Orchestral musicians are, in a sense, the assembly-line workers of the arts world. Like their counterparts on the factory floor, they're asked to execute the exact same task again and again — a method that may be efficient for producing consumer goods, but hardly one that promotes inspired performances.
So how can these often unhappy instrumentalists avoid getting into a soul-deadening rut? The answer, according to an intriguing new study, may be as simple as asking them to stay focused, alert and open to new discoveries. The results of such requests are immediate and quite noticeable — not only to the musicians themselves, but also to knowledgeable listeners.
"Practice, if simply viewed as repetition, does not make perfect but merely permanent," notes the report, published in the journal Psychology of Music. In contrast, the authors assert, "Individual attention to novel distinctions and subtle nuances appears to alter the process of creative ensemble performance and lead to music that is more enjoyable to perform and hear."
The study is the product of a cross-disciplinary collaboration between noted Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer and Arizona State University music professor Timothy Russell. Langer has been studying and writing about the concept of mindfulness — the practice of staying acutely aware of what is happening in the present moment — for more than two decades. Russell, who conducts the three ASU orchestras as well as a professional ensemble in Ohio, has long been interested in putting Langer's concepts to work in the practice room and concert hall.
Along with the University of Pennsylvania's Noah Eisenkraft, they conceived a way to test the practical effect of mindful music-making. Working with the ASU student orchestras — made up of musicians considered too young to be jaded, but apparently already on their way — Russell lead two performances of the same piece: the fiery finale from Brahms' First Symphony.
Before the first performance, the conductor told his musicians to "Think about the finest performance of this piece that you can remember. Play it that way." Before the second performance, he gave a quite different instruction: "Play this piece in the finest manner you can, offering subtle new nuances to your performance."
Members of a local community chorus — musically sophisticated men and women who are not professional performers — were asked if they heard a difference after listening to recordings of both.
"Overwhelmingly, they said yes," Russell reported. "The next question was: Which do you prefer? Overwhelmingly, they preferred the mindful one."
The musicians reported they, too, found the second performance a more enjoyable experience. When asked for specifics, players and listeners offered similar descriptions: "There was more energy." "The dynamic range was wider." "The louds and softs were more pronounced."
In other words, attempting to recreate an "ideal" performance proved somewhat stultifying, while staying on the lookout for new nuances was clearly liberating. And, importantly, it did not lead to a breakdown in discipline.
"By definition, an orchestral conductor tries to get everybody to do things in one coordinated way," Russell said. "By giving the instruction to everybody to find some nuance of their own and play it that way, you might expect chaos. But we found that wasn't the case at all.
"What all the musicians pretty much did was (put more effort into) what they were supposed to be doing anyway. If they were supposed to play forte (loud), they played more forte."
To Langer, the implications of these findings go far beyond the concert hall.
"(When Russell told) a whole group of people to essentially do things their own way — subtly different, but still their own way - you ended up with a superior group performance," she noted. "Many businesses are afraid to give employees this kind of control. But if they did, more often than not, you'd end up with a coordinated effort."
Russell repeated the study using two additional pieces of music ("Polonaise" from Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve and Victor Herbert's "March of the Toys") and received the same results. He concedes the fact he conducted both the "mindless" and "mindful" performances could be considered problematic, in that his enthusiasm for the "mindful" condition might have led him to lead a more exciting performance. (Then again, that might be overstating the amount of influence a conductor has on an orchestra.)
He hopes someone will repeat the experiment with a conductor who is as blind to the experiment's goals as are the players and audience members. He'd also like to test whether it would produce the same results with an established, professional orchestra. Russell and Langer have yet to conduct such an experiment, in part because the strict work rules set down by musicians unions make such an undertaking difficult.
Then there's the question of keeping the effect alive. Russell conducts the Arizona Symphony's 20 or more performances of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet each December, when it serves as the pit band for the area's preeminent ballet company. He admits that the admonition "Find new nuances today" could turn into easily ignored background noise if it were to be repeated before every performance.
"It's up to the teacher or coach or conductor to be clever about it," he said.
Finally, there's the matter of overcoming resistance from musicians who might consider the notion silly, or fear it will mean more work. "People think it's more effortful to do things mindfully," Langer said. "In fact, it's not, and it's more fun. Mindfulness is a way to create passion."
Ironically, Langer — who will be played by Jennifer Aniston in a movie based on her most recent book, Counterclockwise — says she is not musically sophisticated enough to hear the difference between the two performances. But she has no doubt the mindful musicians were more alive to the music.
"We have data with dolphins," she said. "We had trainers who were mindful or mindless. In the water, they were instructed either to think familiar thoughts, such as 'Think about all that you know to be true about dolphins,' or to think novel thoughts, such as 'How is the dolphin you're interacting with different from the other dolphins there? How is it different today than it was the last time you interacted with it?'
"When the trainer is mindful, the dolphin swims to him or her faster and stays longer," she said. Whether you're a marine mammal or a Beethoven buff, "You can tell when the light's on but nobody's home. And you can feel it in art."
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