Although meditation has been around for millennia, many people, including musicians, are now trying it for the first time.
The term “meditation” covers a broad range of mental exercises used to focus the attention in a variety of ways. As musicians, we have a lot to gain by incorporating a meditation practice into our lives. Musicians face challenges that can make life more stressful and frustrating than life in an “average” career. A 2017 study found that musicians are up to three times more likely than the general population to suffer from depression, panic attacks and high anxiety. Contributing factors include exhaustion, financial instability, lack of recognition and the melding of identity with success. Since musicians are so vulnerable to mental health challenges, we need all the tools available to help us stay well.
I started meditating in graduate school when a number of stressors combined to overwhelm my regular strategies for maintaining my mental wellness. I was constantly worried. There was so much to do: classes to take and teach, papers to write, driving to nearby states to freelance with orchestras. I had never been so busy.
At the same time, I developed a persistent tingling in my pinkies, so I had started working with a neurologist and a chiropractor to try to save my ability to play my instrument. This worry and uncertainty landed me in a meditation class. That was where I first learned a simple breathing meditation that provided a break from my constant mental chatter and gave me an unfamiliar feeling of wellness and calm.
Since then, I’ve made meditation a part of my life routine. My practice involves both individual sessions and attending classes. I’m not a meditation teacher, but through my own study and practice I can see how useful meditation can be in the high-stress, high-stakes world of music performance. I’ve put together a beginner’s guide: If you’re feeling like you need some balance in your life, I encourage you to give it a try.
Common Meditation Misconceptions
First, I’d like to address a few common misconceptions about meditation.
- Meditation means thinking of nothing or completely emptying your mind of thoughts.
What every meditation practice has in common is that it focuses your attention on something specific. A mind with nothing to do will wander, so meditation gives your mind something to hang onto, like a sensation, image or question. When we meditate, we give the mind something to focus on in order to train it.
- Meditation is a quick fix for anxiety and it will immediately help improve performance.
Some benefits of meditation do appear quickly, but others – like staying calm during an audition – may take longer to manifest. Think of meditation as a skill, just like the ones you’ve built to become a musician. They improve with time and practice.
- Meditation will make me spacey.
The best musicians immerse themselves in the present moment when they play, and many meditations are concentration trainings that will improve this very skill. The more experienced you become, the better you will focus on demand.
- Meditation will make me lose my motivation and competitive edge.
Many meditations focus on kindness toward ourselves and others. A common reaction can be, “How will I feel motivated if I don’t beat myself up mentally? How can I compete if I don’t force myself to win?” Meditation does not make us lose all our wants and needs. But it may help to dissolve negativity, which distracts from the task at hand by making us feel tight and unhappy. In fact, this may give you a competitive advantage.
Developing a Meditation Habit
Developing a meditation practice is similar to learning a musical instrument. Anyone who has taught music has probably given this advice to a beginner: Practice consistently for the best results.
For many, it helps to pick a designated time for your daily practice. To make it stick, try combining it with other habits, such as meditating after breakfast or at the start of your music practice session. Then, make sitting down to meditate easy to do. The place where you meditate should be accessible and inviting. For example, try situating your meditation space in a place that you walk by to get to your coffee in the morning.
After that, you only need a few simple elements in place: a comfortable place to sit, relative quiet and, if you’re using guided meditations, access to your phone or computer. To meditate, sit on a cushion or on the chair you use to practice. A meditation posture is similar to what you use for playing or singing. Sit up tall, but as relaxed and as comfortable as possible.
Remember that starting a meditation routine is just like starting a musical practice. You may be used to practicing for hours a day now, but you didn’t begin that way. Small amounts of regular practice can go a long way. To get started, you can use guided meditations or, if you’re working on your own, you can set the timer on your phone. Try two minutes on the timer and see how it feels. From there, adjust for what feels comfortable. Remember that sometimes it’s easier to keep a habit going with friends, so check out your local meditation centers for more guidance and companionship.
Types of Meditation
There is a huge variety of meditation practices. Some focus on breathing, walking or analyzing a situation with a quiet mind. Some cultivate awareness, while others focus on a phrase, sound or image. There are as many varieties of meditations as there are types of physical exercise – so if you believe one type isn’t working for you, try another!
Below, I’ve included one sample meditation that musicians may find particularly useful. If you’re eager for more, here you can find recommendations for a variety of meditation apps, podcasts and books to assist you on your way.
It can be challenging to meditate when you’re backstage waiting to perform. But there may be no better time for it. Many musicians have a high level of energy before performing, but that energy can create worried thoughts and physical symptoms of anxiety.
Because this is such a challenging time to settle down, I believe one of the easiest types of meditations – counting the breath – is most useful. After all, keeping count is something musicians have to do even in times of high anxiety. This is an easy way to slow our heart rates and the speed of our thoughts.
- Sit comfortably with your spine long and extended. You can sit on a chair or on the floor with your legs crossed.
- I usually don’t recommend lying down for meditation, but since there is very little danger of falling asleep backstage, you might choose to lie on the floor. Consider putting a book under your head for support.
- Breathe in through your nose for four counts.
- Count at approximately one beat per second, or 60 beats per minute.
- Consider using your metronome set to a soft volume or just the blinking light.
- Hold the breath in your lungs full for four counts.
- Exhale through your mouth for four counts.
- Hold with your lungs empty for four counts.
- Repeat this four to six times, or until you feel calmer and steadier.
What would a musical life look like if everyone incorporated meditation into their lives? Let’s continue this conversation. I’d love to hear from you about your experience with meditation and what effect it has had on your life as a musician.