Buddhist music-making: how meditation could transform the way you work

We musicians know that silence is as precious as sound itself. But we also, like most human beings, fear the idea of a long silence. Is it safe—is it even possible—to pause our perpetual inner soundtrack and be truly alone with our chaotic thoughts, our chaotic selves?

Written By

Ellen McSweeney

Tian Tan Buddha

Tian Tan Buddha
Photo by Molly Sheridan

The last concert I heard before I went on a silent meditation retreat was the DePaul University Chamber Orchestra’s all-contemporary program. The first-ever performance of its type at DePaul, the concert generated considerable excitement among the Chicago listening community. The evening was an ambitious tour of 20th-century orchestral monoliths, designed by conductor Michael Lewanski to make a strong statement of advocacy and artistry. The young ensemble opened with Xenakis’ Tracees, closed with Berio’s Sinfonia, and played Ligeti’s Lontano and the US premiere of Gerard Pesson’s Aggravations et Final in between.

As I sat during the Xenakis, utterly annihilated by the sound of the tam-tam, I wondered what it would be like for a musician, in particular, to pass seven days in silence.

We musicians know that silence is as precious as sound itself; we try to care as well for the rests as we do for the music in between. But we also, like most human beings, fear the idea of a long silence. Is it safe—is it even possible—to pause our perpetual inner soundtrack and be truly alone with our chaotic thoughts, our chaotic selves?

As it turns out, a week spent in silent meditation is difficult, but quite survivable—even wonderful. I was very fortunate that two of the foremost Western teachers of Buddhism, Christina Feldman (whose phrasing I use below in quotes) and Narayan Liebenson, led the retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. Both teachers spoke about how ancient teachings on mindfulness and compassion can illuminate our modern lives. Now that I’m speaking, reading, writing, and playing the violin again, I’m reflecting on how these teachings could transform our work as composers and performers. While meditation is not a self-improvement or life-fixing project, the principles and guiding intentions behind the practice have the capacity to gently and completely transform the way we live.

Learning to live within our bodies. One of the primary trainings of a meditation practice is to notice how often we are lost in thought, and to redirect our awareness inside the physical body. The first foundation of mindfulness is to “know the body as the body.” For the performer in particular, this is a powerful tool. As we sit onstage, surrounded by a swirl of sound, activity, anxiety, and many other human beings, we can anchor ourselves in awareness of our breath, physical contact with our instrument, or where our body makes contact with the floor or the chair. We can recognize that we are here, and fully inhabit our bodies as they perform their complex tasks.

Learning that each moment disappears and is followed by another moment. This teaching—that all things are impermanent—might be one of the tidbits you learned about Buddhism during your middle-school survey of world religions. Or it might resonate as a kind of New Age cliché: this moment is all we have! Yet performers and composers already inhabit this reality, because impermanence is inherent to our art form. A beautiful chord, a nicely blended timbre, a favorite melody, or a facepalm-inducing mistake onstage: whether pleasant or unpleasant, they’re here and then they’re gone. Getting in better touch with the ever-changing nature of our experience might increase our sensitivity, relaxation, and appreciation of what we’re doing—and help us let go of what wasn’t perfect.

Learning to “cultivate non-distractedness.” What’s the point of sitting still on a cushion for several hours a day, doing absolutely nothing, paying attention to what we are experiencing internally? Perhaps we could consider it a kind of practice session for being present during everyday life. I still remember being a teenager and hearing a professional musician say that he sometimes thought about what color to repaint his kitchen during orchestra concerts. Distraction and boredom are utterly human, but they unfortunately can keep us from being present during the very moments in our lives and careers that we want to treasure most.
Learning to balance between “agency and receptivity.” In meditation and in life, this means striking a balance between doing something and letting things be. For chamber musicians in particular, this is such a huge part of our work. When do we lead? When do we follow? When do we seize control of the tempo to avoid it sagging, and when do we allow the music to simply unfold, trusting that it will do what it needs to do? A silent meditation practice is a kind of training ground for precisely this.

Learning not to be at war with ourselves or others. For about an hour each day on my silent retreat, we did a practice called metta, or loving-kindness, in which we set an intention for the happiness of all beings. During metta, you gradually widen the circle of good intentions: beginning with ourselves, then those we’re close to, then those we don’t know, and finally, those we struggle with. This insight meditation practice acknowledges that we spend much of our lives dwelling in the emotional equivalent of toxic waste, and that we need an active practice to create a more safe and nurturing emotional environment for ourselves and our awareness. In case you haven’t noticed, life in music can be difficult at times. The challenges often lead us into mind-states of competition, criticism, and anxiety. I’m hopeful that my own metta practice will help me make a shift in perspective from separateness to togetherness, and from scarcity to sufficiency.