Meditation for musicians

When I started to get curious about meditation, most of the resources I found seemed to avoid giving a specific play-by-play of the process or detailing the sensations that would result from it. I'd like to take you through my meditation practice and offer some concrete answers to questions I’ve had like: What’s the point of this? How do I do it? How do I know it’s working? 

Here it is, the roadmap and the destination.

The “mantra”

Many forms of meditation practice rely on a mantra, a sort of internal chant. I made sense of this for myself by adapting the mantra into a musical process, and I began to create little patterns for internal singing.

I focus better with musical rather than verbal repetition, and invoking the act of singing lends itself to fuller, deeper breathing. I think of each inhale as an extended crescendo into a sforzando exhale.

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This is a rough sketch of what's going on in my head while I meditate. I breathe in and out as fully as I can, and I riff on two-note combinations like these, or sometimes find myself repeating this whole sequence over and over.

The process

Here are the steps I take in my daily meditation practice. I do this every morning for about 20 minutes just before leaving the house. 

Step 1: Find a spot where you feel safe

Especially at first, I had to guard myself from distraction and judgment. As I got used to the feeling of meditating, it became less awkward. Now on good days I’m even able to sink into meditation on the bus.

If you live with other people, try getting up before everyone else so you don't have to contend with inadvertently internalizing their needs or other goings on around the house. I get up before dawn, make breakfast, make coffee, and then begin to meditate just before leaving for the day.

Step 2: Get your phone ready

I open my phone’s notes app to a blank note,  set a timer for 20 minutes in the alarm app, then lay the phone beside me. Always when I have to charge my phone across the room while trying to meditate, I end up stopping to go over and write things down.

Using a note taking app over pen and paper gives you two particular advantages: it allows you to meditate in as dark a setting as possible and its predictive text function allows you to shorthand your ideas, which optimizes your time outside of meditation. If you are a creative person who has had trouble trying to meditate before because you can't turn your brain off, this will help you capture those flashes of ideas. They're supposed to happen, and you can meditate through them if you can get them out.

Step 3: Slump down

I sink until my shoulder blades are flush with the back of the chair or couch, and my arms fold up into my lap. I let my chin fall to my chest.

Step 4: Begin to sing in your head.

With your hands clasped, head down, and eyes closed, start to sync this internal singing to your breathing. I stick to two-note combinations that have strong tendency at first — usually starting off fa, mi; re, do with breaths in, out; in, out. Sometimes if I get distracted I will repeat fa-sol, which is more directional and can get me back on track.

Step 5: Let your brain punch itself out

Especially starting out, it seems like your brain won't turn off. It won't. But what you will find, if you stick with it, is that your brain probably only has about 10 minutes’ worth of material to throw at you, and if you power through you'll get 10 minutes of solid meditation on the other side. I think about my brain like it's a child that is forced to take a nap, a certain amount of thrashing around is part of it.

Step 6: Start feeling it

I don’t know what else to call this. It’s not really an action you can take but rather a state that you slip into. This usually kicks in after about 10 minutes for me, sometimes sooner, sometimes not at all. Below I'll survey some of the physical effects I experience, if that helps you get a sense of how it might work for you.

The effects

How do I know it’s working? The initial physical sensation begins in my hands. They start to tingle and this feeling works its way up my arms, it's like a light buzzing all through them. After this, my head stops feeling like a dense weight, and I can lift my chin and stretch my neck to allow my head to float rather than dangle.

This is the sweet spot. My goal is always to maximize my time in this state, to maintain this feeling until I have to stop. At my most successful, I can get this buzzing-floating feeling to carry over into my 'active' time after meditation, and I assume this what it feels like to be a relaxed person.

The importance of meditation for musicians

What’s the point of this? I always associated meditation with David Lynch and the process of abstract ideation from some authentic internal place. While I have found that my own meditation practice is good for that, it also delivers other benefits that can apply to musicians broadly.

First, the process relaxes muscle areas we use and overuse in music making. That buzzing I get when locked in feels like a massage reaching from my hands up to my arms, neck, and shoulders. 

Second, meditation gives me dedicated quiet time, which is sometimes more important than opening my brain up to new insights or ideas. Quiet is a precious commodity when you deal so intimately and constantly with sound.  

Lastly, the aspect of internalized singing acts as a reset button for my inner voice. The nonverbal nature of this musical mantra helps to drown out the rushing torrents of thoughts, carrying them away with a sweeping crescendo.