I was so excited about interviewing Karen Bulmer that it only very recently occurred to me after recording the interview that Karen is not actually a pianist! But every musician will get so much from listening to this episode, and I think particularly us pianists who often have to juggle so many things happening at once in our music will really benefit from so much of the conversation between me and Karen.

Karen is an incredibly clear thinker and communicator, with thoughtful responses on some of my favourite topics such as skilful use of attention in practice and performance, narrow and wide focus, internal and external focus, perfectionism in classical music, meditation and music, beginner’s mind, movement and music, and all that good stuff!

I very much recommend all musicians to check out the Music, Mind, and Movement Podcast that Karen runs- she’s had some amazing guests and all the interviews are fantastic. In episode 9, Karen actually got a student to interview her, so you can hear a lot about her background and work there. Rather than repeat that format for this interview at Heart of the Piano, I thought it would be interesting to have more of a two-way conversation and go deeper into many of the topics dear to my heart that I’ve heard Karen’s guests discuss on her podcast.

Karen Bulmer

Show Notes

  • A brief ‘taster’ of Karen’s background and biography- check episode 9 of her podcast for more information- link below! [1:20]
  • Feeling and controlling the the flow of attention when practising [4:40]
    Switching between narrow and broad attention in an agile way
    Embodied attention
  • Tactics for becoming embodied when performing [10:50]
  • Sports psychology, and external vs internal focus for musicians [12:20]
  • Narrow focus, posture and movement [19:00]
    Focus and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), including effects on anxiety
    West/East cultural differences in perception- object based vs. relationship/contextual ways of perceiving
  • Perfectionism in classical music [30:10]
  • Meditation, open awareness, ‘just sit’, non-striving [36:10]
    Effect on music making
  • Practising the perfectionism on/off switch when practising classical music [46:20]
    The concept of holding lightly
  • Beginner’s mind [54:10]
  • Movement techniques and strategies for musicians [46:40]
    Being efficient with movement and expression
  • What to do with stiff, non-moving students [1:02:20]
  • How can we nurture heartfelt musical expression in students? [1:05:50]


Karen’s interview on her own Music, Mind, and Movement Podcast: https://musicmindandmovement.com/podcast-2/2018/12/14/ep-9-turning-the-tables-withme-karen-bulmer

A research paper that describes the exact external focus strategies Karen was referring to in this episode, including details about the experiment that showed a difference between instructions on pushing your foot against the floor vs focusing on calf muscles: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153816/

Publications by Gabriele Wulf who studies the effects of different attentional styles in sports and music: http://gwulf.faculty.unlv.edu/publications-2/
This paper in particular is a useful summary of the field of research of external vs internal attention and includes studies on musicians: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271992035_Attentional_focus_and_motor_learning_A_review_of_15_years

Karen’s interview with Vanessa Mulvey on the Music, Mind, and Movement Podcast, where Vanessa describes the process of widening the visual field: https://musicmindandmovement.com/podcast-2/2019/1/11/ep-10-with-vanessa-mulvey

The Open-Focus Brain by Les Fehmi: https://www.amazon.com/Open-Focus-Brain-Harnessing-Power-Attention/dp/1590306120
as well as some of his guided meditations: https://openfocus.com/shop/

The Muse neurofeedback headband I use for meditation (and sometimes practising the piano!): https://choosemuse.com/muse/

A compelling review of the research showing the differences in perception and focus styles between Westerners and East Asians: https://www.pnas.org/content/100/19/11163
And another interesting paper on this topic: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894690/

Research showing two types of attention involving different brain circuits: object-based attention, and spatial attention: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140410141912.htm

‘Music is the silence between the notes’- quote by Debussy: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/673391-music-is-the-silence-between-the-notes

The practice of the ‘just sit’ meditation in the Triratna Buddhist Order: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/text/just-sitting

Karen’s interview with John Morrison on the Music, Mind, and Movement Podcast where they discuss a similar ‘just sit’ zen meditation: https://musicmindandmovement.com/podcast-2/john-morrison

Different meditation techniques can have very different effects! https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140813103138.htm

Research showing the importance of visual cues such as movement for the perception of expression in musical performance: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0305735607086046
and https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1994-16090-001


The intro/outro music is ‘Pulleys, Gear, Cogs, and Levers’ by Ben Miles, played by Karen Bulmer