Pay Attention

Violinists playing in an orchestra.

Photo by Simon Blackley

A few months ago a psychologist and conductor collaborated on an unusual psychological experiment – using a full symphony orchestra.

In an article for Miller McCune Online Magazine, Tom Jacobs reports how members of the Arizona State University Orchestra were asked to play the Brahms’ First Symphony twice. The first time, they were given the following instructions:

Think about the finest performance of this piece that you can remember. Play it that way.

The second time, these were the instructions given to the orchestra:

Play this piece in the finest manner you can, offering subtle new nuances to your performance.

Before reading on, stop and think about the likely effect on performance of the two sets of instructions. Do you think there would be any significant difference between the two performances? Would you expect either performance to be better or worse than the other?

In the event, the performances were judged by an audience with considerable knowledge of classical music. When asked by the experimenters, the audience consistently rated the second performance as better than the first.


According to Dr. Ellen Langer, the psychologist in charge of the experiment, the critical difference was mindfulness:

Mindfulness is an effortless, simple process that consists of drawing novel distinctions, that is, noticing new things. The more we notice, the more we become aware of how things change depending on the context and perspective from which they are viewed. Mindfulness requires, however, that we give up the fixed ways in which we’ve learned to look at the world.

(Ellen J. Langer, On Becoming an Artist : Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity)

Langer has performed extensive research on the effects of mindfulness, including its impact on creativity and live performance. In the case of the orchestra, she argues that the first set of instructions led the orchestra to reproduce a ‘fixed’ past performance from memory, taking their attention away from the present moment.

The second performance however, the orchestra was invited to express ‘new nuances’ in their playing – which, according to Langer, meant they were mindfully aware in the present. This awareness and presence was what made the difference, eliciting the following comments from the audience:

“There was more energy.” “The dynamic range was wider.” “The louds and softs were more pronounced.”

(Reported in ‘The Marriage of Mozart and Mindfulness’ by Tom Jacobs)

Mindfulness – a Key to Top Performance

These findings will be no surprise to those of us who habitually perform in front of an audience – whether in a theatre, concert hall or conference room. Our best performances are invariably the ones where we feel most ‘awake’ and focused on the task in hand and the other people in the room.

As performers, we face a delicate balancing act. On the one hand we need to be properly prepared and rehearsed, but if we just stand up and regurgitate the material by rote then it becomes boring, for us as well as the audience. This can be particularly difficult when we are repeating the same performance over and over again, like the orchestra in Langer’s experiment.

I once read an interview with the American poet Billy Collins, talking about a long tour where he was reading many of the same poems night after night. Occasionally he would catch himself ‘drifting off’ in the middle of reading – his remedy for this was to open the book at random and read a poem he hadn’t rehearsed. This kept him on his toes and brought the reading to life again, as he was essentially rediscovering the poem alongside his audience.

On the other hand, if we are under-prepared or new to performing, our nerves can get the better of us, and we can get too caught up in trying to get it ‘right’ that we are not truly present. Which is why presentation guru Garr Reynolds highlights mindfulness as one of the keys to successful presenting:

Worries are the worst things of all because they are always about the past or about the future, two things that do not even exist in the present. In our daily lives and in our work lives, including presenting, we’ve got to clear our minds and be only one place: right here.

(Garr Reynolds – Presentation Zen)

Mindfulness in performance represents the ‘sweet spot’ between too much novelty and arousal (anxiety) and too much familiarity and relaxation (boredom).

One Way to Be More Mindful

Mindfulness is a wonderful thing, but it’s not easy to cultivate – especially for those of us who habitually immerse ourselves in the digital distractions of the internet. Even secluded in a monastery, it can be extremely difficult to maintain mindfulness for any length of time.

The conductor’s instructions in the experiment illustrate one gateway to mindfulness – noticing novelty. Here’s another.

I invite you to follow the steps below in order to become more fully present right now.

  1. Ask yourself ‘Where are my feet right now?’. Chances are they’ll be where you left them – at the end of your legs. And it’s equally likely that you weren’t aware of them until you read that question.
  2. Focus all your attention on your feet. Notice how they feel – warm or cool, heavy or light, whatever. Don’t try to relax them. Just pay attention to the sensations in your feet right this moment.
  3. Now widen your awareness to include your legs as well as your feet. As before, just notice the physical sensations in the area you’re focusing on.
  4. Gradually expand your field of attention to include your whole body, from head to feet, so that you are fully aware of how your body feels right now.
  5. Now pay attention to the sounds you can hear around you, as well as the physical sensations in your body.
  6. Finally, look around and notice the colours and shapes you can see – while still listening and sensing your body. Look, listen, feel – right here, right now.

How do you feel?

Most people report that following these steps has the effect of calming and centring them, so that it’s easier to pay attention to the present moment. (Sometimes it can take a bit of practice, so hang in there if you found it difficult.)

The nice thing about this technique is that you can use it just about anywhere – during a meeting, driving on the highway, chatting to friends, walking along the street. The more you practice it, the easier it will get. Which means you’ll find it much easier to be mindful when it really matters – e.g. when you have a big presentation to give or a big performance to deliver.

(For the ‘Where are my feet?’ question, I have to thank my friend and colleague Kathleen Haden, a wonderful therapist who keeps everyone around her on their toes.)

Over to You

Do you ever struggle to be mindful and present when giving a public performance?

Any tips for cultivating mindfulness?

What difference does it make when you make a conscious effort to be more mindful?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet, creative coach and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post


  1. “Where are my feet right now?” is brilliant!


  2. Yes, respect to Kathleen for that!

  3. Gives ‘self centered’ a whole new meaning.

    So what we’re saying is that the jumbled buzz isn’t going to get shamed and go away if I ignore it huh? I have to see it, feel it, let it take its place and when I’m done, I’ll have found my place again.

    I do know this works, but seem to have forgotten to do it lately, timely reminder, thanks.

  4. “Gives ’self centered’ a whole new meaning.” 😉

    Yep, unfortunately ignoring it doesn’t seem to work – and believe me I’ve tried…!

  5. I came to your blog after finishing my mid-morning meditation and I can’t believe how reading “where are my feet” took me immediately back into that deep centered stillness.

    I also love that you mixed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas about the “sweet spot” of creative flow. As a scientist and a creative writer that particular graph defining Skills vs Challenge is one of my absolute favorites (pg 31 in “Finding Flow” for those that haven’t read it yet 🙂

    Thank you Mark.

  6. Thanks Lira.

    I nearly made the Csikszentmihalyi reference explicit, but I can see you picked it up anyway. 😉

  7. Any tips for cultivating mindfulness?


    If my experience with Jazz improvisation is any guide, I started by learning safe things (scales, licks, chords…). Once I knew how to play safe, it became easy to focus on the slightest nuances both in my own playing and in response others.

    If I were to extend that to work I’d say, learn how to automatically do one thing well, but in a conventional matter.

    If you’re a writer, try doing straightforward press-releases over and over. Then, when you can write ordinary press-releases, start throwing a few little curves to make the ordinary extra-ordinary.

  8. Just did that little mental exercise and it was right on point! Very cool. I’m a basketball player, just finished my 3rd year of college ball and I think that this idea of mindfulness can be very beneficial to athletes.

  9. Excellent, excellent post. Thank you for the research report as well as the observations about its significance for speakers.

    A tip along similar lines (in that it makes use of something always present, and of particular interest to speakers) comes from old basic meditation techniques, and in this context could be called, “How’s my breathing?” Just “watching” the breath as it comes in and out through the nostrils, without trying to change it. It’s always there, but usually taken for granted. Spending even 10 seconds with this has a similar centering effect.

  10. Damon – Thanks Jazz improvisation is an excellent example. I don’t play myself, but as I understand it, it’s a high-wire balancing act between the formal constraints of the original piece and doing your own thing. I’m not surprised it takes mindfulness!

    Nate – Yes, mindfulness is often the key to sports or similar activities. Timothy Gallwey writes about this in The Inner Game of Tennis. I practise aikido and mindfulness (or the lack of it) is invariably the difference between doing it well or badly.

    Donnell – Yes, the breath is even better than the feet as a meditation object! 🙂

  11. Thanks for the post – of particular relevance to my music practice community.

  12. Thank you for mentioning Garr Reynolds in your post. I work for Peachpit Press and thought you and your readers might be interested in knowing that he just released his first online streaming video, Presentation Zen: The Video, where he expands on the ideas presented in his book and blog. The DVD is now available for purchase as well. More info can be found here:

  13. Fantastic post! It’s cool to see scientific minds delving into what I consider more spiritual pursuits. This is a perfect distillation of two of my great joys…Buddhism and Jazz improvisation.

    As a practicing jazz musician and an aspiring buddhist, I strive for mindfulness in every moment, and in every act. It’s not easy to achieve in our fast-paced world, but it goes to the heart of music and life.

    When I am happiest on stage is when I’m completely immersed in the moment, listening and reacting to what my bandmates are playing. It is the act of conversation that floats my boat in a jazz performance.

    When I am happiest in life is when I’m completely immersed in the moment, listening and reacting to what life is doing around me. It is the act over conversation that floats my boat in life.

    Coincidence? I think not!

  14. Thanks Jason, great description of mindfulness in the moment. I bet the music sounds good too!

  15. Fantastic article! As a musician who blogs and often makes presentations to other musicians and music educators on practicing successfully, I often am asked how musicians can increase their level of focus while practicing and performing. Your explanation of mindfulness and the exercise for increasing awareness would have a huge payoff for musicians at all levels.

  16. Thanks David. I’ve used this stuff with quite a few professional musicians, and once they ‘get it’, they love it. I’m always very impressed by their powers of concentration.

    Interesting site you have. I love this piece, ‘Keep your instrument out to motivate practicing’ – obvious when you say it, but probably not before!