Meditation for Musicians

Deep Listening is a form of meditation. Attention is directed to the interplay of sounds and silences or the sound/silence continuum. Sound is not limited to musical or speaking sounds, but is inclusive of all perceptible vibrations.

– Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening 

Although I’ve been curious about meditation for my entire adult life, I didn’t settle into a regular practice until recently. For years I thought I was too distractible, and I avoided sitting with challenging thoughts and feelings. Over two years ago, I committed to a daily meditation practice (sessions anywhere from 1 to 40 minutes), which has provided profound benefits along the way, including: 

  • Calming the stress response
  • Increased focus (especially for practice and performance)
  • Processing difficult thoughts and emotions
  • Deeper listening
  • Decreased urges to indulge in bad habits
  • Increased peace and well-being

Thanks to the power of technology, starting a meditation practice has never been easier. 

Watch this two-minute video, “How to train your monkey mind” with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche: 

Concentration Vs. Insight

Meditation practices are often divided into two categories, concentration and insight.

  • Concentration meditation asks us to focus our attention on a single point, like the sensation of breath or a mantra.  
  • Insight meditation (also known as Vipassana or mindfulness) is the awareness of moment by moment sensations, sensory and/or emotional.

I find both practices useful—it takes some experimentation to find a practice that resonates. 

To get started, jump into a one-minute meditation by Tara Brach, a leading Western teacher of Buddhist meditation.

I also highly recommend the free Insight Timer app. You can check out guided meditations from many teachers, and sort by length and topic. 

State Shifting

A meditation practice has taught me that we don’t have to be held hostage the whims of our moods and thoughts. We have some control over our state of consciousness. Meditation practices can calm our nervous system, reduce stress, and turn down the volume of our inner monologue. 

The most immediate benefit is down-regulating our nervous system. You are probably familiar with the “flight, fight, freeze” response, which is our sympathetic nervous system. Because our ancient brain hasn’t adapted to modern times, “fight, flight, freeze” activates during situations that aren’t actually dangerous, like hearing criticism, public speaking, or performing in front of an audience.

We also have a complementary system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), known as “rest and digest.” Specific physical and mental practices can help us activate the PNS. As performing artists, this profoundly helpful for calming our nerves and centering before a performance. It also helps us access free-flowing creative states for composition/improvisation.

Deep and slow breathing sends a signal to our brain that we are not being attacked by a predator, which has a calming effect on our state. 

Here is a short practice for activating the PNS:

  1. Sit or stand in a tall yet relaxed position, or lie down flat on your back.
  2. Inhale deeply for six slow counts, filling the belly and chest from the bottom up (diaphragmatic breaths).
  3. Exhale for six counts, focusing on the physical sensation.
  4. Repeat five times (only a slight pause when full and empty).
  5. Let your breath resume its natural rhythm.
  6. Scan through your body and release tension, particularly in areas of habitual tension, perhaps the brow, jaw, shoulders, hands, belly, and/or feet.
  7. Bring a slight smlie to you mouth and visualize the image of a smile spreading through your body

Activating the PNS is a foundation for pre-performance centering for athletes and musicians. (I highly recommend Dr. Noa Kageyama’s online performance psychology course at The Bulletproof Musician.)  

In addition to calming our nervous system, meditation practice also slows the rate of brainwaves, helping move from of “beta” waves of conscious thinking, to the relaxed and free association of “alpha” waves, and eventually the dreamlike state of “theta” waves.

Abby Maker, Well+Good

Attention Training

The practice of directing our attention is a game changer for performance, or any activity that requires concentration. Focus has always been a weakness of mine, at times I can be totally absorbed in a task, but I’m often distracted or daydreaming–sometimes on gigs! Meditation has helped be more present, focused, and a better listener.

During a concentration meditation, we direct our attention toward a single target. This is commonly the breath, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a link to a wonderful meditation by Jack Kornfield that anchors our attention to sound.

When your mind naturally wanders, gently bring your attention back to the target. A helpful analogy is a workout routine—one “rep” of meditation is re-directing your attention back to the point of focus. Over time, this can induce a deep state of tranquility.

One application of this practice is transforming technical fundamentals into a calming ritual. For example, playing long tones on a wind instrument is an essential part of tone development, but so many players skip them because they’re “boring.” Identifying a sensory target gives our monkey mind something to focus on while warming up. I ask my students to focus on the vibration of the saxophone on their fingers, or listen for harmonics within the timbre of the tone. While this doesn’t make long tones novel or exciting, the practice is much more satisfying.

Attention training also helps us shift from “practice mode” to “performance mode.” Dr. Noa Kageyama, who teaches performance psychology at Juilliard, says, “your self-monitor is your best friend when you’re practicing, and your worst enemy when performing. So in order to get better at ‘performance mode,’ you’ll have to practice turning the self-monitor off from time to time.” Meditation can help us flip the switch.

Processing Difficult Emotions

One challenge of meditation is sitting with difficult thoughts and emotions that bubble up. However, I was delighted to discover hybrid meditation techniques that helped me effectively embrace and work through (rather than avoid) uncomfortable emotions.

Tara Brach and Rick Hanson are two Western meditation teachers with PhDs in clinical psychology. Their practices of blending meditation practice with Western psychology are transformative.

Dr. Rick Hanson’s powerful positive neuroplasticity technique of linking.

Dr. Tara Brach’s RAIN Practice for processing difficult emotions with self-compassion.

So many artists struggle with fear, shame, guilt, and imposter syndrome. If you struggle with these feelings, I hope the above practices help.

Finally, I’d like to share a poster I saw at a high school in Seattle:

Please share your favorite meditation resources in the comments.