Mindfulness practice is an excellent means to help students learn how to listen "for real." Barry Boyce talks to musician, educator and meditator Adam Berstein about a jazz mindfulness program making a difference for teens in Brooklyn.

Adam Bernstein (back row, right) with students from the Jazz Mindfulness Program he leads in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Ian Case

We are creatures built for listening, not only with our ears, but with every part of our being. In studies of empathy, neuroscience is now showing us just how attuned we are to picking up signals from others around us and from our environment generally. We swim in a sea of sensations and we are apparently well equipped to take it all in. Nevertheless, it seems hard for us to scale back the part of us that generates output, that is overeager to contribute its two cents. So often, when we could be listening, we are strategizing about the next thing to say, or otherwise dwelling in the internal chatter so familiar to anyone who has tried to still the mind for more than two minutes.

Improvisational music relies on our innate ability to listen fully and to let something emerge out of that, in a spontaneous, almost magical way. Perching on the edge of our seat while someone else is playing, trying to figure out how to have our moment on the stage, doesn’t lead to good improvising. To truly listen is one of the hardest skills to cultivate, but it is central to jazz improvisation. Adam…