Music As Meditation

The longer I teach music, the more I see the depth and complexity of musical ideas and practice inherent in the fundamental act of making music. This seems to be true of all art and perhaps all knowledge. The elegance of truth is evident when a complex idea can be expressed simply, such as Einstein’s famous equation E=MCsquared. However, simple expressions of complex ideas often are opaque: The student can’t understand the depth of an idea until he or she has worked on the material for a long time. The seemingly elegant statement becomes a mere abstraction, a motivational slogan, what I call a “fortune cookie platitude.” In its simplicity it stops critical thinking rather than opens awareness to the complexities and wonders of reality.

In the practice of music this often translates into working on technique in a way that is chore-oriented, grunt work, putting in your 10,000 hours until you master your art. Jazz platitudes: “Practice it in all 12 keys.” “Memorize every Charlie Parker solo you can.” “Transcribe one solo every day.” Now go forth young acolyte and do the Lord’s work.

That’s all well and good, and for certain personality types it’s like a duck taking to water. But people are diverse and find different ways to get their creative spark on. I have noticed that the fortune cookie platitudes and the chore-oriented approach to practice can make us forget that we are making music all the time, with our bodies, with our minds, with our breath. This can make us less sensitive to the subtleties of musical practice.

So I encourage cultivating your own musical meditation. Whatever your instrument, your body is part of that instrument. Slow down when you pick it up, let yourself feel the connection to your instrument. Slow your breathing, open your ears. Let the first sounds you make be a chant that centers your attention. Let the distractions of the world and your life fall away. They will still be there when you come back. Breathe into that first note, don’t judge, don’t try to control it, don’t worry about what comes next.

More on this subject later.