Meditation for Musicians – A basic guide

I am often approached by musicians who are interested in learning more about how mindfulness can benefit their work. I’ve written extensively about the subject in blogs, articles, and other mediums, but have never put the basics down in any comprehensive and accessible manner. For those interested, here is the “handout” I’ve always promised. I hope it serves as a useful introduction to this wonderful practice.

What is mindfulness?

A dispositional trait or state characterized by a present-moment, non-judgmental attitude towards experience. The trait can be cultivated through practices designed to refine attentional, emotional, and interpersonal self-regulation. Motivations and goals for practice are often derived from secular and religious ethical frameworks that emphasize personal and interpersonal wellbeing.

How do I practice?

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, however, most practices include three basic processes. These include, (1) regulating your attention such that it is focused deliberately on experiences occurring in the present moment, (2) adopting an attitude of curiosity and non-attachment to everything that arises in your attentional field, and (3) reorienting your attention back to your desired object of focus when you get distracted.

What are the benefits of practice?

Research increasingly suggests that individuals who engage in long-term and consistent mindfulness practice experience improved cognition, less stress, heightened creativity, increased wellbeing, and improved interpersonal relationships.

How long should I practice?

Even minimal practice, as short as 15 minute sessions, can produce noticeable and measurable changes in some individuals. However, benefits from this type of abbreviated practice do not last long and do not usually lead to stabilized benefits. The best way to practice is to find a group or teacher and commit to a consistent schedule. However, if this is not possible, even a little bit of practice can result in short-term benefits.

How can I incorporate mindfulness into my work as a musician?

As a musician, practicing mindfulness before practicing, performing, composing, improvising, and even teaching can yield great cognitive, emotional, creative, and interpersonal benefits. However, many people give up on practicing too soon because like any skill, cultivating and applying mindfulness takes time and consistent practice.

For musicians, I often recommend three ways to practice. One involves engaging in a formal sitting or moving (ex. Yoga or Tai-Chi) exercise 10-15 minutes before a musical activity, such that there is the possibility of a carry over effect from the state developed during practice to the activity itself. Another involves the incorporation of mindfulness principles into warm-ups or similar musical activities. For example, using breathing or the actual sounds of a warm-up (pitch, timbre, rhythm, etc.) as a focus of attention, you can practice mindfulness by deliberately focusing on a chosen sound or sensation, maintaining a curious or neutral disposition to everything that arises during your attempts to focus, and gently reengaging with your focus when you become distracted. Finally, I recommend that musicians find a meditative modality that works for them outside of musical contexts. These can involve formal meditation practices like yoga and tai-chi, centering prayer, or anything else they feel comfortable with. Even running and exercising can become a means for mindfulness when approached creatively.

Can you recommend a basic practice?

Use the practice below as a starting point. Once you learn the principles, you can apply these processes to anything – making music, washing dishes, etc. The ultimate goal is to transfer the benefits derived from a mindful state to different aspects of your life. Many individuals find this reorientation to experience to be both liberating and invigorating, reconnecting them to something fundamental about their humanness that they feel is integral to their wellbeing and experience of life.

A basic practice … 

  • Find a comfortable chair and a place where you can be undisturbed for 10-15 minutes.
  • Sit tall but relaxed.
  • Place your hands on your lap or in a comfortable position.
  • You may keep your eyes open or closed.
  • Focus on the natural ebb and flow of your breathing. Do not try to change anything about it, just notice the physical sensations of your breath. Do this for a couple of minutes.
  • Take three deep breaths through your nose or mouth.
  • Allow every physical sensation and association to arise without interference.
  • As these sensations and associations arise, rather than push them away, simply notice them and label them as they enter your focus of attention. For example, “feeling tension in my stomach”, “my hands are sweaty”, “feeling anxious”, “feeling happy”, etc.
  • Remind yourself that regardless of what arises in your mind, your thoughts are simply that, thoughts. Cultivate an attitude of curiosity or neutrality as these thoughts arise.
  • Do not fixate on any sensation or association. Instead, acknowledge each experience, label it, and return your attention to your breath for as long as possible. You can also substitute the focus on breath for a musical sound, a physical sensation, a mental picture …
  • Continue the exercise for about 10 minutes or for as long as possible. Setting an alarm is helpful, as it will let you focus on the exercise rather than on time.
  • Declare an intention to bring this quality of openness and curiosity to what ever your next activity is.
  • Repeat this exercise daily and consistently, and extend for longer periods as needed or as you become more able to stay in a state of practice.

Some links and resources

Here is a link to a twenty minute guided mindful body scan from the Center for Mindfulness at UC San Diego. This is very helpful for those who find it hard to structure their practice independently, or who need some help getting started. I use it as part of my Teaching and Wellness class to get students started with their mindfulness practice.

A nice introduction to mindfulness practice in a 60 Minute Session with Anderson Cooper. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t like Anderson Cooper?

A great book to get you started. Jon-Kabat Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living.

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