[PRIVATE DRAFT] Meditation, Mindfulness, and Musicians, Part Two: An Interview with Dr. Anne-Marie Cherry

Dr. Anne-Marie Cherry — newly appointed assistant professor of horn at Columbus State University — is one of my favorite people to talk to. She is both passionate and insightful about so many different topics and ideas and I admire her greatly. Despite overlapping in our studies at neighboring schools Colburn and USC, we only met for the first time this spring in Miami. Staying at the same hotel and carpooling to rehearsals across southern Florida for a week gave us many opportunities to chat about the horn, ranching, LA, and of course, meditation — to which Anne-Marie has dedicated some of her research. I’m excited to share this interview with you. Newbie, novice, and professionals alike — there are some great ideas here we could all benefit from.

To begin, can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

I love performing, recording, teaching, and writing about music…. basically, I’m greedy, and just want to do music in all the ways I can! I’ve won auditions, played terribly at auditions, and *almost* won auditions many times over. In 2009, I started commissioning pieces from composers and it’s honestly my favorite work that I do as a performer. Ten pieces so far — ranging from chamber works to concertos to horn with jazz orchestra — and I’m really excited to be premiering a new concerto for horn and wind ensemble in the spring of 2020 at the University of Texas Austin. 

I was just appointed as the Assistant Professor of Horn at CSU’s Schwob School of Music which I’m SO excited to begin. Someone asked me if that meant I was “done” playing — absolutely not! In fact, now I have more opportunities and resources to pursue the variety I crave as a performer and recording artist while also getting to work with a phenomenally talented cohort of students who are passionate about building the future of our field... I feel like the luckiest girl alive. 

Apart from music, I’m a nerd with a ranching hobby. I love learning languages, read as many things as I can get my hands on, and dabble in visual arts. My family has a ranch in Texas, which I get to see less of now, but is still a huge part of my heart. I love the quiet of nature, working with my hands, being around the animals, and will build you a barbed wire fence if you ask politely.

And, of course, you research and promote mindfulness and meditation! When were you first introduced to these concepts?

During my doctoral studies at the University of Southern California, I took a course on music and the brain (it was awesome). As a project for that class, I designed a longitudinal research study on methodologies of treating performance anxiety including mindfulness meditation. My first encounter with mindfulness was through an article in a scientific journal on anxiety disorders — very cerebral and removed from myself, haha! 

Though my study was purely theoretical, it launched me into the world of mindfulness from a research perspective. Eventually, I would continue this research in the form of a literature review of Mindfulness in Music (completed in 2015).

In all of this research, I saw echoes of myself and my students and became keenly interested in how mindfulness applied to my own musical life. Chatting with musician friends highlighted to me what a profound need musicians have in this area, and I’ve been tinkering with it, asking lots of questions, and reading everything from psychology textbooks to mindfulness journals to keep exploring the topic. 

What benefits do you personally get from practicing mindfulness and meditation?

I had never been a “great” practicer on the horn, but I got by and had lots of little successes. Then I got hungry for more but felt like I was constantly hitting the same wall over and over — specifically, I was a terrible auditioner. But I wanted a job, so I kept at it, and was miserable.

As I was prepping for a huge audition, I laid out a routine, of sorts, that I would do to get “in the zone.” It was a coping mechanism, really. The job itself was SO huge, that I found it overwhelming to consider, and when I picked up my horn, I was just not being productive. So, I mapped out a fundamentals routine. It started with a simple Doug Hill breathing exercise, with a metronome going at 60 bpm, and moved through buzzing/long tones/lip slurs (etc, etc), with that 60 bpm heartbeat. It took 20 minutes. At the end of those 20 minutes, I realized that I was truly focused, had a calm mind, and was ready to practice in a way I’d never been before.

I turned my warm up into a sort of meditation, without realizing what I was doing… and it was amazing. Even though that exact routine is no longer my go-to, the foundation has stayed — my most fulfilling, rewarding and successful practicing follows a contemplative and meditative prep session. 

It probably took me until the age of 30 to realize that the disquiet in my mind was having a profoundly negative impact on the quality of work I was doing AND on my enjoyment of that work. I had to admit it to myself: my brain needs help quieting itself and getting into a productive place, just like some of my friends need to free buzz before they play, or are served by spending more time on a certain type of fundamental. Meditation is my way of addressing the foundation of all of our musical work: focus and intention. 

In your mindfulness-based research, teaching, and practice, what have you learned about musicians?

The more I studied mindfulness, and explored utilizing it in my own work, the more naturally it flowed into other areas. Often, I wasn’t framing concepts particularly as mindful/meditation in my language, but as intention/awareness/etc. There’s a framework for mindfulness that I love — Intention-Attention-Awareness (IAA) — because it’s infinitely useful in musical life and I find myself continually utilizing that mindset of intentionality and encouraging my students to as well. 

I also became increasingly interested in how musical training shapes our way of thinking; researchers like Ruth Baer have identified five facets of mindfulness: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judgment, and non-reactivity. As musicians, observing and describing are at the core of what we do, we hone those skills continually. But how many music students approach their personal practice (of fundamentals, repertoire, anything) by acting with awareness or intention? And the last two? OOF.  I believe there is a deep connection between the last two, non-judgment and non-reactivity, and issues like job satisfaction, performance anxiety, and freedom to play expressively. 

As I’m exploring mindfulness in daily lives and musical endeavors with other musicians, it’s increasingly clear that many of us are getting lost in similar “sticky thoughts” about why we aren’t progressing in auditions, or what narratives we create for ourselves, etc. Left unchecked, these judgments and emotional reactions can fuse with our self-identities. 

It has been absolutely delightful to speak with musicians and watch that moment when they realize something about themselves that they are ready to face, work through, or embrace. There’s a lot of empowerment in that recognition, and freedom, too. 

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What is the difference between “mindfulness” and “meditation”?

I think of mindfulness as a habit of mind, a way of thinking. Meditation is a tool to cultivate that.

We do things mindfully and mindlessly everyday; breathing everyday (mindless) vs. breathing to play an instrument (mindful), gobbling down a quick granola bar for breakfast (mindless) vs. savoring an epicurean brunch (mindful). 

Meditation harnesses our attention, shifts us from mindless towards mindful. 

What are the tangible “benefits” of meditating? 

Scientists have a multitude of answers, and volumes of data to support them, but I’ll share two that I have observed in myself and my students:

1. Unlocking ways of thinking, hearing and engaging. Meditation is a choice to put aside the habits of our minds that govern our interactions on a subconscious level and shift our attention. Often, we encounter and discover things that transform our understanding and appreciation. 

I think of it like zooming in on a George Seurat painting. From a distance, you see the overall picture and the closer you get, the more colors your eyes see. Contrasting colors in tiny dots right next to each other. As you step back away, your eyes remember the contrast and see more depth, enjoying the subtlety of the effect more than you did looking only from far away.

2. Disengaging from emotions by recognizing their impermanence. Feelings have a way of embedding themselves. We stew in our emotions and then often feel guilty/angry/frustrated at ourselves for doing so. Mindful meditation encourages you to recognize the emotion and observe it. Realize that it is fleeting; you are living through it, but you are not it. 

What about for musicians specifically — how can meditating help play the horn, or the oboe, or the theremin?

Meditation is a great tool for musicians because it’s a way to hone in on a personal aspect of what we do, turning inward so that we can manifest something outwards. You can meditate for many different reasons; centering yourself before a performance or audition, clearing your mental fog to dig deeper in practice (this has been powerful in my own life), increasing our attentional capacity for listening, disengaging from negative emotions/stimuli. You can bring intention to any of those areas!

Meditating at a certain time of day, or developing meditative practices that run parallel to professional work can be incredibly useful. Many orchestral musicians I know have a centering meditation or exercise they do before concerts. 

I am a firm believer in transforming activities into meditations (like my 60 bpm warm-up routine from all those years ago) by shifting the focus from the embedded pedagogy (“I do this exercise because my teacher assigned it” or “I have to check these boxes in my warm-up”) and activating different avenues of awareness that deepen our understanding and mastery of what we do. 

Do you think music schools adequately address health and wellness today? In what ways have you seen improvement and in what ways do you see a need for change?

Individual professors are doing a lot to promote awareness of health and wellness in music schools via guest artists/projects/readings etc, and I love seeing that. Occasionally, I see a school that hosts monthly Alexander Technique classes or facilitates safe places for discussing mental health with trained professionals, but I wouldn’t say it’s widespread. The wheels of academia move slowly, so I don’t necessarily think it’s ideal for there to be a “one sized” top-down edict from NASM or another organization. I do think it’s absolutely imperative that we (as teachers and mentors) cultivate awareness and healthy cultures in our individual programs, and that students feel like they can ask these questions, explore these topics as openly as other topics regarding a life in music (repertoire, instrument maintenance, etiquette, audition planning, etc).

I am encouraged to see the number of presentations and papers on topics like that at music educator conferences, or even the International Horn Society. Health and wellness are starting to rise in our collective consciousness as an integral part of holistic musicianship, 

A lot of people think meditation is all about “clearing the mind” and when they find that they can’t do that, they quit. What would you say to the many people who say, “I tried it — I couldn’t clear my mind — so I quit?” 

There are many approaches to meditation, and many avenues to get there. Instead of trying to clear or empty your mind, shift your attention to a specific thing and bring it into clearer focus.

If you are sitting to meditate and find your mind wandering, bring your attention back to your body. Breath is always a good place to start. Notice the feeling of your lungs and chest expanding, the temperature of your breath, slow it down and deepen it, etc. Body scan exercises are a form of meditation that utilize somatic sensations to focus the mind. Those exercises are great starting point, I think.

Some people prefer visualization meditations (“imagine that your mind is a lake in the mountain valley,” etc). If that works for you- great! If it doesn’t, totally fine.  Our brains work in different ways, I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all meditation.  

Walking meditations are awesome, as are art-viewing meditations. There are so many meditation apps now, and each has its own flavor and focus.  Don’t give up! Habits of mind take time to cultivate. You’ve spent your whole life developing how you think about things — shifting towards a different habit may feel uncomfortable at first but you can develop it slowly.  

What about to the people who find it boring or — worse — find it scary to be alone with their thoughts?

Usually, when I hear people say meditation is boring, it’s because they are trying to “empty their mind” or “think of nothing” or just “sit in absolute stillness,” etc. Not only are those hard to do, but it can also be really frustrating to try to do “nothing.”  If that approach to meditation doesn’t click with you, seek out on that is more physically active (e.x. walking meditation, body scan) or has a path for your mind to follow (see the Lake Meditation suggested below). 

Mindfulness and mindful meditation can bring us into contact with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and I understand not desiring to dwell there. One concept I find particularly helpful in navigating such moments is observing your feelings and recognizing that they are impermanent and not tied to your identity. Imagine you are sitting in a tall building and watching a storm roll in. You see the wind and the rain; you are in the midst of a storm —but you are watching it; you are not the storm. It will end and you will still be you and you will have passed through the storm.

If you find yourself being scared of your thoughts, I think it’s incredibly important to reach out for support. Mindfulness and meditation can be powerful tools in the journey to healing oneself, but are not the only tools. Therapy, counseling, and time with loved ones are all incredibly important!

If someone reading this has never meditated a day in their life, where would you direct them? How should they begin to practice and learn? 

Apps like Head Space, Calm, Pacifica, and Buddhify all have great meditations, and the convenience of having them on your phone is fantastic.

(Rachelle would like to add the 10% Happier app, podcast, and book).

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are is a great read, and an awesome balance of pragmatic reasons for mindful meditations and questions to jump start contemplation. My copy is underlined, annotated and quite worn — and I’ve come back to it many times. I particularly like the Lake Meditation in this book. 

What about for those with a little bit of experience interested in learning more?

The American Mindfulness Research Association (https://goamra.org/) not only publishes recent research into applications of mindfulness in different disciplines, but also maintains a database of local mindfulness centers and programs.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness is a lovely book and much more on the spiritual side of practice.

Do you have to be a little spiritual to meditate? 

I don’t think so, though it certainly can be a spiritual experience. Meditation is a key component of several religious and/or spiritual practices, but not exclusive to them, and ultimately it comes back to the individual. A body scan is a great example: turning your attention towards the sensations your body is experiencing is not necessarily spiritual, but it can be very powerful.

Lastly, the big question — do you have to sit uncomfortably with your legs crossed to meditate? 

Nope! There are meditations for almost every posture you can imagine. Find one that is comfortable for you, and aligns with your intention (if you are meditating to relax after a long day and prep for bed, find a quiet place, wear comfy clothes etc.) 

I think comfort is the biggest component. When I lead body scan meditations for music students, I ask them to sit in a chair with their feet flat on the floor, their hands hanging by their side or resting on their legs with eyes closed. It’s the fairly neutral seated position, but it’s usually the closed eyes that help people feel more comfortable. 

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For other articles in the meditation and mindfulness series:

https://www.auditionplaybook.com/mindfulness-and-meditation

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Anne-Marie Cherry is a versatile performer and educator enjoying a varied career as a soloist, chamber/orchestral musician, clinician, and recording artist.  She performs with orchestras nationwide, including recent engagements with the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, Spokane Symphony, and ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, and spends her summers as Associate Principal Horn of the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra.  

As a soloist, she has performed with the Iowa Center for New Music, the Bainbridge Symphony, Texas Chamber Group, USC Wind Ensemble, UT New Music Ensemble, and the UT Jazz Orchestra. Additionally, she is the featured solo horn on the soundtrack of the upcoming film The Last Full Measure. Anne-Marie can also be heard on City People by Greg Johnson, the UT Wind Ensemble recording of John Corigliano’s Circus Maximus, and a soon to be released album of the chamber works of Zach Stanton.

A strong advocate of performer/composer collaboration, Anne-Marie frequently commissions new works for the horn in diverse contexts. She has collaborated with composers such as Zach Stanton, Hermes Camacho, Dennis Llinas, and Gabriel Santiago—and was the dedicatee of the ASCAP winning “Northern Impressions Suite,” which she recorded in the fall of 2009 with the University of Texas Jazz Orchestra.  Another commission, Stanton’s Trio for Horn, Harp and Viola was recorded this summer and for an upcoming album of the composer’s chamber works.

Newly appointed as Assistant Professor of Horn at Columbus State University, Dr. Cherry previously served on the faculties of The University of Texas at Austin, Spokane Falls Community College and Pasadena City College. An active guest artist & clinician, she explores mindfulness in music performance and practice with students and teachers around the country.

Dr. Cherry completed her D.M.A at the University of Southern California, crafting a unique course of study in horn performance, music education, arts leadership, and contemporary music studies.  A proud longhorn alum, she received her M.M. and B.M. from The University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music.

For more on Anne-Marie, visit annemariecherryhorn.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @pocomenoshark.

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