By Barry Boyce
We are creatures built for listening, not only with our ears, but with every part of our being. In studies of empathy, neuroscience is now showing us just how attuned we are to picking up signals from others around us and from our environment generally. We swim in a sea of sensations and we are apparently well equipped to take it all in. Nevertheless, it seems hard for us to scale back the part of us that generates output, that is overeager to contribute its two cents. So often, when we could be listening, we are strategizing about the next thing to say, or otherwise dwelling in the internal chatter so familiar to anyone who has tried to still the mind for more than two minutes.
Improvisational music relies on our innate ability to listen fully and to let something emerge out of that, in a spontaneous, almost magical way. Perching on the edge of our seat while someone else is playing, trying to figure out how to have our moment on the stage, doesn’t lead to good improvising. To truly listen is one of the hardest skills to cultivate, but it is central to jazz improvisation. Adam Bernstein—a bass guitar player, music educator, and meditator in Brooklyn, New York—has discovered that mindfulness practice is an excellent means to help music students quiet the chatter a bit and learn how to listen for real. More than that, Bernstein realized, jazz-playing itself has a quality of mindfulness and awareness—and having a regular meditation practice could help players extend that quality into their daily lives.
“There are so many great things about jazz,” he told me. “It’s a democratic art form. It builds community because players need to learn to function together. It requires them to listen to each other or it all breaks down—just like things do in the rest of the world. When you’re not playing, though, how do you find that still place, how do you learn to make space to have silence in the chaos? That’s what meditation can do.”
Bernstein started the Jazz Mindfulness Program in 2009, when the Brooklyn Zen Center (started by students in the tradition of Suzuki Roshi) was just getting set up. He served as the jazz director at the Berkeley Carroll School for eleven years and also was on the faculty of jazz at Lincoln Center. He plays with the Laurie Berkner Band, which performs and records music for children.
Jazz Mindfulness is for instrumentalists and singers from ages twelve to eighteen. Bernstein leads two fourteen-week seasons: winter, from October to February; and spring, from February to May. The students meet each Monday, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Brooklyn Zen Center for a short meditation followed by instruction and improvisational practice. Each season ends with a concert.
“One of the hardest things for musicians, and probably jazz musicians in particular,” Bernstein says, “is coming down off the high of playing. That’s led to a lot of self-abuse. I’ve had to work with that myself, how to just be with myself. Music has always been a release for young people, but I’d love my students to learn mindfulness at a young age, so that they can have the joy of the music and also get beneath the chatter and the judgment that can suppress the creative, open mind.”
The program emphasizes a range of mindfulness practices beyond sitting meditation—walking, eating, being aware of sensory input—so that the students can see how to connect what they’re learning to everyday life. “My youngest student, Olivia, was telling us the other day how she was tearing herself apart with judgments about her school work, and stressing out. Then she said she noticed her breath and was able to calm herself. That’s what we’re trying to do for these young people.”
Acting. Meditation. They’re a good fit, since awareness of your body, speech, and mind, and of the surrounding space, is a key element in theater. Indeed, contemplative theater groups have existed for a long time. Many theater and dance exercises—such as body scans and spatial awareness drills—are meditative to a great degree, and many acting teachers believe the craft demands a process of self-discovery.
Parlan McGaw, who leads Meditation for Actors in New York City, has been acting since he was a child. When he started practicing meditation in 1988, he began to see how complementary the two practices were. “I had an instinctual feeling,” he told me,” that meditation and acting fed each other—that meditation could enhance acting, and any artistic pursuit for that matter.”
McGaw looked into contemplative theater but decided that he was not so interested in creating theatrical productions based on contemplative philosophy. He was more interested in continuing to pursue traditional theater and film. (When I interviewed him, he regaled me with a rendition of the opening chorus from Henry V: “O for a muse of fire…”)
For many years, McGaw allowed meditative discipline to leak into his acting. “Then, about five years ago,” he says, “I was studying with the revered acting teacher Michael Howard, and I asked Michael if he would like to teach with me. To my great delight, he revealed he had been practicing mindfulness for twenty-five years, and was enthusiastic about the prospect.”
Howard and McGaw led a weeklong retreat for actors two summers in a row through Tail of the Tiger, an arm of Karme Choling meditation center in Vermont, which presents mindfulness-based programs. “In the morning,” McGaw says, “I taught meditation. In the afternoon Michael taught acting. He was my student in the morning and I was his student in the afternoon.” Howard had the actors work on monologues and McGaw found himself becoming much “freer, more spontaneous, more joyful” and he observed others transforming over the course of the week, too. For one thing, Howard was able to entice actors to pause and instead of over-preparing on the verge of a speech, “to fully take in the room, absorb the moment, and get out of their head. It sparked a flash of insight, which was very liberating and invigorating.”
When Howard, who is in his eighties, was unable to do another summer, McGaw decided to start Meditation for Actors, always pairing himself with an acting teacher in his sessions. The program includes practical applications of mindfulness—preparing for auditions and rehearsals, dealing with stage fright, and riding the ups and downs of an acting career—as well as strong emphasis on bringing meditation to the craft of acting through enhancing spontaneity, self-awareness, emotional authenticity, sensory awareness, and listening.
McGaw presents the program in half-day and daylong sessions, weekend intensives, weeklong retreats, and ongoing weekly classes. In April, he returned to Michael Howard studios to lead a weekend intensive. This summer he will conduct a five-day retreat, Being and Acting, along with Rae C. Wright at Shantigar Foundation, founded by the renowned playwright Jean-Claude van Italie, in Rowe, Massachusetts.
Barry Boyce is senior editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of the forthcoming book, The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Spiritual Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life. (Shambhala Publications, 2011.)
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