge has been conquered, a new and more engaging challenge is available. If the challenge proved to be too much, it is a simple matter of observing the results and going after the challenge once again. 

The Reality Behind Repetition and Challenges

The other situation in music learning when students' body/mind egos kick into high gear is when they perceive something as "too easy" or "boring". Repetition is absolutely critical to mastery of a physical skill. Many students stop practicing the repetitions long before they should. The mind tells them that all the boring repetition is not necessary. It places the body in a state of discomfort and it becomes an activity that loses their interest emotionally.

We do 99% of things in our life for the way it makes us feel both emotionally and physically. Repetition bores many of us and challenges cause many egos to feel diminished. In the process of keeping the body in a state of comfort, the egoic body/mind has developed its own sense of self - a fictitious sense of "me" that is threatened by or deemed superior to its environment. Repetition is quickly dismissed by the ignorant mind and "beneath me" and challenges are dismissed as "threatening to me".

The Phenomenon of Stage Fright

Many people little cower in fear when asked to speak in front of a group of people. Many musicians experience anxiety when asked to perform in front of an audience as well. This is another scenario where the person's self-image is at risk. "What if I make a mistake in front of all those people?" Performers even have to contend with the body/mind voice in the midst of a performance. Of all the scenarios previously discussed, this one demonstrates most clearly the connection between the mind and the body.

In a stressful situation, the mind's reaction to perceived threats to its self-worth causes stress reactions to the body including shortness of breath, perspiration, pupil dilation, and trembling hands. This topic is covered thoroughly in the book The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green. There is a direct link between the conscious mind's thoughts and reactions and the body's self-regulation. In his book Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind, Dr. Joe Dispenza states "Your every thought produces a biochemical reaction in the brain. The brain then releases chemical signals that are transmitted to the body, where they act as the messengers of the thought. The thoughts that produce the chemicals in the brain allow your body to feel exactly the way you were just thinking. So every thought produces a chemical that is matched by a feeling in your body."

This same process also occurs when practicing a musical instrument, but not to the same degree, because the intensity and risk factor of practicing is a lot lower than a public performance. It is still, however, the body's reaction physically to the mind's activity that sets up a feedback loop concerning music practice.

The more the mind reacts negatively to perceived failure or to perceived irritation from repetition, the more the body reacts physically. The more the body reacts physically, the more prone the mind is to reacting negativity.

Strategies for Diminishing the Body/Mind's Effects

The body/mind consciousness is a necessary and essential part of the human experience. It is only within the last several decades that Western society has begun to realize the simple fact that the mind's chatter is a program run amok. Enacting the following suggestions for the body/mind and music learning can impact your life in significant ways that extend into every corner of your existence.

  1. BECOME AWARE: Many people listen to the what the voice in their head is saying without question because they never knew that the voice is "not them". Without turning this article into a spiritual discussion, it must be stated that the personality program is the summation of your genetics and your experiences as they have focused through your physical senses. There is a a timeless aware presence underneath the personality. For more on this topic, I highly recommend Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. Simply understanding that the voice is not who you are can open up a while new dimension to every aspect of your life.
  2. CATCH YOUR EGO IN THE ACT: When practicing, try to catch your internal monologue as it makes a commentary on your performance. Just recognizing that the conditioned habits of thought (a.k.a. attitudes) are the ones doing the talking can help you begin to transcend them. In many cases, the self-talk is negative in nature because the mind is acting to keep the body feeling good. At first, you may not be able to change that pattern of thinking. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, "The first step is to recognize that you have a problem."
  3. STAY IN THE PRESENT MOMENT: The body/mind ego is the voice of past experience. There is no question that we use our past experience as the building blocks to take us to an improved future. However, many people spend most of their waking hours revisiting and rehashing the past in their minds. In addition to reliving the past, the body/mind will also make predictions about the future. It will also make suggestions on what course of action to take. This is fine when your future may entail careening off a cliff, but in many cases the body/mind paints a worrisome picture of the future that keeps you from taking any risks at all. Nothing happens in our past or in our future. The NOW, the present moment, is what you want to cultivate.
  4. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY'S REACTIONS: Thoughts have nearly immediate affects on the body. Think of the way your body feels when you have an angry outburst. The most common emotion in the practice room is frustration, and the most common emotion on the stage is nervousness. In performance, the function of the body where nervousness takes its most noticeable toll is on the breath. If you play a wind instrument, keeping your breathing open and relaxed is paramount, especially in a performance situation. Shaking hands can affect any instrumentalist regardless of instrument. If you detect these physiological symptoms, it's time to bring your attention inward to your thought patterns and work to bring a level of balance to the system again.
  5. KNOW THYSELF: Pay attention to your own habits and tendencies. If you tend to rush through repeated quarter notes, get out the metronome. If you tend to neglect a certain area of development on your instrument, make that the first item you tackle on the next practice session. I also highly recommend taking the Myers-Briggs Personality Instrument, the Kiersey Temperament Sorter (their basic test is free), and even getting a free Natal Chart done.

Exploring Your Own "I Can"

The more you can bring awareness to each and every thought and deed, the more you will be able to make real and lasting changes to your attitude. When you begin to recognize the voice of the past inhibiting your progress, you begin to nurture a new voice that envisions what you intend to accomplish for your future. It is at that point that you are not only practicing a musical instrument, but you are also practicing with ever-growing consistency turning your internal "I can't" into an internal "I can," which eventually becomes an internal and external "I am".

If you use any suggestions from this article and experience significant results, please tell me about it.


This article (c) 2008 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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