Contemplative Practices in Music Teacher Education

H. Christian Bernhard II, Ph.D., The State University of New York at Fredonia

Researchers have documented stress and burnout among university music education majors for more than 30 years (e.g., Conway, Micheel-Mays, & Micheel-Mays, 2005; Hamann & Daugherty, 1985). They suggest that undergraduate majors, in particular, may suffer from emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment, often caused by issues such as sleep deprivation, challenges with personal relationships, and work overload (Bernhard, 2010; Gold, Bachelor, & Michael, 1989). At the same time, current trends in online search capabilities, social media, and other forms of digital communication can create excessive “noise,” anxiety, and lack of focus among users (Hall, 2015), which often further a general trend toward human isolation and lack of trust (Sander & Putnam, 2010). As a response to these challenges, the notion of contemplative practices is gathering support, in both the general population and in higher education (Mindfulness and Health, 2016). The purpose of this article is to review relevant research and best practices regarding the use of contemplative practices, including meditation, reading and writing, movement, and listening, and to recommend applications in music teacher education.


Contemplative practices focus on student reflection and introspection in an attempt to improve academic problem solving and understanding, as well as personal connection, compassion, and awareness (Barbezat & Bush, 2014). They are a secular and academic expansion of what is often referred to simply as “mindfulness.” For example, Srinivasan (2014) defined mindfulness as “energy we cultivate through kind, present-moment awareness” (p. 27). While mindfulness is needed for meditation, reading and writing, movement, and listening, contemplative practices as addressed in this article go beyond deepened awareness and compassion to also include deepened thinking and learning in an academic environment. According to Holzel et al., (2011), peer-reviewed research regarding contemplative practices has spiked over the past decade, and collegiate faculty members have used related practices in subjects including chemistry, physics, English, psychology, economics, and law. While there is a relative dearth of published research regarding contemplative practices in music and music education, several scholars are beginning to explore such possibilities, and much can be learned from other subject areas.


Contemplative Practices in Music


Sarath (2006) described efforts to incorporate contemplative studies within a music curriculum. His Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies at the University of Michigan was the first of its type, and included “25 credits of coursework from diverse units on campus that involve meditation practice and related theoretical, cultural, and historical studies” (Sarath, 2006, p. 1818). Specific courses included some from particular cultures, such as “Islamic Mysticism” and “Introduction to Buddhist Thought,” as well as others intended to draw connections among cultures, such as “Psychology and Spiritual Experience,” “Creativity and Consciousness,” and “Contemplative Practice Seminar.” Sarath argued that academic reform is often limited to intellectual discourse, but that student self-awareness and consciousness are integral to fully developed musical creativity. 


Diaz (2013) studied the effects of mindfulness instruction on the music listening experiences of 132 students enrolled in university music classes or ensembles. He assigned participants to one of four treatment conditions: mindfulness induction paired with aesthetic response, mindfulness induction paired with flow response, aesthetic response without mindfulness, or flow response without mindfulness. Diaz implemented mindfulness using a pre-recorded audio excerpt that encouraged participants to attend to physical sensations through a structured body scan task (focused attention on specified parts of the body over the course of 15 minutes, without physical movement or mental judgement). All participants listened to the first act of Puccini’s La Bohème, and responded via questionnaire and Continuous Response Digital Interface (CRDI). While a perceived increase in attention compared to baseline measures was reported by participants across all four conditions, those participating in mindfulness activities perceived greater ability to focus on music listening without distraction.


In addition to mindfulness and other contemplative practices in music curricula, the use of music itself, in particular music making, can offer benefits. Bernard (2009) examined her graduate students’ autobiographical narratives regarding music making, teaching, and learning. Over the course of four years, she observed that participants often described transcendent experiences in which they gained heightened self-awareness and self-actualization. Bernard’s students described special music making experiences, such as performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, as larger than life, and far removed from the mundaneness of every-day experience. Referring to the Bach performance, Bernard stated, “No longer was she in the room, no longer were the notes present on the page, no longer was she tired after having taught for an entire day before the performance” (p. 2).

While these few studies in music settings are helpful, and suggest that related practices can be as involved as full-semester coursework or as simple as a 15-minute intervention, there is much room for further understanding of potential benefits for contemplative practices in music teacher education. The remainder of this article will present research and best practices from non-music disciplines, and suggestions will be offered regarding how these practices might best be applied in pre-service music education curricula.


Contemplative Meditation


Tang et al., (2007) studied the effects of short-term meditation practices on attention and self-regulation of Chinese undergraduate students. Eighty students participated, half of whom received five days of 20-minute meditation sessions. The meditation treatment promoted a restful state of alertness with attention to body, breathing, and external instructions from a compact disc player. “Because this approach is suitable for novices, we hypothesized that a short period of training and practice might influence the efficiency of the executive attention network related to self-regulation”     (p. 17153).  Participants from this experimental group reported reduced anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, as well as lowered stress-related cortisol levels as compared to control group participants.   


Shapiro, Schwartz, and Bonner (1998) tested the effects of eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention instruction on the mental health of medical students. They defined mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as a formal discipline including meditation, that promotes heightened awareness with a focus on compassion for self and others. Following treatment for 37 experimental group participants, the researchers reported that MBSR can effectively “(1) reduce self-reports of overall psychological distress including depression, (2) reduce self-reported state and trait anxiety, (3) increase scores on overall empathy levels, and (4) increase scores on a measure of spiritual experiences assessed at termination of the intervention” (p. 592). In a more recent study, Shapiro, Brown, and Biegel (2007) studied the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on the mental health of student therapists. Participants were 64 master’s students enrolled at a small private Jesuit university (22 received treatment and 42 served as control, based on enrollment in three graduate courses). The MBSR treatment occurred over the course of eight weeks, two hours per week, and as with the previous study, included heightened awareness via meditation with a focus on compassion for self and others. The researchers found that MBSR reduced stress, negative affect, rumination, and anxiety, while increasing positive affect and self-compassion. Findings from these studies suggest that meditation may be useful in the interpersonal health and psychological well-being of pre-professionals who are training to help other humans.


Meditation via mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has also been used to improve intrapersonal feelings. Birnie, Speca, and Carlson (2010) examined the use of MBSR in a community setting (participants were volunteers from Fall 2005 until Spring 2007 in a program offered to the public through the University of Calgary), and found that it positively influenced kindness toward oneself, perceptions of connection, and a balance of internal thoughts, such that negativity did not predominate. Holzel et al., (2011) reviewed neuroimaging studies that demonstrated how meditation can cause neuroplastic changes in the brain, such that participants positively alter how they identify and conceive of themselves. They stated that “these changes occur in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures” (p. 537), which can improve self-perception, well-being and cognitive functioning. Using similar neuroimaging evidence, Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2008), suggested that these types of intrapersonal exploration are important in the development of emotional responses needed for effective teaching and learning. 


The aforementioned literature provides evidence that contemplative meditation could play an important role in music teacher education. For candidates who are often experiencing challenges of burgeoning adulthood while simultaneously developing skills and knowledge to work with other human beings, a balance of intrapersonal and interpersonal abilities is paramount. Introductory meditation activities can be as simple as 60 seconds of focused, relaxed breathing, potentially including physical relaxation through body scan awareness. These activities can provide space for reflection and self-compassion as a developing music teacher, as well as space for compassion towards students with whom the candidates work. While other thoughts may sometimes interfere, quiet breathing can provide physical and mental relaxation to clarify perspective regarding internal processes and interpersonal exchanges. The breathing and body scan awareness activities can occur at the beginning or middle of classes or rehearsals, as an opportunity to develop calm and focus, or at the conclusion of a session, providing space for reflection and synthesis. 


Contemplative Listening


Listening can arguably be one of the most important areas pre-service music teachers study. As they interact with the psychological properties of pitch, rhythm, timbre, and loudness in aural skills and theory classes, and further develop error detection through rehearsal techniques for intonation, tone quality, articulation, precision, phrasing, balance and blend, etc., it is imperative that music education majors sharpen listening acuity. Contemplative practices offer an opportunity for candidates to deepen listening skills, for both music and spoken language. 


According to Barbezat and Bush (2014), “deep listening is a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment … very few students have developed this capacity for listening” (p. 137). Similarly, Treasure (2011) warned that most humans do not fully listen, and are even likely to purposefully ignore incoming aural stimuli. Experts from the Listening Center (2016) stated that humans spend approximately half of their time listening, but are distracted or forgetful about 75 percent of that time. 


To counteract these challenges, university professors associated with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (2016) incorporated best practice listening activities into topics including chemistry, law, and architecture. At Bryn Mawr College, for example, chemistry students were instructed to “start with the sounds closest to you … the pumps chugging at the lab bench, the roar of the fume hoods. Slowly extend your awareness outward in circles. Let go of thoughts and emotions and return to the simple sound.” Similarly, Boorstein (1996) compared radars that send information versus satellite dishes that receive, suggesting that students be more like satellite dishes; powered on and ready to receive, but quiet and waiting (Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, 2016).


In music education, these suggestions can easily correspond to rehearsal settings and classes, both as ensemble member and leader. For example, students should be encouraged to listen specifically for bass lines, melodies, or harmonies, close their eyes to listen for those singing or playing the same part, or simply attend to silence occurring within a given musical excerpt. These exercises can be extended to other aspects of life, listening for weather patterns while walking outside, listening for mechanical sounds while inside, and listening with focused purpose while engaged in conversation with others.


Contemplative Movement


In addition to listening, music educators rely on movement for comprehensive teaching and learning. Methodologies such as those of Orff, Kodaly, Dalcroze, and Gordon include movement-based activities for general music settings, and can be adapted for other music teaching contexts (Benedict, 2010). Skills and knowledge related to conducting gestures are also central to most teacher education programs (National Association of Schools of Music, 2013) and marching bands or drum corps can include such physical demands as to compare with some athletic teams. While developing related movement-based competencies, contemplative practices can offer opportunities to hone mind and body balance, while simultaneously providing space for reflection, and can allow more kinesthetic learners to gain better access to course materials (Barbezat & Bush, 2014). 


Leaders from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (2016) supported contemplative movement activities including walking meditation, tai chi ch’uan, yoga, and labyrinth walking in higher education courses including economics, dance, philosophy, and history. Walking meditation can be performed by resting focus of vision approximately two yards forward, counting inhalations and exhalations of the breath while stepping softly at a leisurely pace. Tai chi ch’uan promotes full body movement with softness of musculature and slow motion routine. Yoga also involves full body movement, but is different from general stretching of muscles in that it is intended to unite body, mind, and breath. Labyrinths are maze-like paths often constructed from fabric, sticks, stones, or chalk. Unlike mazes, they are designed in circular patterns, intended to guide participants inward to focus attention and awareness. While the practice originated in cathedrals during the Middle Ages, labyrinths are used today in locations including community centers, hospitals, airports, and institutions of higher education (Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, 2016).


Music applications of contemplative movement can include slowing traditional conducting gestures by two or three times to allow physical and mental space for development of appropriate hand, arm, and baton movements without excessive stress or pain. Setting a metronome to relatively slow speeds can aid in establishing appropriate tempi for refined and relaxed gestures. Similar slowing of movement and expanding of space can enhance development of traditional general music movements such as dancing, chanting, or accurately performing meters and divisions of beat. While beyond the scope of this article, contemplative movement could also lead to study of neuromusculoskeletal treatments for musicians, such as Body Mapping, Feldenkrais Method, and Alexander Technique (e.g., Health Promotion in Schools of Music, 2004).


Contemplative Reading and Writing


Reading and writing are arguably two of the most important skills for any university student to develop and are becoming increasingly important for music education majors. Accountability and scrutiny regarding the education profession, including common core, English language learners, and certification exams such as edTPA (which utilizes specific attention to academic language) place reading and writing at the core of what preservice teachers must negotiate to successfully enter the music education profession. At the same time, practices such as reflective writing and textbook readings have been important staples of music education coursework for much longer.


Contemplative reading can offer a slowing of pace and deepening of learning for students. Instead of rushing from one assignment to another, “it is a process of quiet reflection, which requires mindful attentiveness, a letting go of distracting thoughts and opinions to be fully in the moment with the text” (Barbezat & Bush, 2014, p. 113). Course instructors should select reading assignments carefully, valuing depth over breadth and taking care to ensure that sufficient time and space is given for each reading. Similarly, opportunity for deep discussion and quiet reflection should be afforded as often as possible. Reading selected texts as a class can provide opportunities for group focus. Experts from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (2016) suggested taking a minute to breathe calmly, followed by short excerpts of text read aloud by alternating students. Periods of silence and focused breathing may be interspersed to slow the pace of information and encourage space for reflection.


Writing can also provide a powerful means for contemplative practice, and can be completed in class or as assigned homework. “It is a process of inquiry that, like meditation, can reveal not only content but both the workings of the mind and the nature of the mind itself” (Barbezat & Bush, 2014, p. 123). Writing assignments should be offered frequently, but with care that sufficient time is permitted for completion. While spelling and grammar can be of importance, course instructors should consider focusing primarily on content for certain assignments, such as student self-assessments. In addition to traditional writing assignments, music teacher education classes might include opportunities for detailed lesson planning, performance critiques, notation of compositions, and self-reflections of conducting, rehearsing, and other classroom teaching episodes. Care should be taken to focus on quality over quantity, perhaps reducing the number of assignments, allowing space for deepened focus and awareness while writing.


Cautions and Concerns


While contemplative practices have often been associated with religious practices such as Buddhism and Christianity, it is important to note that their use in music education pedagogy does not need to, nor should it, promote indoctrination. Barbezat and Bush (2014) supported this notion by stating, “as we apply these practices to higher education, clearly we must keep them separate from ideology or creed” (p. xi). Rather, the practices outlined in this article should be gradually introduced as complements to existing curricula, with the consistent aim of easing rather than adding to workload. 


Students who struggle with quiet meditation or other forms of contemplative practice should be encouraged to share concerns with instructors. The opportunity to listen inwardly will sometimes conjure intense emotions that are better addressed by professional mental health experts, and most university campuses have established counseling centers that can be used as resources in the event of such discomfort. Further research should also be conducted to examine the benefits and potential risks of contemplative practices. While most existing research suggests strong benefits, Wilson, Mickes, Stolarz-Fantino, Evrard, and Fantino (2015) found that meditation practices may promote false memories and inaccurate reality monitoring. Regardless, the focus of program curricula and individual classes or rehearsals should remain on music education, with contemplative practices introduced in small doses. Those who wish to further explore can be encouraged to pursue additional opportunities, such as campus or community yoga classes, mindfulness-based stress reduction courses, meditation retreats, or other offerings from formal places of worship.


Modeling Contemplative Practices


Those who have traveled by air will likely recall that, in the unlikely loss of cabin pressure, adults should administer oxygen to themselves before assisting others. Similarly, it is difficult to effectively teach and mentor preservice music teachers if we are not first taking care of ourselves. Berg and Seeber (2016) and Nel (2014) argued that university faculty members may be working too hard, perhaps in an effort to be perceived as valuable to an institution or in an honest desire to help others. However, an excess of workload without time for rest and renewal can lead to stress and burnout, with an unintended result of underperformance. As Nel (2014) stated, “we need to encourage people to become less productive. Make time to not work. Make time to think. Make time to simply be” (par. 12). Similarly, Brown (2009) suggested, “we need newness of play, its sense of flow, and being in the moment” (p. 126). Contemplative practices, in addition to responsible adjustments to sleep, nutrition, and exercise, may aid university faculty in balancing work and life, and can provide a model for helping music education majors sustain good mental health.




“Contemplation is not the opposite of thinking but its complement. It is not the emptying of the mind of thoughts but the cultivation of awareness of thoughts within the mind. Through contemplation, the mind is open to itself” (Barbezat & Bush, 2014,         p. 123). According to the research and best practices presented in this article, utilizing contemplative practices including meditation, reading and writing, movement, and listening can offer students and teachers opportunities for meaningful experiences while simultaneously reducing levels of stress and anxiety. While mindfulness is a prerequisite for all contemplative practices, this secular and academic application goes beyond deepening of awareness and compassion to also include deepening of thinking and learning. Care should be used when selecting resources and activities, as the use of contemplative practices should always serve as an aid to, not a replacement for, effective music teaching and learning. 





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