02 Sep 2017

How to use music for mindfulness

Music is around us all the time nowadays – from cafes, shops and elevators to our cars and phones. We can’t escape from it, but most of the time we barely notice it.

"You can engage in the same activity and be mindful or mindless,” says shakuhachi player Riley Lee, who will be appearing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Taikoz in February. Listening to music mindlessly is one thing; driving a car or piloting a helicopter mindlessly, he says, and “the results are problematic”.

Learn to stare with your ears

There's nothing wrong with background music, Lee says. "It can change your mood and function in that way very well." However, if you want to get the most out of it, you need to really listen, and that takes mindfulness.

"If you're really going to listen well, and be mindful, you have to learn to 'stare with your ears'. It's a wonderful expression by artist Ken Nordine – to really understand and appreciate music, you have to stare with your ears. You can look at something, you can glance at something, but to stare, that means you're not paying attention to anything else."

Staring with your ears might sound like hard work, but it's not, Lee says. "It's not the driving through rain at night staring; it's staring at something you want to stare at, staring at your loved one, but with your ears instead of your eyes."

The power of live music

And that's where live music comes in, he says. "You're more likely to be engaged and to be listening mindfully at the Sydney Opera House than you are walking down the street or in the car with the radio on."

By definition, being mindful is paying attention to what's around you, whether, in the case of the SSO, it's the premiere of Brett Dean's Cello Concerto, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 or Lisa Batiashvili playing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2.  "It's paying attention to the music – not only to the entire symphony, but also to what the first violinist's doing, or what the guys up the back in percussion are doing, and thinking about how it feels," says Lee.

Adds Taikoz's Artistic Director Ian Cleworth: "The thing about mindfulness, or being in the moment, it's a state all of us enjoy. It makes the musical experience more intense – that intensity lets us know we're alive."

Mindfulness as a stress reliever

The paradox of being mindful, says Lee, is that it's a stress reliever.

"What's stressful is when we're not mindful, when our brains are whirling about something that's bothering us. We've all heard of that expression of being in the zone; the more mindful one is to what's happening, the less stress we hold." As a musician, he says, he doesn't even mind when audience members are so relaxed they nod off. "Just don't snore, thanks."

Season Packages to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's 2018 season are now on sale. To hear Taikoz featuring Riley Lee and Ian Cleworth perform with your SSO, subscribe to Kaleidoscope, Meet the Music, or add it to your Create Your Own pack.

How to use music for mindfulnessHow to use music for mindfulnessHow to use music for mindfulness