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Mindfulness Through Music: An Introduction

Music and mindfulness are complementary practices.

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We can approach mindfulness and music from two directions: the practice of mindfulness meditation to enhance musicianship, and the practice of music to enhance mindfulness.

Musicians can cultivate insight and effect change in both practice and performance through the study of mindfulness meditation. Meditators can use music to enhance their experience of mindfulness. In this way, the two aspects are harmonious and complementary practices.

Mindfulness for Musicians

Mindfulness can enhance our experience of being a musician. This is the application of mindful meditation towards the peak practice and performance of music. The most common issues that musicians encounter include performance anxiety, impostor complex, and what Abraham Maslow described as the Jonah complex (the fear of success). Through instruction, daily meditative practice, and weekly discussions with a teacher, one can gain insight and initiate positive change in their practice and performance of music.

Music to Enhance Mindfulness

The second direction we can take in mindfulness and music is the enhancement of our mindful experience of daily life through music. We typically employ exercises in listening and free improvisation to discover spontaneous, active, and deliberate styles of living and making music. Through daily practice in listening and playing, one can cultivate a more spontaneous, deliberate, and meaningful way of being in the world.

It has been my experience that an effective way towards understanding something is to do it. Therefore, I will offer two exercises in mindfulness and music; one for musicians who wish to explore and enhance their craft, and the other for meditators who wish to incorporate music into their meditative practice.

Mindfulness for Musical Practice

The first step in becoming more mindful of one’s craft is to silence the mind. In Buddhist teachings, the illustration is often used of allowing muddy water to settle to the bottom so that one can see clearly through the water. This analogy helps us to understand how action often interferes with gaining insight. Just as the dirt in the water cannot be cleared by doing something — the act of trying to clear the dirt keeps it from settling and clearing— one cannot begin to see their situation clearly if one is trying. This counterintuitive way towards clarity is called non-action.

Non-action is a resolve to do nothing — to allow the dust to settle. Whereas our impulse is to reactively do something to change the situation we are experiencing (be that anxiety, feelings of self-doubt, or fear), the approach of non-action is to just sit, allowing the dust to settle. The teacher Alan Watts would often say, “don’t just do something, sit there!”.

The first step towards a mindful awareness of our situation is to allow clarity to take place through non-action. For the next week, take ten minutes each day to sit quietly and accept the difficulty you are facing. This is the beginning of the process; to embrace the very thing with which we are struggling. Embracing the symptom means accepting that we have something to learn from our suffering, and that anxiety, doubt, or fear is a message from our bodies that we can listen to and learn from. We begin this process by accepting and doing nothing.

Musical Practice for Mindfulness

The next exercise aims to use music as means toward a more expansive, and more mindful, sense of self. This exercise does not require you to have any musical abilities or any level of proficiency on an instrument. The guiding principle that is often heard in expressive arts therapy is, “low technique, high expression." That principle will serve the beginner well in using music as a way towards mindfulness.

Choose an instrument. Pawnshops and classified listings offer instruments that are often lightly used at very reasonable prices. You might choose an instrument that you have always enjoyed listening to, such as the flute or the cello. Possibly you have always had a curiosity about the piano or the slide trombone. Maybe drums or singing has always felt like part of your personality? You could even make an instrument from found objects. Whatever the reason may be, choose an instrument that you feel a personal connection with or an interest in.

Begin by making sounds on the instrument. As you make sounds for the first time, focus your attention on the character of the tone itself (we call this the timbre or color of the tone). Is the tone smooth or harsh? Is it dark or bright sounding? Experiment with playing softly and loudly. Be aware of the contrasts you are making with pitch (high, medium, and low notes). Focus on listening for the moment at which the note begins and ends (the boundaries between sound and silence). This exercise of just playing will bring you into contact with the sounds you are making now.

Resist the tendency to judge yourself or to imagine what others might think. Do not judge, but simply observe. Be aware of the basic feeling tone that you encounter while playing (do you feel positive, neutral, or negative?). Spend time each day playing tones as part of your mindfulness practice.

Mindful meditation can be effective in helping us to become more authentic musicians. Music-making can help us to become more mindful of our experience of ourselves. Mindfulness and music are reciprocal and harmonious activities that can enhance one’s experience.