Nuestras mentes están cargadas de emociones, constantemente aspirando mejorar nuestra situación ya sea escolar, profesional o familiar. Nos empujamos a conseguir diferentes resultados realizando lo mismo. ¿Podemos obtener un resultado distinto utilizando la misma fórmula? ¿Qué sería de nuestro día si sacaramos unos minutos para aquietar nuestra mente? ¿Existen herramientas que nos puedan facilitar externamente este proceso?
En español no conseguimos una palabra para traducir el término Mindfulness descrito por Jon Kabat-Zinn. Muchos proponen conciencia plena o atención plena, aunque en mí experiencia la describiría como mente centrada. Enfocarnos en la actividad que estamos realizando para provocar en nuestro entorno el mejor de los resultados. ¿Cómo puedo otorgarle a mis alumnos una herramienta que les ayude a recordar externamente el proceso por el que pasa su mente?
Observe con detenimiento un día en la vida de mi pequeña hija, la persona más feliz, alegre y agradecida de mi mundo. Comencé a preguntarme ¿Cómo puedo ser más como ella? Para ella desde los tres meses su juguete y sonido preferido es la sacudida de una botella con una tercera parte de agua. Estoy convencida de que este sonido la transporta a sus días en mí vientre, en el lugar más lleno de amor, paz y confianza que ella ha estado. Me cuestioné: ¿Será que todos podemos remontarnos a esos días? Inspirada por esto, decidí realizar el proyecto de botellas sensoriales seguras para ella. El notar que con tan sólo cinco meses ella es capaz de disfrutar de las botellas sensoriales me motivó a introducirlas en las clases de violín con mis estudiantes más jóvenes. Para mí sorpresa, las botellas sensoriales han sido muy gratificantes para todos los alumnos, padres y acompañantes de ellos. Ver los rostros de alegría, tranquilidad y satisfacción me dejó saber que algo estaba bien. Desarrollamos botellas pequeñas, ⅔ partes de agua, con algún color y brillo, y ⅓ parte de aceite para bebé. Crearlas con ellos inspiró cierto grado de pertenencia, al sentirlo propio lograron identificarse más con el resultado, y al final, viendo que algo tan pequeño era motivo de alegría terminé regalándoles la que cada uno había hecho, si después de todo, hacerlas es tan sencillo.
A la siguiente semana los alumnos reconocieron que el utilizar la botella sensorial como método de práctica le ayudó grandemente, incluso a incrementar los días de práctica, y a hacerla más divertida. La botella funcionó como agente externo que debían utilizar en caso de sentir alguna frustración con determinado pasaje. Debían sacudirla si no les salía, y mientras mayor la frustración mayor la sacudida. La meta era recordar que así como el agua y el aceite se mezclan formando burbujas con la sacudida, nuestra mente hace exactamente lo mismo cuando el estrés, la frustración, el miedo, la preocupación o la inseguridad toman posesión de nuestros pensamientos, haciendo nublado nuestro camino hacia el éxito. De esta manera lograron enfocarse en un objeto, reconocer que la emoción negativa no permitiría lograr el resultado deseado, y dejar ir este agente de distracción para alcanzar la meta.
We are excited to welcome eight new outstanding educators to the MBWP Teacher Certification Program. Each teacher participated in an initial, intensive workshop, and will spend the next year engaging in, learning about, and incorporating mindfulness into their life and work.
Kaitlyn Burke is the director of Choirs at Canyon Middle School in Castro Valley, CA. She grew up in Arlington, VA. She attended Florida State University where she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Education and is continuing her studies in the Summer Master’s Program at San Jose State University. She is excited to learn more about mindfulness and how to share it with others.
Zack Clark is a high school band and choir director from Bakersfield, California and a graduate student at San Jose State University. Outside of the classroom, he enjoys wood and metal working as well as fixing up and riding his motorcycles. Zack became interested in mindfulness after he attended a one-week workshop class led by MBWP founder Frank Diaz at San Jose State University. He hopes to incorporate mindfulness into his work as an educator and to help other teachers do the same.
Val Flamini is currently teaching and completing a Ph.D. in music education at Penn State. She has been performing, conducting and teaching primarily vocal/choral music for 20 years in Georgia and Pennsylvania. Meditation and yoga have been a practice for Val most of her adult life and she aims to encourage mindfulness practices in the field of music education.
Jenny Hoye is a middle school Chorus teacher from Harrisonburg, VA. She first became interested in mindfulness after enrolling in a summer elective course entitled “Mindfulness and Self Care for Helping Professionals” during her graduate studies at James Madison University. Since then, mindfulness has remained an important part of her classroom teaching and her own personal self care practices. She hopes to continue gaining more knowledge and experience in this area to share with other music educators and students.
Susan Keller teaches Health and Wellness at Edgewood Intermediate School in Bloomington, Indiana. She earned a Master of Science in Kinesiology from Indiana University, and is thrilled to be able to teach students about social-emotional health, which seems to be greatly ignored in the public school system. Susan is grateful for the her the opportunity to improve her knowledge and commitment to mindfulness through MBWP program.
Dr. Kevin Miescke serves as Instructor of Horn and Lecturer at the University of Nevada, Reno. In addition to regular solo and chamber music performances, Kevin is a founding member of the Skylark Horn Quartet, and with this group has premiered a new concerto for four horns with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, been featured with the Columbus Indiana Symphony Orchestra, and this summer will be traveling to Vietnam and Japan for performances and masterclasses. Kevin’s interest in mindfulness and meditation originated from a desire to gain more insight into performance-based anxiety for himself and his students, but now appreciates the impact these areas have on his life as a whole.
Emily Rodriguez holds a master’s degree in violin performance. Although originally from Puerto Rico, she currently runs a private string studio in Peru. Emily founded the International Society for the Arts (ISA), a non-profit organization devoted to help artists embody their full potential. She became interested in mindfulness after hearing a masterclass by MBWP founder Frank Diaz at the Violin and Viola Retreat at Indiana University. She loves to explore new ideas, concepts, and methods to help students become their very best, and has been implementing mindfulness into her classes since 2017.
Nick Roseth currently serves on the music education faculty at Indiana University Bloomington teaching undergraduate and graduates courses in music education. He became interested in studying mindfulness after an informal effort to practice meditation on his own proved to be beneficial. He hopes to develop mindfulness practices to improve his teaching and the quality of his life.
Dr. Eric Dickson is Assistant Professor of Music, teaching trumpet at Truman State University. Eric participated in the 5-day Mindfulness workshop at IU last summer and will be completing MBWP Teacher certification in July.
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.
A few months ago, you found me after class to talk about your racing mind. You shared your frustrations about lacking focus, feeling inadequate, and worrying about the future. I want you to know that I heard you. I want you to know that you are not alone, and that for a long time, I felt like this also. My response to you that day was awkward and unhelpful. It was late, and I was tired. If I could go back, I would tell you this …
Not too long ago, my mind was also rarely settled. No matter what I was doing, I was convinced the next thing would be better. Countless conversations and experiences passed me by. Deaths, births, marriages, graduations, meals, vacations, concerts, time with family and friends – everything came and went and I was barely there. When I experienced success, I sensed it was not enough. The next thing would be better. The next experience would finally bring me satisfaction, happiness, or a sense of self-worth.
Along with my dissatisfaction came a sense of existential insecurity. How was I going to make a living? What would people think of me? Anxious about the future and generally miserable, I tried everything I could to bury my distress. I read self-help books, exercised more, changed my diet, changed jobs, engaged in positive thinking, repressed my feelings, or simply escaped. Anywhere was better than here.
I don’t want to give you the impression that I have some ultimate answer, or that I am somehow beyond any of these things. I am human and still suffer from the same lack of focus, feelings of inadequacy, and anxiety about the future that many people feel. However, after many years of struggling with these issues, I decided on a different path. Rather than fight, I’ve come to accept my life is messy. Things aren’t always going to work the way I expect them to, and there, in learning to explore the part of me that creates expectations, is where things began to change for me.
As human beings, we have evolved to protect ourselves, seek happiness, and avoid suffering. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this. We take reasonable steps to care for and protect ourselves and our loved ones. We make goals and plan for the future. We seek meaning, positive experiences, love, worthwhile work, and opportunities to serve others. However, our minds can and often do deceive us. This happens when we become unreasonably fearful, feel threatened or overwhelmed, or are otherwise out of touch with our fundamental sense of self-worth. It can also happen when we lose sight of the world as it is – precarious, complex, and interconnected.
Under duress, and sometimes out of boredom, our minds convince us that what happens next will be better or more interesting than what is happening now. Other times, it convinces us that we must accomplish certain things, attain status, or please others in order to be fulfilled. When we look deeper, however, we realize that this function of the mind is not designed to be satisfied. How then, do we satisfy something that cannot be satisfied?
Humbly, I will offer some suggestions …
First, spend a few moments reconnecting with your basic sentience. With your sensations of breath, body, and environment. Cultivate a sense of gratitude for the improbable conditions that came together to create you, and for the poignancy of your impermanence. Our lives are finite and fundamentally beautiful. Who are you before the elaborate stories of who you should be enter your awareness? Consider the fundamental innocence, value, and potential of a child, animal, plant, or other living thing. This is in you also. What more do you truly need?
Next, consider your strengths, dispositions, skills, experiences, and what you’ve learned from failures and successes. This is your story. You do not need validation from anyone to recognize its value. When you teach, what do you bring to teaching that is unique to you? Maybe you have a wonderful intellect, or are an excellent communicator, or have a big, compassionate heart. What someone else brings to teaching is their business. There is no need to covet or judge, emulate or criticize. Be responsible for you.
When you make music, what is most natural to you? Maybe you are a great improviser, have wonderful technique, or are especially expressive. As a person, perhaps you are a wonderful listener, a loyal friend, or a good helper. These are your gifts, cultivated and sometimes granted. Decide if you want to engage the world from a space of psychological deficit or abundance. This is ultimately up to you. Don’t ever let anyone or anything take this choice away from you.
Finally, sift through the mud of unnecessary thoughts, unreasonable expectations, insecurities, grievances, and everything else that keeps you from being in the world, and join the living. Your gifts are ultimately all you will be able to offer anyway. Cultivate and give them freely without the need for validation. Maybe you will become conventionally successful and win that symphony job, earn teacher of the year, or record that critically-acclaimed album. Maybe you won’t. However, if you accomplish these things because of what others value, or because of unquestioned ideas about what you think might make you happy or fulfilled, then ask yourself if that is a life worth living? What happens when the clock runs out? When you realize you were absent from the life you we were given at the expense of an imagined life, one which may or may not have been any more fulfilling than what was always there in front of you.
Life is short, fleeting, and perfectly complete, don’t lose sight of that. And life, like you, is already enough.
Holly Brown is a third-year elementary band teacher in Connecticut. Ms. Brown teaches band to 4th and 5th students at three different schools within her district. She participated in the 5-day Mindfulness Workshop at IU and is currently enrolled in the MBWP Teacher Training Program.
Senior year of high school. Gym class. This was where my first introduction to meditation took place.
As seniors, we were given options about which gym units we would like to participate in. During one marking period, the options included yoga.
Most of my friends chose this option so I decided to go along with them and I had my first, albeit brief, introduction to the practice of meditation. While we just touched on the subject it was enough to make me intrigued.
Fast forward to my junior year of undergraduate studies. I was trying to tie up any loose ends I had missed in terms of general education credits and the physical education credit was one of the few I had left. I took a look to see which P.E. courses would fit into the crazy schedule of a music education major. My options were a badminton class that met from 7-9pm or tai chi class that magically met at 10am and did not conflict with any other music courses. I chose tai chi and unexpectedly had my second introduction to meditation.
We tried to have class outside as much as possible, however one day toward the end of the semester, we has a snow/sleet storm that caused us to go inside. The professor took this opportunity to dive a little deeper into meditation and had us complete an eating meditation. It took us 25 minutes to eat a raisin. I left the class wondering what I had just done. ‘Who takes 25 minutes to eat a raisin? Where did this professor get this from? How did this relate to the meditation practices I learned about in high school and had seen in the media? Etc.’ All these thoughts were racing through my head so I began to research.
While I continued to learn about meditation casually on my own, I started to hear the word mindfulness come up in my education courses and in conversation with professors and colleagues. I decided to take the initiative to see if anyone was doing research in the connections between mindfulness and music and ended up stumbling upon this very blog. I read anything and everything I could and subscribed so I could see when new content was added.
As a new teacher, I was learning all about the trials and tribulations of the education world. On top of that, I felt that while noticing the stressors in my own life I was also sympathizing with the stressors of my students because I was not far removed from those same stressors.I was trying to find some way to at least reduce the impact that it was having in my classroom.
In November 2016, I saw a tweet by Frank Diaz, a music professor at Indiana University, about a mindfulness workshop being hosted at IU the following July. I was thrilled about the prospect of learning from the person I had been following so I registered as soon as I could. I had no idea what I would encounter but I went in with the hope that it would give me ideas about how I could improve my teaching practice and my classroom environment. When July came around I boarded a plane bound for Indiana so I could finally have the chance to dive into mindfulness.
The week of studying was intense. It made me more aware of my thoughts, actions, and perceptions of myself and others, but also made me ruminate on those topics in a non-judgmental manner. It was new, challenging, and exciting at the same time. We started learning techniques and types of meditative practices. Then we would discuss how they could be incorporated pedagogically into our individual teaching settings. I was able to share my ideas and receive feedback in a comforting environment from educators with varying perspectives. In the end, I walked away feeling refreshed and excited about my new perspectives on teaching. I flew back to Connecticut and began a private practice routine and started finalizing plans on how to incorporate my new learning into my pedagogical repertoire.
While I am still learning and have had both success and missteps, in terms of implementation, the passion and intrigued that was ignited as a senior in high school has not diminished, but instead has grown. I am eager to continue to learn, grown, and see where this journey takes me and my students.
A guest blog on music and mindfulness by Dr. Lisa Martin. Dr. Martin participated in the 5-day Mindfulness workshop at IU this summer and is enrolled in the MBWP Teacher Training program. She is currently serving as Assistant Professor of Music Education at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate music education courses. Prior to her appointment at BGSU, she taught middle school band and orchestra for nine years in Illinois and Colorado. Her research interests include music teacher identity development, assessment practices in music education, and music teacher evaluation.
My journey toward openness started from a point of complete judgment.
And online dating.
I met him for coffee. We exchanged our life synopses, and when he began to speak of his deep passion for martial arts, I stifled the instinct to roll my eyes. Martial arts? No, thank you. I surely would not get on with someone who valued something like martial arts. It was needlessly violent, plus the Cobra Kai guys were douchebags.
Though I was struck by the passion with which he described his practice, its mindful components, and his deep respect for his Sensei, I was more put off than attracted by his interest. We finished our coffee and exchanged pleasant goodbyes. I agreed, “Yes, let’s do this again sometime.” I watched the words escape my mouth and knew they were not true. Martial arts was too weird of a thing. I never called him back.
A month later, the online dating gods delivered me yet another martial artist. Terrific, I thought. This one, though, was actually a Sensei himself, and our long conversations about his journey and practice as a teacher piqued my curiosity. After all, this guy shaped his whole life and career around martial arts, and the gravity of that felt uniquely significant. My aversion to martial arts evolved into an intense inquisitiveness. Maybe martial arts were worth exploring. Maybe I might impress this guy if I could punch things. Maybe I could at least try it.
I found a nearby dojo and set up my first class.
I walked into the dojo, and Sensei greeted me with boundless, charismatic joy. The other students were smiling, chatting, greeting each other with respectful bows and hugs as they prepared themselves for class. The energy in the room was bright and calm all at once. My nerves and skepticism yielded to a curious sense of peace and openness.
And I began to study martial arts.
As someone who feels relatively athletic and coordinated, I was humbled by how the practice challenged both my body and mind. I gave myself up to the practice from the first moment, becoming wholly engaged. Perhaps the most significant aspect of that first evening, however, was how class began – not with a warm-up, not with stretching, but by sitting.
Sitting. Completely. Still.
I could not recall the last time I pressed pause on the world swirling around me. I wish I could say it was comfortable, but comfort implies ease, and I struggled to keep my mind clear and focused on my breath. Over the several minutes our class meditated, I perhaps experienced only a few moments of stillness. But those few, brief moments? They were completely exceptional.
What was it about the act of stillness that brought me such peace? Could I do this more often? Could I turn those moments into minutes? Could being still make some difference in my life that, until now, I was not even aware I craved?
As I continued to study martial arts, my interest in mindfulness and meditation evolved. In our dojo, stilling our minds was as much of a focus as developing our bodies. At first, I practiced only with my class, but over time, I found myself sneaking mini meditations into my daily life. I was not sure I was doing it “right,” or “enough,” but it certainly made me feel more at peace with myself, so I kept doing it.
And though I was introduced to mindfulness in a classroom of sorts, it never occurred to me that I might pull mindful practices into my own classroom. Through some late-night Internet rabbit-holing, I stumbled upon a summer workshop on mindfulness-based wellness and pedagogy for musicians offered at Indiana University Bloomington.
I signed up immediately.
As a music teacher educator, I was fascinated by the opportunity to discover how I might meaningfully pull mindfulness into not only my classroom but also into the culture of my department. Musicians experience the gamut of unique, intense pressures and demands on time. How could I develop my own personal practice while also learning how to share mindfulness with my students and colleagues? And there was so very much to share – the pause, the stillness, the clarity, the awareness, the openness, the absence of judgment, the measured calm, the wonder. I felt such gratitude for each of these evolving dimensions within my presence of mind, and with that gratitude came a pure desire to give.
The workshop was the most satisfying kind of intense, and I went home each day somehow feeling both exhausted and refreshed. We explored and practiced foundational elements of mindful practice, challenging ourselves to tackle the uncomfortable and unfamiliar with loving kindness. We learned how to connect with our breath and our bodies, cultivating an understanding how, with time and practice, mindful states might yield to more established traits within ourselves, shaping our approach to the world around us. We engaged in various types of mindful practice – cultivating our awareness, deepening our self-compassion, and exploring difficult emotions.
Throughout the workshop, we considered how we might apply these practices in music teaching and learning, journaling about our experiences and connecting our wonderments to the classroom by developing lesson ideas and contemplating various pedagogical approaches. In doing so, it became apparent just how much judgment could exist in a classroom. How could I reshape my approach to cultivate a generation of music teachers that were more open, more curious, more willing to be vulnerable?
When the following fall semester began, I was eager to find out.
What is perfection? If someone asked you to describe your own idea of perfection, what would you say?
For many musicians, ideas about perfection lie on some continuum between internally imposed and externally influenced idealizations about musical competency. Furthermore, these idealizations are by definition abstractions rather than the thing itself. The perfect note, phrase, or performance does not actually exist outside of our own relative notions of what perfection is and should sound like. Despite this, many musicians spend an enormous amount of energy pursuing perfection, becoming obsessed to the point of harming their own physical and mental health.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are practicing a passage from an incredibly difficult piece. Also, imagine that your practice session is going well, and that you are accomplishing some of your goals. As the passage gets better and better, you become aware of your internal dialogue. It might sound something like this …
“Wow, that came out well, wasn’t expecting that. Feeling pretty happy about my playing right now.”
If you are a perfectionist though, this temporary burst of happiness will be short lived, and it won’t be long before you start to think like this …
“Yeah, that was good, but (insert incredible musician here) can play it faster, cleaner, and with a much better sound.”
Then the real difficulties begin.
“Wow, even after all that work, I still don’t sound as good as … What if this happens everyday? What if I still sound like this next week? I’ll probably never win a job, or get invited to the next gig, or … everyone will think I suck. What’s wrong with me?”
If this sounds familiar, then you are also probably acquainted with what usually happens next, in which our anger, self-loathing, or apathy pretty much derail any of our attempts at meaningful improvement. Even with the best intentions for a great practice session, it is difficult and often impossible to escape our own unexamined notions of perfection, especially when they are the primary motivational force behind our actions and desires.
In the end, despite whatever progress you think you might have made, nothing can ever be perfect, so it becomes impossible to appraise your situation as anything other than inadequate. For many, this assessment triggers an unending stream of negative thoughts and emotions. Unfortunately, since perfection is something that we can neither attain nor ultimately control, there is no way to stop this line of rumination.
So what’s the problem? Well, while goals and aspirations are a natural and even healthy part of our development as musicians, an unhealthy obsession with the future puts us at odds with the only thing that we ever really have any knowledge or control of. And that of course, is the present moment. Ironically, our very obsession with the future blinds us to what may be actually occurring, and without knowing where we are, musically or otherwise, it is pretty difficult to chart a useful course to somewhere else. Mindfulness, with its emphasis on examining our immediate experience in an open and non-judgmental manner, provides us with a way of looking at our experience in a more honest, healthy, and direct way.
Let’s examine an alternative approach to our obsession with perfection. What if we took the time to pause and reflect on our immediate experience in an open and non-judgmental way? One way to approach this is to be mindful of the goals, processes, environments, and methods of evaluation that we use in engaging in and assessing our own practice. How often do we pause to question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what we want out of our experience? Rather than approaching our practice mindlessly, without examining the nature or efficacy of the dispositions that we bring into the practice room, how can we examine our situation in a more honest and less reactive way?
In a previous blog post, I suggested that creating and referencing a list of reflective questions before, during, and after practice might serve as a useful means of cultivating mindfulness. What was not addressed, however, was a way of slowing down enough to induce a state conducive to reflection. Specifically, reflection that allows for a realistic but non-reactive assessment of the processes and progress that may occur during practice, and which, while not denying the need and benefits of clear goals and aspirations, allows us the opportunity to examine what is before us rather than obsessing with what might be. Indeed, this obsession of what might be, especially when unrealistic and when coupled with damaging self-criticism, is precisely what characterizes unhealthy levels of perfectionism.
Inducing this state is difficult however, and as I have noted in my own practice and in conversations with other musicians, attaining a mindful or reflective state may require some degree of physiological scaffolding for many people. Recently, I have been experimenting with incorporating breathing exercises before engaging in mindfulness activities, both within my own practice as well as when facilitating group and individual sessions. Interestingly, there is emerging research suggesting that how we breathe may have a measurable and significant effect on how we process memory and emotions, and thus engaging in these practices may have more than just anecdotal support.
Below, I offer my own adaptation of the popular 4-7-8 breathing exercise, coupled with a mindfulness exercise that can be used to facilitate a more contemplative state. The 4-7-8 exercise has been promoted by complementary and alternative health practitioners for a number of years, and it has been encouraging to see some research supporting its potential efficacy as a means of giving us some control over our physiological state. Whether used alone or in conjunction with reflective questioning, I believe this practice may help alleviate some of the unnecessary rumination caused by the kind of unhealthy perfectionistic obsessions experienced by many musicians, as it puts us square in the middle of the only thing we can ever really experience or have any direct control over – the quality of our present moment.
Breathing Preparation for Mindfulness
Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Make sure body is fluid and flexible to allow for deep, unobstructed breathing. Take four to five breaths using the following pattern …
A couple of years ago, I received an invitation to present on the topic of music and mindfulness for a symposium featuring some preeminent researchers. One of these scholars was none other than Richard Davidson, author of The Emotional Life of the Brain, and head of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Richardson’s work touches on a number of fascinating subjects, but he is perhaps best know for his studies on meditation and its relationship to wellbeing. I could go on and on about Dr. Davidson’s contributions to the field of neuroscience, meditation research, and more, but suffice it to say that this is someone whose work has had a significant impact on how we think about the brain, emotions, wellbeing, along with a range of other topics.
I was – not surprisingly, incredibly honored and more than a little bit anxious about the prospect of speaking at the same venue as an academic superstar. Additionally, the venue itself proposed interesting challenges, being structured as a symposium about mindfulness that was open to everyone from academics to the general public. In preparing for this talk, I wondered what to say about my work that might be compelling for this type of audience. Specifically, I asked myself what fundamental questions or curiosities drive my scholarship, hoping to discover something salient to base an engaging narrative upon. While it was difficult to come up with a definitive “why”, I think presenting brought me much closer to identifying what it is that fascinates me, and perhaps, by fleshing out some of these thoughts and questions, it might help explain why I believe this line of inquiry is so interesting and engaging for me.
When I tell people that I do research on attention, more often that not, I receive quizzical, indifferent, or even moderately contemptuous looks. This is understandable. We take attention for granted, since from the moment we wake up, our experience is nearly instantly and automatically populated by perceptions, thoughts, sensations, emotions, and a host of other “stuff” that helps us feel like an “I” with a sense of time and psychological continuity. Sometimes, we choose to relegate some of this content to the foreground of our experience, using it as a means for rumination, meaningful action, emotional regulation, or simply exploration. Other times, the content chooses us. Either way, this experience of focusing on something at the exclusion of other things – whether chosen or not, is what we commonly refer to as “paying attention.”
This experience is so ubiquitous that for many people, it warrants nothing further than the recognition that it exists. However, when this capacity leads us into unexpected territory, such as when we are surprised by the content of our focus, or as is often the case, unable to summon it at will, we are reminded of how much power this particular faculty has over the quality of our everyday experience. When the object or subject of our attention is something that we respond to with pleasure, joy, or curiosity – whether we chose it or not, then we are happy to sustain it there for as long as possible. However, when the opposite happens, and we are unable to purposefully move away from negatively colored or distracting thoughts, then the quality of our experience suffers, perhaps leading us to wonder if we are truly at the mercy of our inability to attend, or if there might be something that we can do to help promote a better outcome.
To add to this dilemma, the nature of attention is surprisingly complex. From a neuroscientific perspective, focus, or what we commonly refer to as “paying attention”, is only one of many ways in which attention functions. According to the work of neuroscientists Michael Posner and Steven Petersen, the human attention system can be divided into three functional subsystems; orienting, conflict monitoring, and alertness. In Posner and Petersen’s model, orienting describes attention to a specific target or set of targets at the expense of others, conflict monitoring is what occurs when we prioritize among competing tasks or stimuli, and alerting consists of our ability to maintain a state of vigilance. If you’re wondering how all of this relates to music, then perhaps a little detour might be in order. For the sake of illustration, let’s examine what a musician might experience during the course of a typical ensemble rehearsal.
As a musician rehearses, her awareness is flooded with an ongoing and varying stream of musically and non-musically related thoughts, perceptions, and experiences. Either by choice, chance, or conditioning, this stream is often further divided into a hierarchy consisting of percepts that require focused and immediate attention, as well as percepts that don’t. For example, it might be necessary for a musician to focus singularly on matching pitch during a particular passage, causing them to purposefully ignore or at the very least suppress other important musical cues and processes that may be happening at the same time. In other contexts, musicians may need to switch between a number of equally important and competing processes, such as attending to a conductor, monitoring the quality and volume of their own sound, listening for stylistic nuances, and looking ahead in preparation for a difficult passage. Finally, there are just times when a musician simply needs to be vigilant, allowing the ebb and flow of what occurs in their environment to dictate what is necessary in each particular moment.
While it is obvious to me that attention plays a significant role in how we process all of this, I am more compelled by examining how the relative quality of our attention, including our ability to control it, affects our overall appraisal of these experiences, both in time and after the fact. This fundamental curiosity about the role of attention in musical processing is perhaps one of the main reasons I became interested in mindfulness and its relationship to music. We know, for example, that mindfulness helps to modify attention, and in turn, improves not only the efficacy of specific cognitive functions, but also the subjective quality of everyday experiences. Often, the two go hand in hand, in that a specific cognitive improvement leads to a heightened sense of subjective wellbeing, perhaps because like many thinkers have already alluded to, the parsing of the cognitive and emotional domains of life are more of a convenient semantic tool than an accurate description of reality – if such a thing exists!
If this is the case, it leads me to wonder how enhancing these attentional faculties might affect our ability to perform, experience, think about, and otherwise interact with music. Even more importantly, would these enhancements matter, and if so, to whom and in what context? This relationship between mindfulness, music listening, attention, and flow was the topic of one of my initial investigations as a researcher in the field of music education, and while I would describe the results of this particular study as highly speculative and in need of replication, the results did hint at some kind of change in both the focus and subjective quality of musicians’ listening experiences due to mindfulness.
While none of my studies about music and mindfulness have left me with definitive conclusions, they have provided me with a number of new questions, and what I believe are worthwhile avenues of exploration. Years later, these questions continue to fascinate me as I explore new avenues of research, along with new ways of working with this information as a teacher and musician.
Diaz, F. M. (2013). Mindfulness, attention, and flow during music listening: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music, 41(1), 42-58.
Petersen, S. E., & Posner, M. I. (2012). The attention system of the human brain: 20 years after. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 73.
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 …
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.
Earlier this spring, after years of research and personal practice, I decided to finally put my thoughts together and offer a mindfulness-based class on teaching and wellness. The class is modeled after the popular 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed at the Massachusetts General Hospital, with readings, practices, and discussions designed specifically for teachers. If you’re interested in learning more about how these types of classes work, there are hundreds of online resources you can find through a basic Google search. There are even MBSR classes available for free, although I have not yet found a free one designed specifically for teachers.
For those of you unfamiliar with MBSR type programs, I think it would be helpful to describe some of the basics of this class. First, the students are exposed to videos, articles, and other media relating to the science and practice of mindfulness. Each week’s content is tied to a specific topic and practice in the 8-week MBSR sequence. Each weekly unit also introduces a foundational formal practice, such as sitting meditation, body scans, and yoga, paired with what are called “informal practices”. The informal practices are mostly about applications of mindfulness in teaching and learning. Finally, the class meets once a week to debrief and discuss each unit’s content and practices.
The overall sequence of the course starts with practices designed to increase awareness and attention, followed by strategies for dealing with reactivity, stress, and negative emotions, and concludes with methods for improving interpersonal relationships. We are currently a little over half way through the course, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of my impressions so far.
Heightened awareness can be therapeutic
It is interesting to see what happens when we refine our awareness and come face-to-face with our often reactive and unfocused habits of mind. Many teachers in the class were simply shocked at the amount of time they spend mindlessly reacting to situations, engaging in negative self-talk, and “going through the motions”. While this realization was uncomfortable at first, some teachers have started to comment on the value of just being open to their experience in a more direct and less judgmental way. Many have noted that allowing thoughts to surface, rather than suppressing them, has helped them shift to a more curious rather than reactive disposition. This has allowed them to be more present for others, as they are not overly involved in their internal dialogues and reactions.
Learning what we can and can’t control is difficult
I’ve written before about the pitfalls of well-intended perfectionism. While there is certainly nothing wrong with having high standards, having impossible standards and then beating ourselves up when we don’t reach these standards can lead to tremendous and often unnecessary suffering. In mindfulness, we learn to see the world the way it is rather than how we think it should be. It’s not that we don’t strive to make things better for ourselves and others, it’s that we decouple our intentions from our expectations. We can strive for better while knowing that there is very little in the world that is completely under our control. For some students in the class, it has been difficult to let go of expectations about what they think they should be getting from these practices. Some have expressed feelings of failure when things haven’t gone exactly how they imagined. Of course, real changes take time, and there is no way to “get ahead” in mindfulness. In a world in which we are used to instant gratification and the illusion of control, grappling with our own limitations can be both difficult and immensely liberating.
The space to choose is powerful
We should be grateful for those habits that we have cultivated purposefully, especially when they benefit ourselves as well as others. However, many of our mental habits, including unchecked reactions, anxieties, and fears, often lead to unnecessary suffering and delusions about reality. The practice of mindfulness is all about giving yourself the mental space to notice these reactions as they arise, examine their triggers, and over time, increase your capacity to choose your actions. This begins with the simple act of being present and allowing some space between your internal reactions and what follows. One teacher remarked that after a few weeks of practice, he began to notice the swell of physiological activity that would occur during difficult teaching situations, and how the simple act of noticing gave him space to choose wiser and more compassionate actions. This mental “gap”, which is actively cultivated during mindfulness, is perhaps one of the most powerful outcomes of the practice.
Group discussions are tremendously therapeutic
It has been incredibly inspiring to witness the therapeutic effect of providing teachers with the space to come together and discuss their difficulties, insights, and triumphs in a safe and nurturing environment. There is something powerful about knowing that we are not alone in our suffering and insecurity, and conversely, that there is joy to be found in the success of others.
Every little bit helps
As expected, many teachers have been unable to consistently complete all of the readings and practices required for the class. Despite this, it appears that even small amounts of practice have been beneficial. This makes me hopeful for the efficacy of these types of programs, as we all know how difficult it can be for teachers to find enough time in their schedule for regular practice. In the coming weeks, I hope you’ll come back and learn about some of the teaching related practices we are exploring in the class. Over time, it is my hope to develop a specific set and sequence of practices that might be beneficial for teachers on a limited schedule, or for those who simply want to explore these practices on a more ad-hoc basis. While there is of course, no substitute for regular practice, even limited practice might be beneficial for those interested.