Musical Mastery and the Meditative Mind Via the GAP-Guided Attention Practice
Koen, Benjamin, American Music Teacher
"How many of you meditate?" is among the first questions I like to ask a new group of students. When I see a just a few hands scattered about a room of more than 100 music majors, I smile and say "Okay now, everyone please raise your hands high into the air." Then, I ask the question again. This time, since everyone still has their hands in the air, it appears that the answer to my questions is "We all meditate," and this is the very point. Everyone does meditate in some way, even if one does not call it "meditation" or consciously realize it is occurring.
While there are multiple schools, styles and types of meditation, each with its own unique aspects and components, meditation itself is perhaps best viewed as a practice that emerges from an innate human capacity that comprises a broad spectrum of states of consciousness, all of which relate to some type of reflective cognitive activity. So whether we sit, stand, lie down, walk or do any manner of activity and reflect in a direct or indirect way, we can call this meditation. In fact, one of the most well-known and effective approaches to meditation, "mindfulness," also known as "mindfulness awareness," (1) has at its core the notion that meditation is not a practice that is especially reserved for a select few. Rather, the meditative capacity is a natural and vital part of being human that enables a higher state of consciousness or increased attention, which facilitates the development of what is often called the "meditative mind." While there are multiple aspects, qualities and outcomes attributed to the meditative mind, here, I am concerned with the one that is of particular relevance to music and education--namely, a state of consciousness where a person experiences a sense of being fully present in any given moment. To help students find that special state of consciousness where their minds are fully present and not frenetically zipping around endless disconnected stress-filled topics, I developed a flexible model that I call "Guided Attention Practice," or GAP. I've incorporated GAP into multiple aspects of my teaching, and it has consistently benefited students in their musical activities and other domains of life. Since GAP proceeds from the notion that we all naturally meditate in one way or another, consciously and subconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally, students already have experiential knowledge of meditation upon which a teacher can build.
The GAP Model
I developed the GAP model from years of performance, teaching and research in a wide array of cultural contexts in some 30 countries. In all the diverse cultural milieus that I experienced, I was never surprised to find that two common interests for virtually all students, regardless of their level, would be: 1) To master their instrument or a piece of music; and 2) To find a transcendent, sacred space where they experience the ineffable in music. The GAP model then has as two of its core goals: musical mastery, and experiencing transcendence in music. (2)
It is important to note that these goals can be understood in different ways and in varying degrees depending on a student's cognitive, emotional and bodily state. Of particular importance in achieving the goals of musical mastery and transcendence are the underlying and interwoven frames of "cognitive flexibility," "emotional flexibility" and "bodily flexibility." (3) Engaging and transforming these frames of flexibility creates a state of consciousness where students can progressively experience more musical mastery and fulfillment and, perhaps, even transcendence.
In GAP, "cognitive flexibility" refers to the natural capacity and learned ability to transform a present state of consciousness, neural activity or psychological frame to a new, desired state of mind, frame or focus of attention. The guided aspect of GAP facilitates the development of cognitive flexibility by linguistically walking students through a process that is geared to create patterns of thought that benefit their musical endeavors. These patterns of thought, which are conveyed through the spoken language, aim to prepare and focus the mind, emotions, body and spirit for the best possible musical experience.
"Emotional flexibility" refers to a dynamic quality or capacity that allows one's emotions to transform to another preferred emotional state. This emotional dynamic can be effected through the five stages of the GAP described below and often relies upon the degree of cognitive and bodily flexibility that are engaged in the process.
"Bodliy flexibility" literally refers to the physical body and the flexibility of its joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and overall sense of limberness and physical health at any given time.
Five Stages of GAP
By building upon these conceptual frames of cognitive, emotional and bodily flexibility, GAP is an adaptable approach to meditation that starts out as a guided practice (for example, the instructor guiding the student), but slowly becomes a practice that students can perform independently. This transition from "teacher-guided practice" to "student/self-guided practice" is akin to equipping students with foundational musical concepts, skills, techniques and practices so that eventually they become able to "teach themselves," in virtually any situation. GAP has five stages, within which there is a high degree of flexibility to adapt to a student's unique needs and build upon a student's particular strengths:
1. Engage the mind and body to change the present state and prepare for stage two.
2. Enter the state of the meditative mind.
3. Enjoy and experience the silence of the meditative mind.
4. Introduce and incorporate a special word, idea, phrase or goal into the meditative mind.
5. Extend stage four into the musical activity.
Stage one of engaging the mind and body can be done through multiple techniques. The three that I typically employ with students are various breathing techniques, vocal long tones on vowel sounds, physical stretching and basic taiji exercises. Importantly, the vocal long tones are not intended to produce a "singing" or "performance" quality vocal sound. Rather, the vocal toning is concerned with emotional, psychological and physical stress release, as well as building energy. Hence, there are no "mistakes" in the sound that is made and it is not meant to be assessed by any musical standards. In my experience, students have produced effective sounds--sounds that lower stress and increase energy--that range from a shaky, airy and cracking whisper, to a highly trained and balanced singer's voice, to an extremely focused and forceful sound where overtones are clearly present. Additionally, the timbre and volume of the vocal sound often fluctuates as a student relaxes and becomes progressively focused.
Stage two of entering the state of the meditative mind usually occurs midway through the words of the GAP. The meditative mind state is often elusive to students when they first begin their practice. It is important to encourage students to practice their meditation at home as well as in their lessons and to be consistent and nonjudgmental of their own experience. A common experience for students who have difficulty with meditation is that over a period of time, usually ranging from a few days to a few weeks, they begin to have categorically distinct and new experiences during the GAP, through which they begin to appreciate are the benefits that meditation can accord them in their musical activities.
Stage three of enjoying and experiencing the silence of the meditative mind is a rarified state of consciousness that is inexpressible and highly personal. Nevertheless, it can be both helpful and encouraging for students to share or keep a journal about aspects of this stage in their practice. Students have often referred to this stage in the following ways: "finally at peace," "a sense of joy," "free from the world," "stress-free," "only good," "no negativity or judgment," "a sense of oneness and selflessness," "incredible strength and health," "confident," "totally capable," "spiritual," "being in the presence of God," "life changing," "energizing," and feeling "like my true self." (4) This stage in meditation is like the experience of transcendence in music, which is often the underlying and compelling reason many people have become musicians. Moreover, this is the stage that can positively influence a student's life beyond the borders of musical practice. In the GAP musical practice, however, this stage then moves to stage four to specifically benefit a student's musical abilities.
Stage four of introducing and incorporating a special word, idea, attribute, phrase or goal into the meditative mind can be a very personalized section of the GAP. As a teacher, I am very aware of the specific challenges and strengths of students. But more importantly, is how students conceptualize their challenges and strengths. By discussing with students what they most want to incorporate into their music, they can choose a positive, meaningful or power-laden word, idea, phrase, attribute or virtue that can be introduced into the GAP, which then can both directly and indirectly benefit their music. For instance, a common challenge for students, especially in extremely fast or slow musical passages, is to have patience and feel a complete phrase within the broader musical section and within the whole piece. So, when students share that they feel rushed, stressed or worried about an upcoming technical passage, the opposite of these terms then are potential words, qualities, attributes or ideas that can be incorporated into the GAP. Hence, stage four might focus on the words "patience," "calm," "peace," "relax," "breath, slow" and other such related terms. If students are heavy-handed in their technique for instance, the words "light," "gentle," "fluid," "flow" and similar terms might be incorporated. Also in stage four, a very effective technique is for students to cognitively, in that quiet and peaceful state of consciousness, perform and experience the musical passage in their minds, where it can only be performed successfully, confidently and fluidly.
Stage five of extending the qualities of the GAP into the lesson, practice or performance is a key step that emphasizes the connection between music and the state of consciousness of the musician. Through consistent cycles of GAP and subsequent musical experiences, students become empowered to control the focus of their attention, which aids them in realizing their musical goals.
Here is a brief sketch from an introductory GAP breathing meditation that is geared toward a student's specific needs:
Let's begin with a gentle but deep breath. As you inhale, allow your belly to expand on all sides like a balloon filling with air, then, let it shrink back as you gently exhale. Close your eyes and breath again in this way, naturally, deeply, gently. Continue breathing and with each exhale, feel any stress completely leave your body and mind--inhale (3-5 sec.) ... exhale (3-5 sec.) ... inhale ... exhale ... inhale ... and exhale. As thoughts come into your consciousness, simply observe them floating across the screen of your mind like clouds across the sky, peacefully drifting away. You are detached, free, at peace, strong, and beautiful. Your mind is calm, centered, open, and clear. Breathe naturally and feel the silence and peace of your mind. Rest here for a moment, experiencing the silence ... Gently turn your attention to your instrument, feel it in your hands and breathe. Feel its weight and texture; it is beautiful, a channel for your music. Remember why you are a musician and what music means to you. Now turn your attention to the music you want to play today and breathe naturally, deeply, gently. Your mind is focused. With each breath, feel your energy and focus increase--inhale (3-5 sec.) ... exhale (3-5 sec.) ... inhale ... exhale ... inhale ... and exhale. Now gently open your eyes and breath--inhale (3-5 sec.) ... exhale (3-5 sec.) ... inhale ... exhale ... inhale ... and exhale. Now, on to the music ...
This excerpt, while focused on a particular student, can also be effective in a general way to prepare students for lessons, practice and performance. It is presented here as one of many GAP excerpts that have been effective for my students. When using meditation with students, especially early on in the process of learning and becoming familiar with meditation, each line of a GAP can be expanded upon and custom-made to address a student's particular needs according to the above stages.
A Student's Experience (5)
As the class settled into their seats, ready for Anisa to share her experience of music and meditation, there was a palpable feeling that we had transitioned into a new level of understanding and practicing meditation. We were about mid-way through the semester and students had confidently moved beyond any skepticism that they might have had about the potential power of the meditative mind to transform their musical abilities, as well as other domains of life. This was especially true for Anisa, who, as a neuroscience major was being trained to critically question and disbelieve anything for which she had no experimental data. Nevertheless, over the course of exploring how biomedical and neurological studies correlate to the meditative mind, she had developed a knowledge base that provided an intellectual pathway for her to delve into diverse cultural contexts of music performance--contexts where the transformation of consciousness often occurs through a confluence of music, meditation, prayer, dance, song and ritual.
Anisa smiled as though she had found the secret treasure that she and her classmates had been seeking. She paused, inhaled gently and captured our attention with her first words:
It was bliss! For more than a moment--so amazing! Music that I've never heard before, that I've never played before was naturally coming out of my instrument. It was as though I wasn't "playing" the music, but the music was flowing through me, like "I" wasn't there, but I was! I started my practice session with silent meditation, breathing and holding my guitar, then, slowly began the long, low frequency vocal toning from class. After a few minutes, my mind became clear and I was still, at peace, not "thinking" about all the things that are usually flitting around in my head, creating stress or taking me away from the music. My heart also seemed to be clear, empty of any concerns, and my body was relaxed. As I chanted the vowel sounds, mostly on "Oh" and "Ah, "I was aware of my body and instrument being connected in a closer way than ever before. I played a few notes on my guitar, then a few chords, breathing deeply with each sound. I stayed still with my eyes closed and heard the sound of my guitar like I never had before, my body felt the vibrations, and I felt my spirit move ... I continued the piece, flowing in and out of different states of consciousness, becoming lost in the music and feeling wonderful.... By the end, I couldn't remember anything that I had played, except the very beginning--I just felt a effortless flow of music with no thoughts of technique, notes, mistakes or anything (she paused) ... just music, finally. For the first time in my life that I can remember, I wasn't "playing" the music, it seemed the music was playing me. (6)
After Anisa concluded her vignette, other students chimed in with similar comments, some more or less fantastic, at times being linked to personal prayer and transcendent states of consciousness, at times expressing a very grounded sense of mental clarity. Music majors often reported an increased ability to focus on and more easily learn highly technical musical passages that previously had been stressful obstacles in their private lessons. Notably, common among all students was that consistently practiced meditation dramatically improved their quality of life, as well as their musical abilities.
Interestingly, in this and similar courses, music majors consistently have reported higher stress levels associated with music than do their non-music major classmates. In fact, there are often students who were previously music majors but changed their majors to areas outside of music, since, over the course of "higher study," music had lost its profound meaning to them. Whereas music had previously been a source of energy, fulfillment, happiness, fun and a way to feel a sense of community, music had somehow lost those qualities in the pursuit of advanced musicianship. As an educator, one of the most important and consistent outcomes of GAP is that the music majors who are currently struggling with these issues are able to rediscover their love for music and reconnect to the deeper, highly personal meanings that led them to be music majors in the first place. This in turn makes them better musicians and teachers in the long run.
This brief introduction to GAP is intended to encourage a creative exploration by teachers and students of the capacities of the mind and meditation in a life of music. It is also intended to provide a basic framework and process through which meaningful experience can be built, and musical capacities developed more effectively.
(1.) Notably, while mindfulness meditation was formalized within various schools of Buddhist practice, its underlying principles and processes are common to meditation practices within and without diverse religious contexts. For a good discussion of "mindfulness awareness" and cognitive science, see: Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).
(2.) Other core objectives of the model relate to my research and applied practice program in medical and cognitive ethnomusicology, which explores cultural and clinical contexts of health and healing, holistic health models, and the dynamics of music, meditation, prayer and consciousness in health and healing.
(3.) For a discussion of cognitive flexibility, see: Benjamin Koen, "Musical Healing in Eastern Tajikistan: Transforming Stress and Depression through Falak Performance," Asian Music 37(2), 2006. For a discussion of emotional flexibility, see: Alan Rozanski and Laura Kubzansky, "Psychologic Functioning and Physical Health: A Paradigm of Flexibilty," Psychosomatic Medicine 67, 2005: S47-S53. "Bodily Flexibility" is also often referred to as physical or joint flexibility.
(4.) These are excerpts from student journals.
(5.) The following explanation and excerpt comes from my seminar "Music, the Mind, and Meditation in World Cultures," one in a group of courses I teach in the areas of medical and cognitive ethnomusicology. This course in particular focuses on the common ground that underlies culturally diverse practices of music and meditation, as well as the techniques and skills that students can practically apply to their studies. The class consists of students from all areas of the university, including music majors.
(6.) This excerpt is a combination of the student's spoken comments in class and journal entries that were written assignments for class. All names used in this article are pseudonyms.
Benjamin Koen, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the Florida State University, specializes in medical, cognitive and applied ethnomusicology, approaching music, health and healing from a holistic perspective--exploring factors that comprise preventative and curative practices in diverse cultural and clinical contexts.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Musical Mastery and the Meditative Mind Via the GAP-Guided Attention Practice. Contributors: Koen, Benjamin - Author. Magazine title: American Music Teacher. Volume: 56. Issue: 6 Publication date: June-July 2007. Page number: 12+. © 2009 Music Teachers National Association, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.