Interview with Marty Hackleman on Meditating, Performing, and Thinking about Music


Artist in residence and associate teaching professor of horn at UMKC, Marty Hackleman has enjoyed an incredible performance career — ranging from solo engagements, to the Canadian Brass, to principal horn of the National Symphony — and considers his daily meditation practice to a hugely important part of his life. I sat down with Marty earlier this summer to dig into how meditation has played a role in his career and found the entire talk fascinating and inspiring. Marty practices Transcendental Meditation (TM), a silent mantra-based meditation created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s. The practice of TM tends to be shrouded in mystery to the uninitiated but Marty helped to clear up many of the misconceptions I had. Please enjoy and feel free to leave questions or comments below or in the official Audition Playbook discussion group.


First, could you tell me a little bit about how you started meditating? 

I grew up all over the place but most of my upbringing was in Houston, Texas. In the late 1960s, my father was working in talk radio. For a number of years while I was growing up, he had two shows. One was called “Tradio” where people would call in to say “I have a bed to sell” and things like that and the other was called “Anything Goes” — and it truly was that — anything goes. On that show, he interviewed anyone and everyone — movie stars, politicians, authors, artists — anyone. It was an hour, hour-and-a-half show that aired five days a week and he got to know everybody. Well, evidently, one of the first places that Maharishi came to in the late 1960s was Houston and so my father got to meet him. At that time, Maharishi wasn’t charging anything for his teachings. He actually set up in an old house in the neighborhood and personally came out and trained people. So we got inducted or initiated into it back then right when it first started. I wasn’t very old — 15 or 16 — and I remember going through the process, coming there with the entire family, and coming there individually, and eventually thinking “Oh, I don’t need this.” You know how you are when you’re young. I learned to do it, and it was fine, but I didn’t really do it at all until I got my first job in Calgary in 1972. 

I was about 19, and I had only played for three years before I got that job. After a few years in Calgary, I moved to Vancouver for the first of two stints there. At some point, I suddenly started feeling super tired all the time. It must have been chronic fatigue syndrome but nobody knew it at the time. I tried dieting and sleeping more for about six months but it just didn’t help. Then I wondered, “I wonder if that TM would work…” So I remembered my mantra and decided to sit down for a week and do it and see what happened. It could have been a coincidence, but by the end of the week, I was completely changed. I felt great mentally and physically. I have always been sort of a morning person which doesn’t go very well with the life of symphony musicians because you’ve gotta be on your game between 8-10pm, so I always found it super beneficial for me, both physically and mentally, and in ways that have changed a lot over the decades. 

What has changed? And how has meditating benefited you over the decades?

Well, the effects changed. At first, I just did the classic meditation. You know… “introduce the mantra, don’t try to control the mind” and it worked. Sometimes you finish and you’re like, “nothing took place here,” but then you realize you actually feel really different -- physically and emotionally different. 

And it’s actually one of the main reasons I ended up playing with the Canadian Brass. In 1983 or so, I got a call about subbing for six weeks or so with them. About two weeks into it, they said, “Well, how about forever? Do you want to do it until you retire?” Wow, OK! And then they said, “We do have one thing that is really important, however. It’s really important that you do TM — so you’re going to have to learn to do that.” I said, “No problem! I already know how to do that!” Then during that time, we went to some special seminars with Maharishi and got some advanced training and mantras. 

But now… I honestly don’t understand how anybody can function in any way without meditating. I don’t do it twice in the day, usually just once in the late afternoon. Even in the simplest of times, it can be so profound, and it never stays the same. Now, I just sort of have to think about thinking about it and I kind of just snap into it and it just does it. Even while having a conversation like this, I can just sort of think about it, feel a tingle of warmth, and it kicks in. I just don’t know how people survive without it -- especially artists. To me, it’s like… OK, you have a concert tonight… before dinner time, around 5 pm, you go meditate… instead of worrying about this and that and hoping your chops feel good, you go and meditate, and then you realize, “Oh, it’s all good.” It’s like you had a wake up in the morning, even though it doesn’t ever feel really like waking from sleep. Some mornings, you wake up and you think, “New day! It’s a great morning! I feel great today!” It’s like you did that… in twenty minutes. It’s really profound for me. 

It has sort of morphed even in the last six months or so again for me. It will sound really weird, and it’s nothing that’s conscious and I don’t know why my system thinks of it or senses it this way. But when I go to sit down to meditate, I close my eyes, and immediately a big, thick, velvet curtain drops from the top down to the stage, and I feel my eye sockets suddenly get huge. The whole front of my face is open, my breath goes down, there’s a tingle — and you’re there. I don’t know why, but there’s an openness of me. And you’re still thinking about things, hearing things in the room, and experiencing all that stuff, but I just love how sometimes you come out of it and have no earthly idea where you are. Then it feels like, “Oh boy, I get to do new things now! It might be the same old thing I did a half-hour ago, but it feels new!” 

And you know, as a musician, it calmed me down. 

You always hear people saying, “Think ahead! Think ahead!” And that never works. Because thinking ahead is never positive -- it’s always negative. “Oh, letter P is coming up… that’s a hard lick and I don’t know if my chops can do it…” That’s thinking ahead. When you’re in those really great days of playing though, when everything is effortless, you’re like a dog wallowing in the grass. They’re not thinking ahead! So what I always tell myself and my students is, in essence, that you only have one job — and that’s to be slightly better than yesterday but not as good as tomorrow. If you do that, you’re able to stay in this present time, it feels great! We’re relishing every note because it feels effortless! You’re not thinking behind and you’re not thinking ahead. And this goes with the meditation philosophy and has been explored a lot. The irony for me is that when you meditate, you allow your mind to flicker around like a firefly — worrying, caring, planning, whatever — but by allowing it the freedom to just let it go wherever it wants, it just sits down.

There is a caveat… of course you think ahead… pacing yourself mentally and physically… but at some point, you have to take your hands off the worry wheel and just do it. “I am ready for this, I practiced for this, and I know I can do this, so don’t get in my way!” 

An example of this for me… I played so many hundreds and hundreds of concerts with the quintet. And once we were on a Russian tour before the Wall came down, somewhere around 1986, and the first concert of the tour was in Leningrad Symphony Hall. When we got there for the dress rehearsal they told us it would be a live TV broadcast. Their cameras looked like those old 1950s robots and they walked around with them on those big rolling tripods on stage while we were playing and it was very irritating. Someone told us then that there would be about 15 million people watching the show. So that started to somehow get into my head. We had been playing this stuff forever, but for some reason at that dress rehearsal with the distractions and the cameras, I started thinking, “I cannot mess this up.” Finally, in the afternoon, I just told myself to shut the f*** up. I had to distract my brain to stay in the moment — don’t think or worry ahead — distract. So, we were in Russia and the food really sucked. I started thinking, “I would really love some pizza…” As soon as I even thought the word “pizza,” I could smell it, I could taste it, my salivary glands kicked in, and I could really think of just savoring the cheese. It was a complete sensory thing. When the concerts came around and I stepped up to play my solos, I just thought about pizza. And I did fine and I was out of my own way. 

When you let the mind virtually take over and not try to control its worry or flight path, it becomes simply not a problem. The best I’ve ever felt has been on those golden days where things just feel perfect. On those days, you’re not thinking ahead because the present moment is so sweet. The more you can do that and allow yourself to stay there and find the sweet spot — which won’t be the same as yesterday — the better. 

Can you explain TM to someone who has no idea what it is? 

Well, I’d say it’s not something where you have to sit a certain way or anything. Sometimes I will start by focusing on the breath a little just to get started. People mistakenly assume that, because it is “mantra-based,” that you have to concentrate and repeat it like a prayer over and over until God listens to you. No, you don’t. It has nothing to do with religion and it has nothing to do with control. It’s the opposite. Let your mind just flit around and then just gently introduce you mantra. The mantra should just be like a little paper airplane that you throw out into the midst of all the thoughts and let it float around. Somehow, that helps settle you down. Let yourself think thoughts, let yourself worry, let yourself plan — just keep your eyes closed and gently throw in the mantra wherever it feels good. 

What is a TM mantra?

It’s not a word… it’s sort of a sound. And they say you should never say it out loud. At first, you’re like, “Well, why not?” But after a while you kind of see. Evidently, there’s only like 6-10 of them and they all come from the Sanskrit. If I had to describe it, it’s like the tone of a singing bowl or something. You can’t really say that out loud anyway. It is so embedded now… you just start thinking about thinking about it… and my body just knows. I don’t think real “words” are a great idea. Something like “AIR” would just be too solid. It’s no meaning or affirmation. Although, I believe that they all did come from somewhere… in the ancient Sanskrit… they meant something… but it isn’t some direct translation. 

Because it’s so ambiguous too, it has its own unique place to me. It’s not like any other thought or conscious statement or idea. It’s its own thing. I would imagine that people can get that from other types of meditation, but because it is so unique and simple, it has a very distinct place in my mind and life. 

How is TM different from mindfulness meditation? Are you noting “planning,” “thinking,” etc?

I don’t categorize things. I might say, “Oh, this is an emotional issue that I need to come to grips with” or something, but I never paint it any particular color. I just kind of see, “This is an emotional issue or this is a practical issue.” The mantra keeps everything lubricated. It makes my mind--no matter how much it wants to stiffen up — very viscous and allows me to sort of slide around between ideas. 

There is probably some mindfulness there. I never had really heard that term until the past few years. It was never really conscious to do it or not do it. It was just a dance between the meditation and the mantra to literally lubricate the fears. 

As time passed, I changed — emotionally, physically, professionally — but so did TM for me. It has never been static. It has allowed a different perspective that changes over the years. It changes a lot and it changes a lot of things inside of you. Exactly how and when? You can’t know. It just depends on the person and how much they care about it. That goes against the Type-A path… “I must know the path, see the path, be driven by the path, and see each step…” but no. You have to allow it to happen. 

It’s what I call the Responsible Bandsman to my students. The Responsible Bandsman always does exactly what he’s told, plays exactly what’s on the page — breathe in, blow out. Well, that’s not going to get you very far. You’ve tried valiantly 200 times to play this lick right and you’ve messed it up every time. What do you think will happen on #201 if you do it the same way? Do you think the gods are going to smile on you and say you deserve a break? No. So you have to think beyond the Responsible Bandsman. I give them the tools to think beyond this on the horn but you also have to think about this emotionally. 

Tell me about your new project… 

It’s a new book in the process of being printed now called “Playing Together but Not at the Same Time.” The first part of it will be “Excerpt Preparation Beyond ‘Practice, Pray, Repeat.’” You know how we get — you sit down, play it, pick it apart, play it, etc. What I want to get them to do is experience it in different ways. So let’s say you’re sitting down to work on the 2nd movement solo from Tchaikovsky 5. First, the excerpt will come with a lengthy explanation of the historical and contextual information and you’ll see the score. The idea, however, is to learn it with two people as a duo — Player A and B — playing the solo line together, but separately. So it might be written that the Player A plays the first five notes then Player B plays the next five and back and forth. But before we even do that, we’re going to sing it. I always tell students that there is a Pavarotti upstairs in their brain but we never hear it because we have too many things in the way and we never let him sing. So we are going to let him speak. Don’t care about the tone of your voice, if you need to move the range, or any of that. But listen to the way you’re shaping the notes and the direction you’re giving it. As we sing it, together, we’re also both going to conduct it, and then we’ll switch parts. As we do this, we’re really learning the pacing and the delicacy of how these notes are really approached and released — without ever worrying about the horn and “please God, don’t let me miss it.” We’re just taking it back to a place where we are experiencing and understanding exactly what we should be getting the horn to do. Always bring the horn up to the level of the music, not the music down to the level of the horn. At least if we start with a clear picture in our mind — of beauty, simplicity, direction, and tone — then you can ask the horn to do something other than to not mess it up. 

And all of this goes back to being in the present. You’re not having to worry about fingers, intonation, chops, or breath. And by doing it in a duo style — not a duet — you’re doing a dance. Someone has to lead and someone has to follow and it constantly changes based on the moves people make. Essentially, I am trying to apply the tools that awareness and meditation has given me on a practical basis.

Martin Hackleman joined the faculty of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance as artist in residence and associate teaching professor of horn in fall 2012... Click here to read his full bio.



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