Meditation & Mindfulness for Musicians
Jesse Israel, founder of The Big Quiet, talks about the benefits of mental calm, and how to start your own practice.
For a musician, writing, recording, performing, promoting, touring, and often juggling other side jobs leaves little time for self-reflection and R&R. But more and more artists—from Kendrick Lamar to Katy Perry—have been turning to meditation for their well-being as well as for its potential to tap into another level of their creativity. It only requires ten minutes a day, but it can change your life, according to meditation teacher and wellness leader Jesse Israel, a former music manager and record-label head who knows the stress of the music biz firsthand.
When he was twenty, Israel started managing the band MGMT and co-launched the record label Cantora Records out of his NYU dorm room. By the time he graduated, he was already experiencing panic attacks and debilitating anxiety. He soon turned to meditation and began to experience some dramatic shifts. “My anxiety began to subside,” he says, “and I started feeling a lot clearer about the work that I wanted to do, what I stood for, and how I could use my creativity and skills to have an impact on the musicians I was working with.”
Israel eventually left Cantora and started organizing community meditations. Those monthly gatherings, called Medi Club, grew into The Big Quiet, which involves mass meditations at iconic places like Madison Square Garden. Through these events, he’s collaborated with musicians like Miguel and members of Arcade Fire. Israel believes that when artists are vocal about mental health and self-care practices like meditation, it helps tools and resources become more accessible to other musicians.
When Israel talks about meditation, he first focuses on the science behind it. Studies have found that it can measurably reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“Meditation can change our nervous system and rewire our brains if we’re practicing it regularly,” he says. He explains that while it’s certainly not a cure-all, it can slowly change the way you feel and how you approach the stressors in your life by tempering an evolutionary function controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. The “fight-or-flight” response is designed to help humans in life-threatening situations; when it’s triggered, your heart rate increases, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, muscles tense up, arteries shrink, and blood thickens. The body is flooded with adrenaline and stress hormones, and the digestive and reproductive systems shut off so that you have the extra energy to fight or flee.
“What's unfortunate about this is that our bodies haven't really caught up to the changes in how we live today. Something like a bad email or text or Instagram comment will trigger the fight-or-flight response,” Israel explains. “It's said that we experience about 25 fight-or-flight triggers a day on average. We may only feel that discomfort in our body for a couple of minutes, but the physiological changes are still happening for about an hour,” he adds. This means that most of us are stuck in the fight-or-flight state constantly, resulting in fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout, which affects the way we work, create, and enjoy our lives.
Meditation, however, can start to tune down that stress response by turning on the parasympathetic nervous system, which loosens you up, calms you down, allows you to digest properly, and releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin. “You’ll find that with less stress and anxiety blocking your system, you’ll start to do everything with more heart, presence, focus, clarity, and creativity. You’ll become more decisive, confident, and comfortable,” Israel says. “And this can greatly increase your chances for success.”
Getting started on a meditation and mindfulness practice
Of course, getting started is always the hardest part. Here are Israel’s top tips for initiating a regular meditation practice and committing to daily digital detoxes to help open up your mind, body, and creative soul.
1. Find a meditation teacher, course, or app.
Israel believes the best way to begin a consistent meditation practice is to get trained by someone that can teach you how to do it. But if that’s not realistic for you, he recommends trying out an app, like 1 Giant Mind, Calm, or Headspace. Otherwise playlists, like Mind Massage, are also good resources.
2. Make a commitment to meditate every morning for one month.
It’s all about forming a habit. Go with a teacher or app that clicks with you (you may have to try a few to start), and then commit to doing a meditation for one month every morning for 10 minutes. “It may feel like a long time to start, but that 10 minutes will greatly impact the remaining 23 hours and 50 minutes of your day,” he says.
3. Put your phone on airplane mode when you go to bed.
This is a suggestion for everybody, but one he specifically likes to offer to touring musicians. Put the phone into airplane mode when you go to sleep at night, and don’t turn it back on until after your morning meditation.
4. Leave your phone completely out of the bedroom.
Better yet, leave that phone far away from your bed altogether. This can be a little bit more challenging on tour, but Israel recommends not sleeping with the phone in your bedroom and ideally using an analog alarm clock. “This can change the energy in the room, the quality of your sleep, and even your ability to be present with your partner,” he says.
5. Turn off notifications for almost everything.
Nix those distracting notifications. “If a musician can limit these to just a couple of the most critical apps, it'll shift their ability to be present, to be creative, to perform, to make music, to connect with their teams. It's a game-changer and I can't recommend that enough,” Israel says.
6. Find time for mini mindful moments...
… even when you’re about to go out on stage. Here’s a quick and easy breathing technique for when your nerves get the best of you: Sit in a chair or stand while keeping your spine straight. Take one big inhale, letting the chest and belly fully fill up with air. Then, sip in a bit more air and hold it for a few seconds before letting it all out. Repeat five times.
7. Stay present.
Another mindfulness technique to try when you’re noticing yourself getting distracted in, say, a meeting with your label, is to simply shift your attention to your toes, feeling each digit against your socks and shoes. “This takes you back into your body. Anytime we're able to reconnect with our bodies, we're able to reset into the present moment,” Israel says.
8. Prioritize time to do nothing.
Beyond meditation, Israel also recommends scheduling in time to just do nothing—without feeling guilty about it. Read a novel, listen to music, take a walk, or just chill out in the sun. “These things are so important, and they're almost becoming lost art forms,” he says. But it’s in these moments that artists will often realize their greatest creative potential. Science can even back up this theory, with plenty of evidence showing that a relaxed brain can bring about our best and brightest light-bulb moments.