Music and Mindfulness – The Beginning

A journal of our explorations in music and mindfulness - as part of our Dundee Residency and in collaboration with Maggie's Dundee.

13 October 2016

You will, no doubt, have heard of mindfulness. Its various guides litter the two-for-one bestsellers’ tables as you enter Waterstones, and you can’t read an issue of any broadsheet weekend supplement without it being mentioned at least once. It’s a new life tool which, it seems, everyone has taken up.

But music fans may well have been unintentionally practising mindfulness for years. The therapeutic qualities of music, whether playing it or listening to it, are well known. All mindfulness is, in this context, is taking the act of listening one step further by actively engaging in ‘proper listening’ – that is, sitting with no distractions and allowing yourself to do nothing but listen to that music. There are of course more theories and instructions attached to it as practice, but that’s the bare bones of it – which makes it an extremely accessible life tool.

Matching music and mindfulness is something we have wanted to do for a while – and now we have, as part of our most recent SE Residency in Dundee, we have been utterly inspired.

Maggie's Centre Dundee, designed by Frank Gehry.

Arriving at the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, perched in what feels like a rural enclave on the edge of the sprawling mass of Ninewells Hospital, is like breathing out after holding your breath for too long. It’s an intentional effect; architect Frank Gehry’s inspired building emerges as you peak the crest of one of a little hill. Guarded by soothingly concentric rings of gravel set into the grass, the house at the bottom feels rather ingeniously like a contemporary update on a homely cottage, offering the same feelings of convivial warmth, safety and separation from the distractions of the outside world.

The centre is a place of support and respite for cancer sufferers and those around them – their friends, family and carers. When we arrive there’s a handful of people sitting round a comfy kitchen table having mugs of tea and biscuits, and two sitting on a bench outside, talking quietly in the warm September sunshine. Clattering in with our music stands, we feel loud and intrusive on this scene of peace – but the feeling of welcome is so strong that our concern soon dissipates.

Also, we’re here for a good reason: after discussions with the centre leaders about the connections between music, meditation and mindfulness, we’re here to provide the musical element of this triad in an hour-long workshop based on the theories behind mindfulness.

The session was conducted with nine people, all either suffering from cancer or caring for someone who is. It was so powerful for us that we thought you may be interested in hearing exactly what happened during the hour. While the effect of having five professional musicians playing two metres away from you cannot be recreated by a few Youtube links of dubious sound quality, you may be surprised at the effect of listening along at home – properly, with no distractions, and your eyes closed if that helps you – and seeing what your own reaction is.

Ensemble members rehearsing at Maggie's Dundee

Lesley, our session leader, begins by telling us that we are about to do concentrated listening. She advises us to sit comfortably and rest our eyes, whether that’s closing them, or softly focusing on something within the room. We will hear the musicians play a piece of music, and then she will ask us one question – “what did you notice?”

At this point, the sound of the hospital helicopter taking off, in the field just next to the centre, begins to whir into the room – it is loud, intrusive and irritating, and it’s hard to focus on what she’s telling us to do. You can feel a general atmosphere of tension across the room. Being told to told to relax in the presence of something so characteristically annoying feels unnatural, but she encourages the musicians to start anyway.

Philip Glass - String Quartet No 2 - 2nd Mvt

As the music ends and the silence settles, Lesley asks her one question to the group: what did you notice?

Laurie: “During the first piece I was engrossed in the music, but by the second, I’d started to drift off. I was in the woods. Because it’s live and you’re right in front of us I was completely drawn in when I don’t think I would have otherwise been. My mind didn’t wander like it usually would – it was incredible!”

Joan: “The first piece reminded me of my heartbeat, as it goes quite fast sometimes – and I found it had calmed down to match the music by the time the second piece started.”

Mike: “In the first piece I was trying to listen to the individual instruments whereas by the second I found I could just relax and enjoy it.”

Jonathan (SE Artistic Director, violin): “I guess you’ve kind of prepared people to listen, so it focuses us in a different way. In some ways this is quite simple music – it’s built on one chord. Some people find this kind of music… They need the chatter. They want lots of stimulation. But we chose this music for its simplicity for us, too – you can really focus in on it.”

Laurie: “The first piece was so fast and fierce that it made me feel a bit manic – I couldn’t settle. Whereas by the second, I was imagining doing ballet on stage.”

Mary: “I was on the beach! At the start it was waves crashing, then the wind…”

Maybe it’s the proximity of the players, but I can hear each instrument, each note in the Glass. But it’s also the task of being told to listen intently – being allowed to. Even in the concert hall, when on paper your only task for the next two hours is to listen intently: is it really? Are we also expected to remain conscious of the social environment we’re in, act in a socially acceptable way, remain aware of our physical environment and factors such as when the interval is, where we’re meeting our friends for a drink afterwards?

I’ve heard the Glass quartet so many times before, as a recording. In this room it becomes less of a piece and more a collection of notes I’ve never heard before. I notice the jarring effect of quavers in one line and triplets in the other, the stillness of each line as a separate entity.

By the second piece, people could relax enough to enjoy what was happening, and to enjoy letting their minds wander off to where they wanted to be, instead of reigning themselves back in with thoughts of any task – in this case, answering Lesley’s question. But – significantly – they needed to be given this task in order to work to the point where there minds could be free. We don’t instinctively allow ourselves to do this.

Lesley concludes with a similar thought to draw everyone back to the significant take-away point of this exercise: “Even when listening to a piece of beautiful music, we’re drawn into a judging mindset. Our minds have been trained to do this over the years. But then, in the midst of it, people allowed themselves to go right into the sounds.

Valerie: “The first piece reminded me of the pain that we all have. The crescendos in the first one were like how the pain comes and goes. The second, gentler one was like a release – it reminded me of how you do come through that pain.”

Lesley: “That’s interesting, that by the second piece you were able to see the whole thing as a metaphor – whereas in the first you were just feeling something. As human beings we can seldom stay with just the sound – our minds will go somewhere, whether it’s the beach, the woods, the ballet… This is a very important idea – that if you sit with something, it does abate and change and flow, just like pain and feelings do.”

Diane (SE musician, double bass): “What I really enjoyed is that everyone had their eyes closed. Usually when you play, you’re so aware of your physicality because you’re basically sitting in front of a room of people who are all watching you. It completely changes the experience for us when you take that away.”

Rowena (SE musician, cello): “I love the concept of people talking about how the music we’ve just played made them feel. It really connects the audience and the performer. I once performed in a Maori village in New Zealand where they don’t clap at the end of the concert – that’s their tradition, just like ours is to clap. Instead, at the end, one by one, they’ll start talking when they feel like it. It’s a much nicer thing to do after hearing a piece of music – and for us to experience too – than this big loud shocking thing of everyone bursting out clapping.”

Mike: “Listening to you play here is totally different to going to see you at a concert hall – how does it feel for you?”

Andy (SE musician, viola): “It’s amazing. It allows us to sit and inhabit all those things that we usually put aside during the day. I find it immensely satisfying to look around and wonder where people have gone to in their heads. At a concert hall there’s this whole distancing thing – the way you dress, the physical separation between us and the audience. Somewhere like here, which is so much more intimate, is intensely more satisfying.”

The conversation could easily go on for hours – everyone seems keen to get their bit in, too many thoughts spilling from their minds – but it’s time to move on to the next piece. Each one has been chosen to highlight something interesting about the listening experience, and the next up is Lamont Young’s Number 7 – a piece with only two notes, written for any combination of instruments, and with no set duration. As Daniel, on violin, explains, Young is a composer who experiments with sounds that one would perhaps usually consider to be noise, or extraneous sound.


La Mont Young - Composition 1960 No. 7 "To be held for a for a long time"

Joan: “That was so amazing. You have no idea what sort of image was going to come next. It was so beautiful. Better than the other one!”

Laurie: “That was totally hypnotic. It completely released me to the point that I am crying. That’s the best feeling I’ve had in years.”

Mike: “I found it the opposite – it was the complete opposite of relaxing. As an engineer, I found I wanted to get up and fix something! Sorry, I can’t describe it any other way.”

Mary: “You know those waltzing waters that you used to see? It was like that, with colours coming into it… There was a Maouri-like sound, like a digeridoo. That got me to the colour brown, for whatever reason… I didn’t see it from an engineer’s point of view, anyway!”

Mike (Mary’s partner): “It’s funny, because Mary will put music on all the time, but I’ll only listen to something if I’m in the mood – I’ll only put it on deliberately. Our tastes are pretty much the same – we always tend to like the same types – and yet we had such a different reaction to that.”

Valerie: “It was very emotional. At some parts, it sounded like a choir was about to start singing.”

Joan: “I had this idea of butterflies and bees coming in… But at the same time, I was with the music for the whole time.”

Jonathan: “I love playing this music, but it has to be in the right context. The idea behind it is that if you focus in on the sounds, the whole world is contained within those two notes. If you let your ear focus in, you can hear all these things that humans can’t usually hear, and it opens up into a portal of infinity… So, yeah, pretty intense stuff!”

There’s a pause as everyone laughs – the mention of portals of infinity does seem fairly lofty in this small, homely room in Dundee; but still. It feels like everyone tacitly comprehends what he’s talking about.

Daniel (SE musician, violin): “We’re never truly in silence. What we think of as the quieter performance, in the concert hall, is actually surrounded by rustles of programmes, coughs, people shifting their feet… In this room, it felt like the helicopter was part of the piece.”

Mike: “You might want to factor that into the next concert…”

Daniel: “We would, but it’s quite expensive to organise!”

Everyone nods in agreement with the helicopter comments. No-one has mentioned the intrusive noise of the helicopter until this point and it dawns on me that, when I was gently given permission to accept it, it stopped being an irritant and I simply forgot about it, or passively let it become part of the pleasant wash of sound.

This particular recording of the Lamont Young, above, is an interesting one to listen to for this purpose, in that it has elements of background noise within it. Did you find you managed to easily zone it out? Or was it overly intrusive – did it ruin your experience?

Lesley: “What that music was great for was tying in to this idea of not pushing away the unpleasant – grasping hold of the pleasant, but accepting both the pleasant and the unpleasant equally. This doesn’t mean looking at everything in a Pollyanna kind of way, but simply appreciating both qualities as things which balance each other. This also then allows you to notice and observe smaller, more subtle elements of pleasantness that you may otherwise miss.”

We move on to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Jon explains the context behind the piece, which was written for someone with insomnia to help calm their mind enough to be able to sleep. A trio – violin, viola and cello – plays the famous Aria from the piece, but in place of the usual repeats within the music, double bassist Di plucks the notes of the bassline, creating two different listening experiences.

Bach - Goldberg Variations

Joan: “Because the music was more familiar, I found myself focusing on the music very intently, instead of drifting into other places. This overfamiliarity seems to be a wonderful way of focusing things for me.”

Laurie: “Me too. I was listening to the start, middle and end of every individual note – I was right there with the instruments.”

Mike: “I found it quite emotional. I’ve just been through a period of insomnia, and I was putting on a lot of classical music, weepy type of stuff. But that… especially when the bass was playing on its own… that was just lovely. It was mesmerising. You weren’t having to concentrate.”

Laurie: “The bass part felt like each beat of your heart. Focused, calm, at peace. It was mesmerising in its stillness, but also in its structure.”

Sue: “One of the things I find so hard is finding a level of peace and calm in your head, and in yourself. But the way the elements of this piece worked really helped me to find an inner calm which I haven’t felt for a very long time. It’s made me realise that I need to sit with music when I’m doing my mindfulness – clearly this is the key to allowing me to fully focus on the moment. I’ve not been able to get to this point for years.”

Lesley: “One of the most important things to take from this is the fact that we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were drawn into the next move, but there was no protection, and no speculation – we could trust ourselves to just go with it. And that’s your lives, at the moment. Rather than speculating and worrying and trying to pre-empt problems, we could just trust ourselves to go with whatever happens.”

The session ends like this; with this melee of intensely emotional statements, and with this message which cannot be overemphasised in its importance – not just for cancer sufferers and their friends, family and carers, but for every human being who struggles with worry and anxiety. The fact that we have arrived at this point using music is wonderful, but even more wonderful is the fact that after the session at least two of the participants do come up – tears in eyes – and say that their future mindfulness sessions will now change significantly. Music has unlocked the power and the scope of mindfulness for them, and this session has unlocked the desire to do more of this work, for more people, in the near future, for us. Watch this space.

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