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 Bernstein—a bassist, composer, music educator, and meditator in Brooklyn, New York—has discovered that mindfulness practice is an excellent means to help music students quiet the chatter a bit and learn how to listen for real. More than that, Bernstein realized, jazz-playing itself has a quality of mindfulness and awareness—and having a regular meditation practice could help players extend that quality into their daily lives.

“There are so many great things about jazz,” he told me. “It’s a democratic art form. It builds community because players need to learn to function together. It requires them to listen to each other or it all breaks down—just like things do in the rest of the world. When you’re not playing, though, how do you find that still place, how do you learn to make space to have silence in the chaos? That’s what meditation can do.”

Bernstein started the Jazz Mindfulness Program in 2009, when the Brooklyn Zen Center (started by students in the tradition of Suzuki Roshi) was about to move into its large new space on Carroll Street. He served as the jazz director at the Berkeley Carroll School for eleven years and also was on the faculty of jazz at Lincoln Center. He plays with the Laurie Berkner Band, which performs and records music for children.

Jazz Mindfulness is for instrumentalists and singers from ages twelve to eighteen. Bernstein leads two fourteen-week seasons: winter, from October to February; and spring, from February to May. The students meet each Monday, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Brooklyn Zen Center for a short meditation followed by instruction and improvisational practice. Each season ends with a concert.

“One of the hardest things for musicians, and probably jazz musicians in particular,” Bernstein says, “is coming down off the high of playing. That’s led to a lot of self-abuse. I’ve had to work with that myself, how to just be with myself. Music has always been a release for young people, but I’d love my students to learn mindfulness at a young age, so that they can have the joy of the music and also get beneath the chatter and the judgment that can suppress the creative, open mind.”

The program emphasizes a range of mindfulness practices beyond sitting meditation—walking, eating, being aware of sensory input—so that the students can see how to connect what they’re learning to everyday life. “My youngest student, Olivia, was telling us the other day how she was tearing herself apart with judgments about her school work, and stressing out. Then she said she noticed her breath and was able to calm herself. That’s what we’re trying to do for these young people.”