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Practicing Mindfulness Through Music

March 3, 2015

As we grow from infancy to adulthood, our preferences, beliefs, and senses of self undergo dramatic shifts. Friends come and go, relationships with family change, and music comforts us, emboldens us, cries and laughs with us along the way. The lullabies we hear as our mothers release us into our cribs, the songs played at our first dance, and the songs we listen to over and over when our hearts break – these are the songs that transport us. And, often the music defines the emotion of the moment as much as the emotion of the moment defines the music in our memory.

girl with guitarWhile at Veritas, these musical experiences are a source of comfort, and have their own therapeutic value. Patients at Veritas are encouraged to listen to music as a self-soothing practice in moments of distress. They seek empathy in the songs they listen to, and in doing so, practice caring for themselves. In essence, they choose music that is congruent with their emotional experience. The reciprocal relationship between music and emotion also facilitates our use of music listening as a method of practicing opposite action.

We encourage patients to resist the urges they experience as a result of difficult emotions by listening to music that is soothing when they are agitated, or upbeat when they are feeling low. In this way, patients can generate an emotion that is congruent with their musical experience.

It follows then, that if listening to music allows us to change our immediate emotional state, then playing music – which engages our auditory, visual, and sensorimotor cortices, and the areas of our brain dedicated to coordinating our hands, keeping time, and planning complex tasks – allows music to become a fully integrated mind-body experience.

When playing an instrument, we can do nothing else.

In this way, the mastery of an instrument becomes mastery of our own experience in the moments we are engaged with music. This phenomenon is sometimes called “active meditation”, “mindfulness”, or “entering a state of flow”. Most importantly, to me, and to our patients, it is fun!

To this end, patients at Veritas Collaborative are currently offered individual music lessons dedicated to mastery of one or two songs on either guitar or piano. Rather than focus on first learning theory, as you would in a traditional music education program, we encourage patients to select a song that they would want to listen to as either a method of self-soothing or opposite action. We then learn the musical reading and performance techniques necessary to play that song from start to finish, accounting for varying degrees of previous musical education.

Exposure to this method of engaging with music allows them to practice exerting their influence or control on their environment in a healthy way. This is a precious commodity in the community of patients with eating disorders, whose feelings of being “out of control” are a source of great anxiety. Building mastery through music develops confidence – and it shows.  

“So have you ever played the guitar before?” I asked, as one of our patients sat down in front of me for her first lesson. “Yeah,” she said, looking down at the instrument in her hands, “But I only know a few chords, and I’m not very good.”

We spent 45 minutes together, tuning the guitar, choosing an appropriate version of a song of her choice, developing familiarity with hand positions and chord diagrams, practicing strumming patterns, laughing at mistakes, and celebrating successes. We finished up our session for the day with a rough, but recognizable rendition of Sam Smith’s “Leave Your Lover”.

As she packed up her guitar, I praised her for her effort and congratulated her on trying something new – “I’ll see you next time, and I know you’re going to do great”. 

She looked up and said quite seriously, “Talia, I’m going to be a rockstar.”

Talia Glodjo, BSc