Play the melody again: this should be easier
thinking less each time about the notes, about the measure.
This is all just an arrangement of silence. Shut up, and then
play it for your pleasure.
Play the melody again: and this time, when it ends,
don't ask me what I think. Feel what's happening
strangely in the room as the sound gets darker
you, me, everything.
Now play the melody again.
Alastair Reid, from “A Music Lesson”
Intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave a lasting imprint on the neural structure, like a surging current reshaping the bed of a river.
Rick Hanson (2013, 10)
The Scottish Ensemble is one of the UK's most renowned string orchestras, which has "bridged the gap between listeners and musicians", creating "ageless art for the here and now". (Scottish Ensemble) One of their long-standing collaborations is with Maggie Cancer Care centers, offering music and mindfulness sessions, which they are also starting to incorporate into schools and other settings. They invited me as a mindfulness trainer to prepare them for their upcoming tour, and I felt delighted and privileged to take this opportunity to work with this much admired group of musicians. To some extent, I felt like I already knew the players. Compared to traditional orchestras, they establish more intimate connections with the audience, for example playing in the middle of the concert space rather than on stage, and sometimes engaging listeners in attentive listening and dialogue. Meeting the group within this confluence of music, mindfulness and communication was an opportunity for me to integrate some of my main areas of passion, as I am also a trained musician – cello, piano and Dalcroze rhythm – and a transformational coach.
At one point during the training day, the ensemble played the same one-minute sequence over and over again, each time with a different listening focus. The music they chose for this was a standalone passage from a piece of music from the classical period. The idea was that such an exercise would encourage focused and attentive listening from the public – and perhaps also from the players – and would give rise to enriching topics for discussion afterwards. Among the many possibilities, I chose the following instructions:
Listen while thinking of many other things.
Listen with your heart (or your belly).
Listen while being open to the images that may arise.
Listen like an alien who's never heard music before.
Listen as if you only have an hour to live (an instruction to use judiciously with the audience in mind.)
When we compared notes afterwards, each of us listeners – there were only three of us at the workshop – had our favorite episode, but we all appreciated being given permission to think about something else; This put us in a relaxed mood ("mind wandering" gets a bad rap in mindfulness circles, but I thought for a while there might be some benefits.) Players commented on the fact that Listening and playing are inextricably linked and they particularly liked the “alien” suggestion. One of them said that what she would really like to experience is playing and "not worrying at all what other people think of her, not trying to adapt to the rules, but being completely herself.” It reminded me of the famous research by an Australian palliative care nurse, who interviewed hundreds of her dying patients about their regrets. The top one was: “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;” followed by “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” »(Independent) So they played once again with this instruction in mind.
From now on, the piece of music had become very familiar to me and I took pleasure in retracing, against a background of identity, the states of mind that the different ways of listening had stimulated in me and the nuanced variations in the way in which the musicians had performed it. the score. But this final version was of a completely different order: it had a magical character. It reminded me of the murmuration of starlings against a night sky, the light patterns forming and reforming spontaneously, the collective crescendo and decrescendo appearing with unconscious precision, abandon and subtlety. It was totally liberating to be part of a breathtaking and awesome adventure, and I didn't want to miss a single moment of it.
We didn't spend much time talking about our responses afterward: these things are hard to put into words (although I'm trying here) and there were other things to move on from. But it got me thinking about questions of self, altruism, and adapting to societal norms. Groups will always keep an eye out for the behavior of individuals who seem "too selfish", and to some extent this is obviously useful for collective survival. We internalize these imbued messages and we control ourselves. But from a spiritual perspective, what may appear to be the disinterested or selfless state of mind of a well-adjusted group member might actually be quite the opposite: being intensely occupied with questions of self, how one is seen by others, fear of standing out, of being found insufficient, etc. Driven by fear, we can spend most of our time trying to fit in, then die frustrated for not having fulfilled our potential and missing opportunities for self-transcendence. Whereas someone who dares to show themselves with their creativity and a fuller range of emotional expression is actually risking their own person, and in this sense it is more disinterested. The haunting beauty I had witnessed during this workshop was perhaps the result of the musicians and audience momentarily entering this zone of self-forgetfulness. Clapping does not seem to be an appropriate response to such an experience and the Scottish Ensemble actually asks its audience to remain silent after the last notes of the music fade away, when perhaps something is "strangely happening in the room as the sound darkens.” about you, me, everything,” as Alastair Reid says in the poem cited above.
The magic of this latest version may have been due to this instruction to stop trying to fit in, but the fact that they had played it several times before probably also played a role. “Practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes – and neuroscience explains how it works. Nerve cells “pull and connect together,” and repetition forges these connections into the more clearly and strongly defined pathways that we are most likely to pick up. Much of this occurs without conscious experience: we are unaware of how effectively and elegantly we brush our teeth, unless we are forced to use the non-dominant hand for any reason.
Where it really gets interesting in terms of improving the quality of our lives is when we deliberately choose what we want to perfect in this way. We can actively transform ourselves into beings who are less critical and less resentful, for example, and more sensitive to joy and love. This reshaping happens in subtle ways: we can't just forcefully push away unwanted feelings and experiences. This only reinforces patterns of unkindness and dislike. “What we resist persists,” says another saying. The very way we apply ourselves to this creative project of becoming what we want to be must have the qualities to which we aspire. For many of us, regular meditation is our playground and practice, but we can take any opportunity to become more mindful. We play the melody over and over, with gentle patience and perseverance, attention to detail and, ultimately, with glorious self-surrender.