We are very excited to have Susanne Olbrich on the show! Trained by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, Susanne Olbrich is a specialist in mindfulness for musicians. A musician herself, she also qualified as a teacher for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and the Mindfulness Based Living Course (MBLC). Susanne is committed to exploring the benefits of mindfulness for musicians.

In this conversation we talk about Susanne’s own story and about mindfulness for musicians. But we go deeper than just the surface level you might be expecting…

We talk about:

  • How mindfulness helped her and how it can help you
  • How to relate to the spiritual perspective on mindfulness if it doesn’t resonate with you – especially if you’re more scientifically minded
  • An important note about who should take care in exploring mindfulness
  • Deep listening and how it relates to mindfulness and the “active listening” we’ve talked about on this show before.

Susanne also leads us through a “mindful moment” to give you a “taster” experience of what mindfulness is all about.

We hope we can tempt her back to provide some training for MU members in future.

As you’ll hear her say, it’s not a magic bullet cure-all as some in the media like to portray it as – but it certainly can be a musical superpower and one well worth adding to your own musical identity.

Whether you’ve never heard of mindfulness, you’ve heard of it and thought it’s not for you, you’ve been curious but never tried it, or you’re already practicing mindfulness and enjoying the benefits in your musical life, we hope you’ll enjoy this conversation and get a ton out of it.

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Specialist in mindfulness for musicians, Susanne Olbrich shares her journey. Learn what it means to be mindful and how it can enhance your musicality.



Okay, I’m not sure I need to do any more to sell you on mindfulness at this point! But there was a lot of valuable stuff packed in there, so let’s recap.

Susanne grew up feeling creative – in fact she feels all children are naturally creative – but after making a start on recorder her initial music lessons in piano really didn’t cultivate that creativity. She had what she called the “old school music teaching”, very focused on classical notated music.

Although it wasn’t easy or enjoyable she’s grateful now that her mother encouraged her to continue through a few different teachers and she improved to the point of auditioning for conservatories.

She auditioned twice but wasn’t accepted, and having those experts tell her she “wasn’t good enough to be a musician” was very hard to hear. She nearly gave up but her teacher at the time reassured her, saying she could continue in her own way instead. That was a degree in music journalism which which let her keep studying music and turned out to be a blessing as she explored new genres and new ways of making music outside of just reading from notation.

That let her find a new identity as a musician and claim that word for herself in her own way. It also put her in touch with female role models who inspired her to see that being a musician might be possible for her after all.

In particular she’d though composing was beyond her but these new and varied ways of making music showed her that there was the possibility to write songs and music herself. She had a particularly vivid dream of playing piano up on stage with the audience enthralled and although that seemed huge compared with where she was, she was able to take it as inspiring instead of intimidating and began composing piano music.

A chance trip with a friend took her to one of the spiritual centres of the world, Plum Village in France, home of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. This was her first encounter with “people with shaved heads wearing robes”, as she put it! And she found that the mindfulness practices she did there such as walking meditations focusing on the feel of each step on the ground had a transformative effect on herself and her relationship with music. This deepened over the following twenty years to the point where she is now a qualified teacher of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-based Living, and is one of a small number of people authorised by Thich Nhat Hanh to teach the Plum Village approach to mindfulness.

I asked Susanne for some examples of how mindfulness had changed her musical life and she shared some specific ways.

Firstly, she noticed almost right away that this could help with performance anxiety. She gave a really great breakdown of how the physical symptoms of so-called “stage” fright result in both brain blank and spiralling negative self talk and catastrophising – which we might not even realise is happening.

Through mindfulness practice you’re able to be aware of the physical aspects as well as the mental, and you’re empowered to respond consciously in the way you choose, rather than reacting on autopilot (which typically makes the situation worse). This means that both the physical and the mental aspects of performance anxiety can be addressed and you’re able to perform at your best once again.

This can also help for any mid-performance slip-ups, so that the impact of a mistake is minimised rather than ruining the rest of the piece.

Beyond helping with stage fright, Susanne said that mindfulness had a huge effect on her creativity and her identity as a musician. We all accumulate various thought patterns and beliefs during our childhood and adult life, many of which actually become limiting for us, when it comes to being creative or feeling like you truly “are a musician”. Through mindfulness practice you learn to become aware of those thought patterns and inner voices which then puts you in a position to address them, release them or overcome them. What was a mish-mash of conscious and unconscious thoughts becomes something you can actually get a grip on and move past.

Mindfulness also helped Susanne connect with something bigger and deeper in her musical life – it’s hard to express in words but in some sense transcendental, meaning going beyond our normal understanding and awareness of the world. A connection to something bigger or deeper inside yourself or beyond yourself that you find through music. Susanne gave the example of when a live performance “clicks” and just goes incredibly – we all know there’s something more going on there, something intuitive and natural, that goes beyond simply “playing the right notes at the correct times”.

Over time mindfulness training can fundamentally change the way your brain works. That’s certainly something I’ve experienced for myself – that the practice of mindfulness meditation gradually had a permanent effect on the way my brain worked and how easily I was able to notice thoughts and choose whether to pursue them or not. It’s like an empowering upgrade to the way your mind functions and I’d say it’s one of those things where once you see the new way of doing things it’s hard to believe you ever managed with the old way!

If this is all new to you then it might be helpful to note that this isn’t an all-encompassing worldview that you need to either adopt or not. Many of the benefits of mindfulness, such as the way your mind changes over time or helping you connect with something deeper and mysterious in music – more and more we’re understanding these things from a scientific perspective as well, for example looking at the neuroplasticity of the brain and how different regions are activated or developed through meditation, or how mindfulness can help musicians reach the “flow” state of effortless high performance. And Susanne herself is currently doing academic research into the benefits of mindfulness training.

So although personally I’m not keen on the ultra-secular view of mindfulness that tries to completely separate it from anything spiritual and see it as purely a practical toolkit – I do think that knowing that perspective exists can help make it accessible to those who don’t naturally resonate with the Buddhist roots or spiritual implications of it all.

We took a slight diversion to talk about Deep Listening, a practice created by Pauline Oliveros which is often associated with experimental music because that was her own style of composing, but which also ties deeply into the active listening we’ve discussed a lot here on the show and all of the mindfulness-and-music connections we were talking about today. Susanne noted that it impacted her in two major ways: by showing her she wasn’t the only person curious about exploring meditative approaches to music, and by introducing a more “receptive” approach to music where instead of thinking purely in terms of expressing outwards you become much more willing to be curious about what’s happening inside you and outside you and letting that feed your creativity.

As I said in the interview, we couldn’t go deep on deep listening today – but I did want to make sure we mentioned it for those keen to know more, and it’s something I’m sure we’ll cover more here at Musical U in the future.

We talked about taking first steps in mindfulness and Susanne led us through a short “mindful moment”, giving you the opportunity to experience a moment of pure presence if this is all new to you.

The only goal was, and is, to be present. To have at least one moment of enjoying noticing your breathing.

If that taste or the benefits we discussed made you eager to explore this further Susanne shared some great possibilities as well as some very helpful expert guidance.

Susanne wanted to point out that mindfulness is getting some exposure in the media in recent years and sometimes gets portrayed as a magical cure-all which can help anybody and everybody – but in fact not everyone will see benefit from practicing mindfulness right away, and it can even be somewhat dangerous in particular cases.

Firstly, the particular approach or timing may also just not be right for you at the moment and Susanne said that if things aren’t feeling right or even seem to be made worse by mindfulness practice then it’s the right thing to do to stop and perhaps revisit it later.

Then this goes double If have serious trauma in your past, suffer from depression or have a mental illness or other particular life circumstance you think might be important to consider. Mindfulness can be helpful in those cases – but it’s especially important to learn at the right time and directly with an experienced teacher.

Susanne pointed out there’s a big difference between someone who’s trained in mindfulness and has had years or even decades of an active mindfulness practice themselves – and someone who’s just done a course for a week or two. And that you learn mindfulness not just through the explicit teaching but through osmosis, being in the presence of somebody who is mindful, from a long-standing solid practice. Because she noted there are two halves to mindfulness training: learning the intellectual concepts, and then actually putting it into practice in life.

I didn’t want to leave you discouraged that in-person training was the only option though, and Susanne agreed that outside of those special cases then getting started with books or online training courses can be a good way to go. You might still find it doesn’t seem to click for you, so try not to take that as a sign that it’s not for you. Like trying a few instruments before you find your match, you may want to try a few ways of learning mindfulness or give yourself the chance to return to it at a later time. As I said in the episode, I’ve seen huge benefits without doing in depth training and it did take me a few attempts to get into the swing of it.

Susanne mentioned a few particular teachers worth looking at, such as Thich Nhat Hanh who has teaching available on YouTube, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jack Kornfield whose book I personally found very useful at the start.

Susanne herself offers online training 1-to-1 and for groups, and talking to her after the recording she explained to me the value of this compared to learning yourself (such as from a book) – which is in the reflective discussion after your mindfulness practices, which help you to understand what’s going on and to deepen your practice. This is particularly powerful in the group session where everybody learns from each other’s questions and observations.

Recently she has contributed a chapter to a new book called “Mindful Heroes” and kindly shared a preview of that with me, so I can personally recommend checking it out if you enjoyed today’s conversation. You can reach out to Susanne through her website for a free copy of that, to learn more about how mindfulness could help you in music, and in particular help you “dare” to be creative.

So. If you’ve never tried mindfulness meditation, I hope that this episode encouraged you to try, and gave you some pointers on how to start. And if you’re already a mindfulness practitioner I hope you enjoyed this conversation and found some new ideas or it renewed your enthusiasm. In our previous episode about mindfulness I described it as a musical superpower – but clearly it’s really a superpower for life in general.

And I hope it’s one you’ll equip yourself with if you haven’t already. You’ll be very glad you did.

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