Chang, Joanne, Peter Lin, Elizabeth Midlarsky, and Vance Zemon. "Silent Illumination: a Study on Chan (Zen) Meditation, Anxiety, and Musical Performance Quality." Psychology of Music 36.2 (April 2008): 139-155.
By Megumi Okamoto
This article is regarding the study that investigated the effects of Zen meditation on performance anxiety and on performance quality. The study was done as follows: nineteen participants were assigned to either the control group or the meditation group for the period of eight weeks, and they were asked to perform in a concert after this period. Their anxiety levels and the performance qualities were measured. The results indicated that the effects of Zen might help the performers channel the anxiety to improve their performances.
As performance anxiety is serious problem that affects a great number of musicians, there has been numerous studies on the types of approaches that may help the issue, including systematic desensitization, music analysis, and cognitive restructuring, to name a few. Some researchers recommend that we combine different treatment techniques. Among these approaches is meditation, which became popular in the past two decades. Meditation teaches one to experience life fully as it unfolds from moment to moment. Its effects have been widely investigated in the recent past, although its relevance in the field of musical performance is still largely unexplored.
There are two components to the Zen meditation, which is concentration and mindfulness. This has been referred to as "silent illumination" since the 11th century. This is the mindfulness of both inner mental states and the outer state, with a calm and non-judgmental attitude. The goal is not to change or challenge undesired thoughts, but to observe them with an open attitude. It is considered to be a meta-cognitive skill, which can be described as "cognition about one's cognition." By becoming a detached observer of one's own mental activity, one is able to create a conceptual flexibility. According to research, during meditation, the brain is calm, thereby producing more delta and theta waves, but is also alert, thus producing alpha and beta activity. Also, brain regions that are associated with attention and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants.
After describing the concept of meditation and its effects, the article progresses to part two, which consists of detailed depiction of the procedure of their study, including methods, measures of anxiety and of performance quality, contents of the meditation classes, analysis, and the results. An important point to note is that although their hypothesis stated that participants in the meditation group would have less anxiety and better musical performance, the data did not support this. Instead, a positive correlation is found for performance anxiety and for performance in the meditation group. This may indicate that the high anxiety scores of the meditation group reflect the higher awareness of the internal states that are typically associated with feelings of anxiety.
This article reminds me that the utmost importance in playing is that the musicians themselves learn to appreciate their own performances on stage, because that would lead to self-satisfying performances. I think that audiences not only enjoy the music itself, but the way in which the performer seems to feel about it.
Although I am from Japan, I am not at all familiar with the concept of Zen (although I came across it in books by reputable authors such as Eckhart Tolle). I feel that the majority of the people in Japan are as ignorant as I am. And it is the same case in the West. It seems to me that it is the exotic flavor of the Zen concept that sold itself to the Western culture. I hear more about Zen in U.S. and Canada than I did in Japan, but it seems to be a rather superficial trend. I am not surprised that the researchers found that eight weeks did not make a drastic difference in the performance quality- this approach is definitely not meant to be a short-term commitment.
As performers, we each have our individual needs, and thus differ in the approaches that can click with our personalities when it comes to dealing with performance anxiety. And I agree that we must keep our eyes open to discover the approaches that are the most effective and suitable. Our responsibility is not only to practice music, but to keep on rediscovering ourselves so that we can keep on learning how to maintain ourselves at the desired mental state. Zen and meditation might work well on some, and not as well on others. But it is worth the attempt.
Now that the Western music tradition became more worldwide, the Eastern philosophies are making its way to become popular. I think that we can take the advantage of living in this unique era where we have access to countless sources, and enrich ourselves and the humanity.