The concepts of breathing and progressive relaxation were discussed here and here and are foundational for the next concept addressed here: meditation. So if you haven’t read and worked through those yet, go ahead and do that before continuing. While each of these concepts can be exercised independently, they are most effective when used together and understood as influencing each other. The overall goal for these concepts is to achieve a state of relaxed concentration; one in which our minds and bodies are communicating without excess noise or tension.
Even though we frequently associate the word “relaxation” with our physical condition, it’s good to remember that relaxation is also a state of mind; practicing the habit of relaxed concentration includes cultivating an awareness of the power of the mind. Meditation is one of the most common methods of developing relaxation from a cognitive perspective. The purpose of meditation is to achieve a level of mental clarity in which life can be appreciated fully as it unfolds—moment by moment.(footnote 1) Meditation is an age-old, effective treatment for a host of anxiety disorders—it increases awareness of inner and outer environments and acceptance of factors that are out of a person’s control.(footnote 2) A modern approach to meditation is one that passively directs anxiety-producing thoughts to something non-stimulating, such as a mantra or an image, in order to facilitate a state of relaxation. The purpose is to bring the body and mind to a place of unity in which things can be experienced in the moment they occur; this, in turn, relaxes the body. Meditation in the context of musicianship increases the connection between a musician’s mind and body, shows them how to become aware of their thoughts before and during the times they are playing, and ultimately allows them to calmly direct their mental and physical being at will.
So let’s give this a try. First, choose a mantra. This is helpful for two reasons: first, the mantra offers a concrete way for us to connect with the exercise (which is also great when practicing this concept with younger students who haven’t yet developed their abstract thinking), and second, research has proven that using a one- or two-syllable word mantra is beneficial as it blocks most of the signals from the brain to muscles, resulting in a quieter physical state.(footnote 3) Directing our focus to a neutral word rather than on the swirling thoughts and emotions that often surround stressful situations is a tangible way to begin the process of transferring something negative into something positive.
In preparation, find a comfortable place to sit, then take a few deep breaths like the ones described in the breathing article. Next, recall your chosen one- or two-syllable mantra. It could be something like “shhhh,” “ahhhhh,” “mmmmm,” or “ooooooh-ahhhh.” With eyes open, inhale deeply and slowly to the count of three, then exhale while articulating your mantra. Think “Inhale, one-two-three, exhale 'ah'-two-three.” Repeat this as many times as it takes for you to begin to feel a connection between your physical breathing, your mantra, the clarity of your mind, and your presence in the moment. Next, try this same thing with your eyes closed. After a few repetitions, increase the length of time you inhale and exhale while articulating the mantra. Once you are comfortable with this process and can do it without distraction, practice it silently.
Finally, record your observations about how you felt during this exercise; observe your thoughts, your mental state, and your physical state before and after the exercise. At this point you don’t need to make any evaluations or changes, simply focus on your breath and note any distractions that arise. This is great preparation for the next exercise in mindfulness.
For audio files of real-time guided meditation exercises to use with your students, download Strategies for Successful Musicianship.
For more information and worksheets on meditation, including teacher discussions, student discussions, activity pages, observation worksheets, step-by-step exercises, reflection pages, and daily practice charts, download the Relaxed Concentration Workbook for Musicians (for yourself) or the Mindfulness for Musicians: Workbook for Teachers and Students (for your students).
Also, check out the free meditation worksheets if you'd like an additional hands-on resource to use with students to help you get started.
You can read the next articles in this series: Mindfulness.
1 Peter Lin, Joanne Chang, Vance Zemon, and Elizabeth Midlarsky, “Silent Illumination: a Study on Chan (Zen) Meditation, Anxiety, and Musical Performance Quality,” Psychology of Music 36, no. 2 (April 2008): 140.
2 Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Stephanie M. Shorter, Stephen Cope, Grace Wyshak, and Elyse Sklar, “Yoga Ameliorates Performance Anxiety and Mood Disturbance in Young Professional Musicians,” Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback December 2009: 34, 279.
3 Harris and Harris, The Athlete's Guide to Sports Psychology, 66.