Unexpected Mindfulness

Dr. Eric Dickson is Assistant Professor of Music, teaching trumpet at Truman State University and a certified MBWP teacher.

Before starting my current position at Truman State University, I spent several years as a freelance musician and educator in the Indianapolis area. Living an hour south of Indy in Bloomington meant that I spent a LOT of time in the car driving from gig to gig and from lesson to lesson. To help pass the time, I listened to a lot of audiobooks, and was always on the lookout for something interesting.

One day, I stumbled upon Mindfulness for Beginners by John Kabat-Zinn. I’ve been interested in the mental side of music since my undergraduate studies, reading (and rereading) books like Zen in the Art of Archery, The Inner Game of Tennis, and Effortless Mastery, and I thought mindfulness might prove useful in performance. When I started listening, I was immediately hooked, not so much by what Kabat-Zinn had to say (although it was pretty cool), but by the way he said it. He delivered everything with a matter-of-fact nonchalance that really struck me. It reminded me of something a former professor said: “People don’t scream about the things which they themselves know to be absolute.” (Imagine a maniac running around, frantically screaming about the impending sunrise tomorrow morning…) I figured, if this guy is this confident about this mindfulness stuff, maybe he’s on to something.

My fortuitous stumbling continued a few years later when I came across the Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning seminar at the IU Jacobs School of Music. Here was an opportunity to integrate these techniques directly into music, without the need to translate concepts from some other discipline. And while I went into the seminar searching for ways that I could integrate mindfulness into my own performing as well as my teaching (maybe I could help my students avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced as a young musician), I’m happy to say I found that and so much more. In fact, perhaps the most profound impact on my teaching has come in the most unexpected place: my jazz appreciation course.

After taking the seminar, I was excited to incorporate mindfulness into my syllabus. I began by replacing online listening quizzes with a number of in-class “mindful listening activities” throughout the semester. After leading students in a breath awareness exercise for a few minutes, I play a jazz recording. When the music starts, students shift the focal point of their awareness from the breath to the music, while continuing to non-judgmentally observe their thoughts. Their only instruction once the music stops is to write about their experience: “Tell me where your thoughts take you today.” The responses have been fascinating: some students choose to write about the music, some describe a scene from a movie (oddly enough, they all tend to describe the same movie), and others write about how they can’t stop thinking about tests, homework, lunch, or the speeding ticket they got on the way to campus that morning.

In a larger assignment, students listen to 20 minutes of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, and then write two to three pages about their experience. Reading these reaction papers has quickly become the highlight of my semester! Most are variations on a theme: they hated the first five minutes, but as they continued to listen, they began to find order in the chaos. In fact, many responses are first-rate descriptions of what the avant-garde is all about: throwing out musical structure and evoking a visceral response from the listener. By bringing a little more openness and a little less judgment to their experience, students have been more receptive to the music, and less likely to dismiss it as just “noise.”

For non-majors, having to speak intelligently about music can be as daunting as learning a foreign language. I have found that these activities help students really hear music without having to sift through thoughts like “am I doing this right?” or “I don’t know what I’m supposed to hear.” By allowing themselves to focus on what they can hear instead of what they can’t, most find that they already know more about music than they thought they did. Consequently, they’re more willing to offer their own opinions about the music we listen to in class. More importantly, though, my hope is that, by cultivating a little mindfulness throughout the semester, these students can get a glimpse into how their thoughts function, in a way that will positively impact their day-to-day lives. Perhaps, like me, they’ll be happy they stumbled into mindfulness as well.

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