Musical Mastery and the Meditative Mind Via the GAP-Guided Attention Practice

By Koen, Benjamin | American Music Teacher, June-July 2007 | Go to article overview

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. …

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