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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Susanne: Hello everyone, I’m Susanne Olbrich, and this is Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Susanne, thank you for joining us today.
Susanne: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Christopher: I have been seriously looking forward to this one, because our paths crossed after you heard our episode a while back on mindfulness and musicians, and you got in touch by email and I realized, “This is the person we need to get on the show,” because I had talked about it from my own perspective and it quite a superficial way that I hoped inspired people to go off and explore this idea of mindfulness and how it could help them in music. But you really know your stuff. You’re running workshops, you’re teaching people. You’ve lived this. And so I’m so excited to have you on the show today to talk about this and unpack it for people and really shed some light on why this might be transformative for a musician.
I’d love to begin, if we could, with your own backstory, because you’re not a pure academic studying mindfulness and then hypothesizing how it might work for musicians. You’re someone who’s really lived this as a musician yourself. If we could begin with the early story of Susanne and how you first got started in music.
Susanne: Well, it’s funny because I teach piano for late starters courses, but I myself, I was an early starter. I started playing the recorder… The story goes I demanded to play the recorder aged four, and went onto learning the piano aged six. It was a very traditional way of tuition, what I call the old school music teaching. I had the painful experience. It wasn’t conducive to creativity at all. I’d like to think that I was quite a creative child. All children are creative basically. I think the piano tuition was very focused on learning classically notated music, and it was very rigid, not a very friendly environment. I refused to go after two years and my mom just kept finding me other piano teachers and kept me going, for which I’m now very grateful. As I think many people experience, school and music education takes the creativity out of us, out of young children who are naturally creative.
Susanne: I kept going with music and with the piano, and then had the wish to study music, but I studied music journalism because I wasn’t good enough on the technical side for piano, or maybe I didn’t have the stamina to do more than two auditions at conservatoires, which was a very painful journey actually. I failed two auditions at conservatoires, and then I thought I’m not a musician. I’ve played the piano all my life, I played every day, but I’m told I can’t play the piano by experts. And so I meant to never touch a key again, and my piano teacher at the time was very understanding, very supportive, and she said, “Oh come on. You can play. You just need to do it your own way.” So I ended up studying music at a university for a music journalism degree.
Susanne: That was a blessing in disguise, as life sometimes goes, because music journalism required me to learn a really broad range of music. Coming from that classical world, I eagerly learned everything about non-classical music, jazz, free improv, rock, you name it, world music. And it was a very innovative music department where you could learn about all these different musics. That was the time of the heyday of the feminist movement in Germany. We had an all girls band. I played the drum kit on that, as a strike against my classical upbringing. We got money actually for a young women music project, so we got funding which then was still around, some money to get female teachers, women musicians of all kinds. We had a fantastic drummer who came and taught African drumming to us, who had studied with an African master drummer. We had a jazz pianist come and show us jazz band improv.
Susanne: That was all very encouraging to learn that A, there are other ways of making music, which are not limited to notation, but much more about feeling the music, and B, there are role models, there are female musicians. I mean it would never have occurred to me to want to write music because that wasn’t what any of my girlfriends did or anyone I knew who was female, and very few of the boys either of that matter. It seemed to be a very special thing, but then I saw and got to know women who did that, and so that was all very encouraging and very transformative.
Susanne: That was all before mindfulness, but then in my early 30s I stumbled upon mindfulness in Plum Village, the beautiful center of Thich Nhat Hanh in France. A friend took me there. I didn’t know anything about it, and I thought, “Well, a nice holiday in France sounds like a good idea.”
Christopher: Well before we dive into that, if I may, I’d love to just pause for a moment for that early part of your story, and understand… I love the way you described it and it makes a lot of sense, that you’d been put on this pure classical notation track that had suddenly hit a barrier in terms of passing the auditions, and thankfully you found a way forward by broadening the styles of music you played. I wonder if we could dig into that a little bit, if we’re not going back too far. If you could give an example or two of what you were discovering you could do that you thought you couldn’t, or what you learned that let you tap into a different part of who you were as a musician.
Susanne: I guess it was very much, for me personally, about the composing. There were, in my year at uni, maybe one or two boys who learned composing, and it felt a very specialist thing. They learned composing the contemporary classical way. It simply didn’t occur to me that there were other ways of composing, and that that could be fun for me. Then in the late ’80s I went to a workshop which was a… In Germany at that time there were quite a few things for women musicians, and I think still are. There is a fantastic network of women musicians in Germany who teach young girls and also encourage them to pick out of the ordinary instruments like trombone. Still not many girls around who do that.
Susanne: I went to a workshop and met other young women in my situation who did certain things. They had a band and they were songwriting basically. The workshop was led by Inga Rumpf who in Germany is very well known. She’s a veteran rock singer, and she writes her won music. She must be possibly in her early 70s now. She played one night, and it was just so fantastic to see someone on the stage like her. I came home fired up thinking, “Oh, maybe I could try songwriting,” and so I sat down at the piano, and just trying out music. It was piano music I wanted to write.
Susanne: I maybe also tell that bit which sometimes in my life I get vivid dreams, and it’s often in times of difficulty or even crisis. I had a health crisis around about that time in my late 20s. One night I had a dream where I saw myself on stage playing the grand piano in a… How do you call that? In a spotlight.
Susanne: People were listening and I was playing my heart out basically. That dream made an impression on me. I was like, “Wow, I couldn’t possibly dare to do something like that, but maybe I could.” I started composing piano music, which was at the time… It always reflected what I would listen to at the time, and at the time it was a little bit of Carole King without the singing. It was piano music, piano solo music, but kind of folk, pop, gentle rock, kind of ballady kind of things.
Christopher: Terrific. Before that fateful trip to Plum Village in France, what did your musical life look like? You were exploring this composing thing. Were you performing? Were you playing in a band? Were you teaching? What were you up to?
Susanne: The thing with bands was I was… From the beginning I was doing solo stuff, because I had this classical approach. That’s what I had learned. And I did take some jazz piano lessons with a really great jazz pianist, but then I noticed I couldn’t get myself to learn another system of music. I did listen to jazz. I loved some of it. As you notice on my album, some of my music is jazzy. So I incorporated some of the harmonies. But I would never call myself a jazz pianist, just because I haven’t properly learned improvising or chord changes. I started many times, and just couldn’t get myself to learn another system. I’ve learned a few chords, and I was like, “Wow, I really like this chord,” and I started to make a piece with that chord, but written down in notation, if it was written down. Sometimes not written down, just recorded. But later for my trio I had to write things out and arrange for the trio.
Susanne: That’s why I never ended up playing in other people’s bands, just because I play the classical way. I play different kinds of music, but in the classical way, from notation, or I can work it out. If you give me a tape I will learn the part. But I don’t just sit down and play chord changes and accompany just like that. I mean I could, in a very simple, basic way, and I have, but nothing sophisticated.
Christopher: I see. That’s where you were coming from when your friend said, “Hey, come along with me on a holiday to France.” Little did you know it was to the home of one of the most revered meditation, mindfulness teachers of the 20th century, Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell us a little bit about that. What was that experience like for you, if you weren’t expecting that’s what you were going into?
Susanne: Well, it was a time in the… What was it? Late ’90s, when you weren’t used to seeing people in robes with shaved heads, which now you get on telly and it’s not such a big deal. But at the time it was a bit like, “Oh my God, what’s happening here?” But then within days I was so touched by the energy of the place. It’s a very beautiful place with lotus flowers and people walking around mindfully. Even as a complete beginner, it rubs off on you. Seeing people move around mindfully, having their meal slowly and appreciating it. Then of course the meditation practice as well in the morning and in the evening. It was very, very… It made immense sense right away to slow down, to appreciate everything that’s beautiful around, to breathe properly, to just enjoy the breathing. I didn’t need much convincing.
Christopher: I see. I have a little bit of a mission with this episode, which is really to speak to the people who do need convincing, and I’m kind of imagining myself 10 or 15 years ago, coming from a very scientific, practical background. I know that some of our viewers, some of our listeners are on the same page as you, and they’re just really excited to hear about your journey, because they’re already on board with the idea that mindfulness is amazing and can be wonderful in terms of the benefits. But I know there are also people in our audience who are like, “Just sounds like a hippie thing. I’m not sure it’s really for me. I just want to go learn some pentatonic scales on my guitar,” or whatever the case may be.
I really want to speak to them because I know from my own experience, having come from exactly that perspective, how much of a difference this can make. I’d love if you could try and explain to that listener or that viewer why does mindfulness matter? Why did this have an impact with you? What was actually going on in practical terms that was new to you or different?
Susanne: I can answer this as a musician. I came home and one thing that is practiced in Plum Village, almost as the main practice, is walking meditation, and that can be very slow, but it doesn’t have to be very slow. All it needs is really feeling the feet on the ground as you’re walking. It can be done in daily life. You walk from A to B several times every day, and so you don’t need to necessarily set aside time for it. You can just walk from A to B and feel your feet on the ground. I found immediately that this helps me with performance anxiety.
Susanne: As I told you earlier, I was performing solo my own music, which felt at the time quite a vulnerable thing to do. It’s like you go on stage, you’re on your own, everyone is watching you, and you’re playing your own music, so it felt quite… Not easy. Quite a vulnerable thing to do. I noticed that before I go on stage, if I do a few mindful movements, it could be chi gong or anything that makes me feel my body, and then walk on stage feeling my feet on the ground, that made such a difference in my life as a musician.
Christopher: You mentioned chi gong there. Could you explain what that is?
Susanne: Chi gong is… I’m no expert at all, but I’ve done one or two classes. It’s a way of moving slowly, moving the body slowly, in ways that stimulates circulation and makes you feel more alive in your body. What happens in performance anxiety or any other anxiety is that we go into a fight flight mode, which is all the blood goes into the limbs to make you run away, and no blood is in the parts of the brain that you need to focus on music, so that’s why we get blank, because all the blood is there to meet the mountain lion or to run away. It’s very ancient patterns that we have, and we are wired like that. It’s a reflex that we get anxious in situations. Bringing the awareness to the body and especially to the feet is a way of dealing effectively with the nerves, so that they don’t necessarily go away but you notice, “Oh, what is it, these nerves? They are my heart is beating? Okay. It doesn’t kill me. It’s maybe not pleasant, but I can handle that.” Maybe my palms get sweaty. Not great as a pianist, but still can survive.
Susanne: Just noticing the symptoms of performance anxiety and feeling them consciously and noticing, “Well, it’s not what I’d choose at this moment, but it’s perfectly okay to… I’ll survive and I can live with that.” That has made a huge difference right away in my life as a musician.
Christopher: For someone who hasn’t tried this kind of thing, maybe we can just make sure we cover the last piece of that, which is how does it help you to accept those symptoms, to observe them and accept them and be okay with them? In practical terms, how does that help you with the anxiety?
Susanne: It’s a really good question because I think what is part of performance anxiety from my own experience is not just the physical symptoms but then where the mind goes with it. So, “Oh my God, my heart is beating, I have sweaty hands. I will mess it all up.” The mind puts an extra double whammy on top of that, and predicts all kinds of terrible things happening, and if I make a mistake the sky will fall down on me. I think many of us have this slightly catastrophizing part of the mind which is not conscious, so we’re not thinking this out. It’s subliminal and that’s why it’s so hard to catch.
Susanne: Mindfulness has allowed me to get to know myself better, and to not only catch the physical symptoms but also to catch my thoughts that come with that. Then well, will the sky fall down on you when I make a mistake? I don’t think so, on reflection. Of course you make mistakes here and there. I’ve even been to a concert with a fantastic concert pianist in Scotland, and she played the Goldberg Variations, a huge, long, very difficult piece, and at one point she messed up and you could see her silently cursing and starting that variation again and messing up again and starting again. I guess on all levels, not just amateur performers, but even on the high level of concert pianists, mistakes happen, full stop.
Susanne: I guess it’s a good skill to learn how to just know that something might happen and that it’s not the end of the world, and then that the crucial bit is how you deal with that mistake. With some mindfulness, you might just be able to play on and still be there in the music and most people might not notice the mistake in the first place, and if they do, your continued concentration won’t make that mistake a big deal because you’re still getting across your music.
Christopher: Terrific. I think that’s a really vivid example for people of how mindfulness meditation and mindfulness training in general can transform how you behave as a musician. I would hate, though, for people to think that this just about performance anxiety or this is just about performing on a stage. Maybe we could back up and talk about any other ways your experience as a musician or your abilities as a musician changed after that first visit or maybe after you practiced this for a while.
Susanne: I wrote to you in my notes that… It was really lovely for me actually preparing for this interview, reflecting back over two decades, I think 22 or 23 years of mindfulness practice, and how it has affected me as a musician. I find in the long run it changed my whole outlook on life, but that’s a day long conversation, and on music and on myself as a musician.
Christopher: Is that something you can express?
Susanne: I’m just thinking. There are so many things, actually. I think earlier you spoke about the identify as a musician, and I had a really hard time calling myself a musician when I started performing my own music. It took me years, when people ask, “What are you doing?” to say I’m a musician. Through mindfulness practice, what happens is you start to hear your inner voices more clearly over time. And it never stops. I’m still getting to know myself better and better through mindfulness practice. There’s so much going on subliminally, but it has an impact on you as we earlier said with the nerves.
Susanne: We might’ve been told certain things. In my piano tuition I get people coming, adults who say, “Well but I’m not musical. I had this long-standing love for the piano. I’d like to stick with it, but I’m not musical.” Then we have a little chat, and it turns out that they had a school teacher when they were little who shut them up in the choir. They were not allowed to sing because they were tone deaf, but as we know now and is scientifically shown, there is no such thing as tone deaf. Some people learn more quickly to sing in tune. Others take much more time. But it’s a skill essentially that can be learned. But someone said this to them and so they believe it as a child. I hear many of these painful stories in my workshops. If you go round the circle in a workshop, pretty much everyone has something to contribute to this.
Susanne: We have these subliminal voices who tell us, “I’m not musical,” or, “I’m not creative.” If you don’t hear these voices because they are almost subconscious then there’s not very much we can do about it. But in mindfulness practice, you start noticing what’s going on in your mind. I started hearing more clearly what my mind was telling me, and I was like, “Oh, actually, that’s that piano teacher from when I was eight, and she was 93, and she didn’t understand me at all, so she told me I’m not creative or she made me feel that I’m not creative. But actually, maybe she was wrong.” When we can see more clearly what the whisperings in our mind are from people who told us things when we were young, then we can question them and decide for ourselves.
Christopher: That makes a lot of sense. There’s an expression that always stuck in my head in the context of mindfulness, which is that it helps you to learn to “respond rather than reacting”. I was reminded of that as you spoke, because as you say, if there’s something happening under the surface that we’re not aware of, all we can do is react unconsciously, instinctively, and that might mean refusing to take a gig because you’re not confident at performing, or it might mean never pursuing songwriting because you think you’re not creative. But once you’re aware of that chitchat that’s going on beneath the surface, which is what mindfulness can help you do, you have the opportunity to actually respond in the sense of consciously deciding, “Oh, do I want to believe that, or am I ready to put that side?”
Susanne: Exactly. Then there is this fascinating thing which neuroscience is telling us now, which has the grand scientific term of neuroplasticity, which means that… It was discovered I think only a few years ago or a decade ago, that the brain keeps changing throughout our lives, and the way the neurons are wired. All that is in permanent flux, depending on what we do. Of course, for musicians, this was an exciting discovery, because it means when we learn an instrument from an adult age, the brain still makes the necessary changes to learn, so it’s proven wrong that you have to be a child in order to learn a new instrument.
That’s also handy for us with mindfulness practice, because in labs, it was shown that long-term mindfulness practitioners and meditators have different kind of brain structures, so certain parts of the brain, where feelings like happiness and joy and compassion and ease, joy and ease, are… I don’t want to say are located, but they are involved in these feelings, these brain areas, the neurons there. These brain areas, they get more gray matter.
Susanne: The brain changes over time with mindfulness practice. We are creating new habits. We’re basically rewiring ourselves. If I have a persistent habit of being very self-critical, which is actually where I was coming from, being very self-critical, then with mindfulness practice… Of course, this is then a long-term process where it comes in that you really practice every day, or most days, you can shed habits which are not helpful for you as a musician, and you can actually rewire yourself to new habits, to a new way of being.
Christopher: I’m so glad you shared that, because that was a late lesson for me. I started meditating in my early 20s, but it took a long time for me to realize it wasn’t just about that day to day, I’ll meditate in the morning and have a better day. There was also this long-term effect going on. I certainly wasn’t thinking in terms of neuroplasticity or anything like that. But I just realized the more I did that, the better I was able to cope, even if I didn’t do my meditation session. Of course, when you look at the brain science you realize, “Oh, that’s why. That’s what’s going on.” You’re fundamentally changing the way your brain operates and your ability to spot thoughts and handle them, rather than just behaving on autopilot to a large extent.
You said something really interesting in our conversation before we hit record, which was that at some point you decided to usurp, I think it was the word you used, usurp the term musician and give it a Susanne-shaped meaning. Could you tell us what you meant by that?
Susanne: Well, I guess especially as a young person, you are looking for role models. I lived in a city in Germany, and I went to all the different sessions. There was a folk session, there was a rock session, there was a jazz session. It was a university city and there was a lot going on, and I went to all the different places, and I felt I didn’t belong anywhere with how I approach music and how I like music making. I was too classically trained for the rock, although I like some… I did play some rock music at the time. And I was too little sophisticated for the jazz. I didn’t know all that I should’ve known as a jazz pianist. Basically, I didn’t belong anywhere, and so I decided, kind of half-consciously…
It was before I practiced mindfulness, but I’ve always journaled just for myself, as a matter of keeping sanity, basic sanity. On reflection, I decided, “Okay, if there is no musical home for me as such, then I need to do my own thing,” so I did. I just wrote my own music. Sometimes was a rock ballad, sometimes a tango, sometimes a 12 tone jazz. I decided that I would just do what I love and hope that, if I do what I love as good as I can, maybe that would touch some other people as well.
Christopher: I’m reminded of something I’ve heard you say, which is that mindfulness helped you realize that there was something bigger and deeper going on in music than just hitting the right notes at the right time or playing a gig well. What did that mean to you and how did it affect who you became as a musician?
Susanne: Gosh, now we’re going into territory where words fail. I guess even before I knew the word spiritual or the word meditation, I guess for me piano playing has always been almost a meditation or something spiritual in the way that you or I feel connected to something bigger than just that little me. It’s very difficult to describe. I think even as a 12-year-old when I practiced my Beethoven sonatas, which is what I was taught at the time, and I went round and round and round for half an hour, the same run, and enjoyed it to some extent, because that was the way I knew how to play, it was a meditation.
It was making me be at home with myself. Thich Nhat Hanh often has used the term for mindfulness, “To come home to ourselves,” which I find is really a beautiful description. When I take a few mindful breaths, I come home to myself. Rather than being here and there and everywhere with my mind, I come home to my breathing, I come home to my body, and I think that young girl practicing the piano was also, through music, coming home to herself.
Christopher: I see. I’m sure everyone in our audience can relate to having had those moments in their music practice, and maybe they’re frequent, maybe it’s just once in a blue moon, but where you do feel that deep connection, where you feel there’s something bigger going on here than just, “I’m hitting the right notes at the right time,” and as you were saying-
Susanne: Connection really captures it, because it’s connection to deep inside. It’s a connection to something bigger, something larger. Also now, for our scientific thinking friends, of course now there’s this whole science on flow. Flow in music practice, flow with athletes. Flow is seen as something that can… Or one element of flow is that transcendental experience, for want of a better word. It’s scientifically shown that people who feel flow in music or in arts or in athletics, they also describe it as being in connection with something larger than themselves.
Christopher: Thank you for mentioning that. I know that for me, for ultra-rational part of my brain, it’s been really helpful to remember that these different perspectives are different perspectives. It’s not that we’re saying drop the purely practical mind and leap into this meditation world. They’re different perspectives on the same thing, and just like you can describe it in terms of connecting with something greater and a transcendental experience, you can look at the same thing from a scientific viewpoint and come up with the neurolinguistic… Sorry, not neurolinguistic. The neurological basis for what’s going on, and the flow, the science of explaining what’s happening.
I think for me, it was a bit of a relief when I realized I didn’t need to make and either/or choice. If I wanted to hang onto my scientific worldview, I could still introduce these ideas from meditation and mindfulness as a different perspective on something useful. I’d encourage anyone listening who feels like we’re saying “jump ship to this other way of looking at things”, it’s not that. It’s just adding another perspective to your worldview.
Susanne: I’d like to say two things in response to that. One is exactly what you just described. I also have this rational part of me which wants to know how something works. That’s why I started an academic master’s course in mindfulness. After I had practiced it of 20 years, I started to and I’m currently doing some research on mindfulness, the effects of mindfulness on musical creativity, so bringing in the thinking mind again. For me, it’s not either/or at all. It’s actually really fascinating to look into mindfulness from a scientific point of view also, if one wants to.
Susanne: That’s the one thing I wanted to say. One doesn’t have to… It’s not about stopping thinking, but it’s about… I guess our world is very based on the thinking and rational mind, our culture and society, and if we look at indigenous cultures, for example, there is way more than that. And how impoverished are if we don’t acknowledge all that’s beyond the grasp of the thinking and rational mind? As musicians, we know about that, that it’s a host of… If a gig goes really well, if there’s flow, there’s so much more than just the notes of the music and that you can describe in words. There is so much intuitively going on. That’s the one thing.
Susanne: The other thing is I want to say I’m a bit concerned about how mindfulness is treated in the media as a cure-all and something that’s potentially fantastic for everyone. In my about a decade now or so of teaching mindfulness and sharing mindfulness with others, in every course I teach there are about two, maybe a couple of people who will drop out, and when I speak with colleagues, then they experience exactly the same thing. It seems like mindfulness does a lot of good things for a lot of people, but also, there are a few people for who it doesn’t seem to do very much, which also needs to be seen and accepted. Part of that can hurt.
Susanne: Now there is some really good research on mindfulness and trauma, so when people have experienced serious trauma and if the teacher of mindfulness isn’t aware of that and can’t work with that in gentle ways, then there’s a chance people get re-traumatized. So it’s really important to find an experienced teacher and a skillful mindfulness teacher, especially with a history of trauma, and if that’s not the case, and then people… Mindfulness is sometimes called mindfulness-based stress reduction, so it’s not all about sitting on the cushion smiling. It’s also about looking at our stress and our difficulties and finding helpful ways, or maybe more helpful ways than previously, of dealing with them. If you poke into a hornets’ nest of difficulty and a teacher can’t hold the space for that, then you might drop out, which is a very sensible thing to do in the circumstances.
Christopher: Got you. My brain can’t help but make immediate analogies to the world of learning music. I guess that’s just the way I’m wired at this point, but I wonder is it comparable to learning an instrument where yes, it would be wonderful if you could give 20 people a guitar and the ideal lesson and they would all learn it and enjoy it and have a great time. But the reality is there are going to be a few people for whom maybe guitar’s not the right instrument, or maybe the way it’s being taught is not a good fit, and it doesn’t mean they’re fundamentally incapable of learning music. It just means that that particular circumstance wasn’t right for them, and it shouldn’t be forced. Is that the situation?
Susanne: I had a situation recently where… As I shared with you, I developed a course, mindfulness for musicians, and I had the good fortune to pilot it at Aberdeen University with music students there, so young people studying community music. That’s a different take on music. It’s not necessarily high-flying performers, but it’s people who will go into communities, maybe even into prisons or into all kinds of community settings and share drum circles and share creative music making with people. Inevitably, again there were a couple of people who dropped out, and one of them sent me an email saying why, and that was just such a circumstances where basically it was not the right time for her. She said she was very interested and she liked it, but it was not the right time for her.
Susanne: When you deal with lots of upheaval maybe, then you want to come to a maybe slightly more settled state first, before you start learning mindfulness. Before example, mindfulness is recommended in situations with depression, but the recommendation is to learn it not when you’re in an episode of depression but rather in between, when the going is not quite as tough.
Christopher: That makes a lot of sense. I will just throw in there that for my own personal case, I tried learning to meditate at least three times before it clicked for me. I think it was a Jack Kornfield book that finally just made it accessible to me, and I was very quickly able to get up to speed, where previously it had felt like wading through mud when I tried. I just wanted to throw that in to say if someone is curious to try, and I’m going to ask you Susanne, in a little bit how people could get involved if they are keen to explore this more, but if you find that your first experiences aren’t easygoing, don’t assume it’s not possible for you. It can just be not the right time or not the right approach.
Christopher: Susanne, there was something else I was really keen to talk with you about, and it comes back to what we were discussing a moment ago, in terms of there being more going on in music than what we immediately see, than the notes on the page or the notes that we’re playing. That’s Pauline Oliveros’ work on deep listening, which I know you’re also very familiar with. I wonder if you could introduce that for people who haven’t heard of Pauline, or people who haven’t come across this term, deep listening. Maybe you could give an introduction to what it’s all about.
Susanne: First time I heard about Pauline Oliveros was in my 20s, and I ended up doing part of my music master’s degree on her work. Then it was all pretty brand new in the ’80s. She was a performer and composer and meditator, and just great human being. I say she was, because she died well in her 80s just over a couple of years ago. She developed the deep listening approach, which is she pioneered the connection between music making, creative music making and meditation. She developed deep listening retreats, which I had the very good fortune to be on one in 2005 in Switzerland. A lot of her work happened in the US, and now it’s carried on by her students.
Susanne: If you Google deep listening, there is a deep listening department at Rensselaer Polytech in Kingston, New York, and they do online trainings. I just got my certificate as a facilitator last year. Deep listening makes use of listening to sounds, producing sounds, listening to ambient sounds, listening to your dreams and also listening to your body in ways that stimulate your creativity, your creative practice. There are lots of deep listening pieces still I guess even online, if people want to research.
Susanne: Deep listening pieces are written prose which almost reads like a poem or maybe a meditation instruction. They guide you through a listening process, so you are guided through listening in particular ways, bringing your attention to sounds, and then sounding with them. Usually there’s some kind of body warmup before hand, and you also connect with your breathing. You could do a little breathing improv just with breath sounds. It’s usually group work, so it’s done in groups, and it can be very deep, it can be very funny, it can be very inspiring.
Christopher: How has that affected your own view on mindfulness and music? What did it bring to your musical life?
Susanne: Well in the very first place, some validations that I’m not the only person interested in this combination of meditation and music and meditative approaches to music making. Also, it’s a very receptive approach. I guess in our culture we have a very go-getting approach, so even in music practice there can be a lot of striving to get this right, to improve our technique, and to get better gigs. In mindfulness, for example, we also talk about non-striving, to come from a place of letting things come to you. It sounds pretty revolutionary, doesn’t it, in our culture?
Susanne: Deep listening has a strong emphasis on being receptive, to really sit and listen, and see what… Becoming curious of what’s happening. There are so many sounds that go unnoticed. Then there are also listening to your own creative impulses. That are so many creative impulses that go unnoticed, just because we’re busy with the next email, with the next phone call.
Christopher: Terrific. If people have been following our recent episodes, they will have heard us talk a lot about active listening, and I just want to clarify that they’re two slightly different things. There’s a lot in common in terms of being present and being aware and opening up your musical awareness, but where we talk about active listening, it’s about tuning into the details of a piece of music and becoming fully conscious of everything that’s there. Deep listening is a very particular exploration of sound more than music. I think that’s right. And extending that into the world at large, which can then feed back into your musical life in interesting ways.
Susanne: It’s both sound and music. You also listen deeply to music and to your own music. But it’s in a more receptive way, I would say. But then of course you produce sounds as well. You play music, and that could be… It’s not stylistically fixed. It could be a rock piano or a jazz piano or elements of that, or it could be free, although of course she has worked in the context of experimental music, so potentially it could be quite free using your voice or your instrument to make unexpected sounds as well.
Christopher: Well, I was nervous to bring it up because I think this is one of several topics you and I could happily talk about all day, and I want to make sure we do justice in the future on this show called Pauline Oliveros’ work. We have an interview, an article that Sabrina from the team did a few years back on the difference between hearing and listening, and she had studied under Pauline and got a great deal from deep listening. I feel like I just wanted to introduce it to kind of tease it and get people interested and send those who are keen to know more off in the right direction, but let’s bring it back, if we may, to mindfulness and obviously not unrelated, but mindfulness… You mentioned doing a master’s there. Could you talk a little bit more about the research you’ve been doing there, and what it’s leading onto now?
Susanne: I have a question for you before I answer this question. I’m wondering how we’re doing for time, and whether it would be possible to just have two or three minutes, a little mindful moment. I’ve got my bell here, and we could of course talk about mindfulness until the cows come home, but if people haven’t experienced it, it would be maybe lovely to get a taste of it.
Christopher: 100%, that’s a wonderful suggestion. Thank you. I will just say, if you’re listening to this podcast on audio and you have your player set to 1.5 speed or to skip silences, you’re going to want to disable those features now and be with us second by second as this happens. Take it away, Susanne. That sounds wonderful.
Susanne: I’ve got this lovely little bell which I’ll invite to sound, and then I’ll guide you through a maybe two or three minute mindful moment.
Susanne: I invite us to get a feel for how we’re sitting, and what would it be like if we were sitting upright and relaxed, and with ease, comfortably, embodying a sense of weightfulness and ease. If you wish, you can close your eyes, or you could just soften your gaze. Maybe it’s almost as if you were looking inwards, and being aware how the feet are resting on the floor, feeling the contact of the sitting bones with the chair. Seeing whether we can catch the sensations of the breath. Breathing. In breath, moving into the body. Out breath, leaving the body.
Susanne: What’s that like? Where do you feel that? Maybe being curious about the quality of the breathing, without needing to change anything. Are the breaths short or long? Is the breathing smooth or choppy? Just noticing. When your find wandering to far flung places, then that’s what the mind does, and it’s great you noticed. Then you can just bring the mind gently back to your breathing. Maybe to complete this mindful moment, to allow yourself to just take a few breaths in whatever way feels good to you. Just enjoying your breathing for a moment. Nowhere to go, nothing to do.
Susanne: Thank you. Thank you for sharing this mindful moment with me.
Christopher: Thank you, Susanne. I feel there’s a danger now that I’m fully refreshed and as I’m sure you are too, that we could talk for another three hours. I’m going to have to reign in that impulse.
Susanne: You need a sip of coffee quickly.
I just want to say, if people like to have a bit more of this, I have a 10 minute guided reading meditation on my website, which you don’t even need to download. You can just play it. Just in case you got hooked.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’ll ask on behalf of those for whom this was the first time trying some mindful meditation, did I do it right? How do I know? Was that it? For someone wondering that, what would you say to them to know was this successful? Should I do more of this?
Susanne: Well, if you’ve had a moment of enjoying your breathing, then you did it right, and even if it was just one second or two seconds. However, there is no such thing as wrong or right in mindfulness meditation, because it’s just the way it is. Your experience is the way it is, and we’re noticing the experience. If your breath is short and choppy, then it’s short and choppy, and you notice that, and when you notice it, you’re doing it right. There is no goal to reach in mindfulness meditation, other than just becoming aware what’s there.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I hope that everyone with us did experience a moment or two of feeling like they were there and enjoying the experience and –
Susanne: However, if you think this might be for you, and you would like to do more of it, it’s really important to find a good teacher. It’s good to learn from someone who has a mindfulness practice, and I’m saying this because mindfulness has become so popular in recent years and there are many teachers out there who have maybe done an eight week course and then a week long teacher training, and of course it’s great. They should also share mindfulness, I’m not debating that. But especially if you have a background in trauma, be very sure that you find someone who is trained in that.
Susanne: And also, half of the mindfulness teaching is delivering the concepts of mindfulness, which are not very hard to grasp, but the other half is being mindful, modeling mindfulness in the way you are. I’ve learned the largest part of mindfulness practice by being around fantastic teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, and they just emanate mindfulness and you have to try very hard not to be mindful in their presence. You pick mindfulness up through osmosis by being in someone’s presence who who is mindful and who has this solid practice and a long-standing experience solid practice.
Christopher: Fantastic. Are there any go-to resources if someone’s looking for a teacher in their area? Are there particular, I don’t know, qualifications or particular associations that you could direct them to to know that they are getting the right kind of mindfulness training, as it were?
Susanne: There’s a lot out there, and many teachers I would recommend. Thich Nhat Hanh has lots of YouTube clips, and of course her own website plumvilage.org with resources. You mentioned Jack Kornfield who is a brilliant teacher with lots of resources online. Jon Kabat-Zinn is brilliant.
Christopher: Sorry to interject, but this is maybe an important distinction to make. What you just said a moment ago, it sounded a little bit like you were saying you need to study in person with a teacher in a very personal way, and no doubt that is the ideal, the optimal. But it sounds like maybe it’s actually more just about making sure the source of the teaching you’re getting is aligned with the optimal approach on this. Is that right?
Susanne: Yes. Read up about your teacher. See what trainings they’ve done. Especially in corporate settings, I hear that often people are just sent on a weekend course and then are expected to deliver mindfulness practice. Of course, you can do that in an introductory way, but it might not necessarily go very deep. So read up about your teacher and see what they’ve done.
Christopher: Great. Let’s assume for a moment that it’s not a case of trauma or someone trying to use this for depression or something, if we take a simplified case where someone’s just really inspired about these musical ramifications of mindfulness and they want to dip their toe in their water, is that something you can explore in a self-taught way with books and videos and that kind of thing? Is that a useful starting point, or is it better to go straight to in person teaching?
Susanne: I think it can be a useful starting point. When you feel stuck, if you feel you’re unsure or you even have maybe not so nice experiences looking at your stress responses, it’s really, really good to get other people together. The group setting and mindfulness learning is super helpful. It’s usually taught in groups, although I’ve also started doing mindfulness one to one. It’s always preferable to have a group of people who also learn mindfulness practice, and you can support each other through the ups and downs of learning it.
Christopher: Great. And for someone who’s intrigued but needs maybe a bit more encouragement or inspiration to take that leap and try this out, you could talk a little bit about the book, Mindful Heroes, and your contribution to that?
Susanne: This is something I am very excited about. Last year, I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book which is called Mindful Heroes because it is based on the idea of the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, like a mythical journey where the hero sets out to meet the demons, to face life’s challenges and then grow wiser in the process hopefully, and then through insights has something to bring back to their community to share with others. That’s the mythical hero’s journey which is found in many myths all over the globe.
Susanne: The book is mapped onto this myth, recognizing that many mindfulness practitioners and teachers have been through this hero’s journey of starting your quest for mindfulness, maybe through crisis, maybe through health problems, through depression or loss, and then finding mindfulness practice and resources through it, and learning in the process and then bringing it back to your community to share. The book has I think 18 projects who all came out of the Aberdeen University mindfulness master’s, where people had a project for their master’s degree where they shared mindfulness in their setting. There’s a sports category, and there’s a mindfulness and business category where people had projects and education. Teachers share work with autistic children, with high school, college students.
Susanne: And there’s a chapter of creative arts, and I was asked to contribute a chapter on music and creativity, which is my project at Aberdeen University at the moment, my research project.
Susanne: It’s called Dare To Create. It’s supposed to be very encouraging through sharing some of my own story in the light of the science also.
Christopher: What kinds of things will people find in that chapter of the book?
Susanne: They will find my story condensed, how I find mindfulness, and how I find it helpful as a musician. Then there is research, writing, showing some of the literature that’s around, research others have done in the area of mindfulness and musical creativity. I have to say there is not very much around, but there’s a little bit. And also musicians themselves have written about meditation and how it has impacted. People will find references if they are interested in just reading a bit more on the subject. And also there are some case studies where I looked at four of my own pieces and looked at how mindfulness, how deep listening, how meditation and related experiences made an impact on the creative processes.
Christopher: Fantastic. And I loved that you called it Dare To Create, because I know that a lot of people with us right now feel like creating or being creative in music is something that would require a bit of daring from them. I hope that our discussion of mindfulness today has revealed how it could help you with that kind of inner-game of music and that self-awareness that lets you unlock new possibilities and get rid of some of the barriers that might’ve been holding you back.
Christopher: Susanne, if people are interested, where can they get a copy of the book?
Susanne: The book will be out mid-July, and it will be so new that I don’t have the details yet. But it will be on sale online and in print, both as a download or in print. But people can get a free copy of my chapter if you contact me through the contact form on my website.
Christopher: Fantastic, and that’s at susanneolbrich.net, which we will have in the show notes for this episode, but in case anyone is standing by with a pencil and paper, and it’s S-U-S-A-N-N-E O-L-B-R-I-C-H, so Susanne with an N-N-E at the end, and Olbirch, O-L-B-R-I-C-H.net. You can also find some of Susanne’s music there. I’m remiss in not having talked a lot about Marama Trio and the wonderful music you’ve created there. I think, to respect your time, I’m going to have to direct people to the website, and say go and listen because it’s really some beautiful music and very varied and rich and interesting. We might have to have you back on for a part two in future to talk about that project and where it came from.
Christopher: Susanne, if you wouldn’t mind, just tell people also… We’ve shared a bit about mindfulness in general and you’ve given some great advice for getting started and next steps, and the book Mindful Heroes is a wonderful exploration of what’s possible through introducing mindfulness into your life. But for those are like, “Oh, I really like Susanne and I want to learn more from here, take a moment if you would to just self-promote a bit and tell people what they’ll find on your website and how they can go further with you if that’s what they’re keen to do.
Susanne: Well on my website you find all the kind of courses that I offer. So far, they’ve always been not online but in person courses. But I’m willing to travel, and if you invite me to some interesting places, I’d be happy to come and teach. My signature course maybe I call Sounds and Silence, Mindfulness and Music, and that’s a retreat format where we practice mindfulness and you don’t need any previous experience. You learn the basics of mindfulness. Or if you already have learned them, you can take your practice to the next level, and that will be interwoven with lots of deep listening, sounding, intuitive music making largely. If you want to get involved with intuitive music making, then it turns out that mindfulness and intuitive music making help each other, and they are usually a lot of fun, as well as very nourishing. It could be a day or a weekend or a week, these retreats.
Susanne: But I’m also planning to make this an online course, Mindfulness For Musicians, but that’s in the further away future. But in the meantime people could do online Zoom or Skype single sessions of Mindfulness For Musicians with me. They could book either one to one or get a small group together, like three people would work really well in one space with a laptop to do some Mindfulness For Musicians together.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, it probably goes without saying, but for anyone who is keen to take the next steps, I would highly recommend checking out Susanne’s website and considering those single or group sessions because I’ve said several times on this show how much of an impact learning to meditate and mindfulness meditation in particular has had on my life in general, in particular my musical life. I’m kind of standing here saying, “Do it, do it, try it. You will like it, it will pay off.” And Susanne obviously is one of the top instructors in the world today, and to have direct access to her like that is quite incredible really, so do leap at the opportunity.
Christopher: Susanne, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing so generously with your time and your insights and your own story. I hope we’ll have the chance to talk again and collaborate in future.
Susanne: Thanks a lot, Christopher. It was lovely. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks.
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