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Play the Tune Again

The Scottish Ensemble. From

Play the tune again: It should be easier
to think less every time of the notes, of the measure.
It is all an arrangement of silence. Be silent, and then
play it for your pleasure.

Play the tune again: and this time when it ends,
do not ask me what I think. Feel what is happening
strangely in the room as the sound glooms over
you, me, everything.

Now, play the tune again.

Alastair Reid, from “A Lesson in Music”

Intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed.

Rick Hanson (2013, 10)

The Scottish Ensemble is one of the UK’s most highly regarded string orchestras, who have been “shrinking the gap between listeners and musicians,” making “ageless art for the here and now.” (Scottish Ensemble) One of their long-standing collaborations is with Maggie Cancer Care centers, offering music and mindfulness sessions, which they are also starting to bring into schools and other environments. They invited me as a mindfulness trainer to prepare them for their next tour, and I felt delighted and privileged to take up this opportunity to work with this much-admired group of musicians. To some extent I felt that I knew the players already. Compared with traditional orchestras, they establish more intimate connections with audiences, playing in the middle of the concert space rather than on a stage, for example, and sometimes engaging listeners in mindful listening and dialogue. Meeting the group within this confluence of music, mindfulness, and communication was an opportunity for me to integrate some of my main strands of passion, as I am also a trained musician—cello, piano, and Dalcroze rhythmics—and a transformational coach.

At some point during the training day, the ensemble played the same one-minute sequence over and over, each time with a different focus for listening. The music they chose for this was a self-contained passage from a piece of music from the classical period. The idea was that such an exercise would encourage focused, mindful listening for the audience—and possibly for the players too—and give rewarding topics to talk about afterward. Among the many possibilities, I chose the following instructions:

Listen while thinking about lots of other things.
Listen from your heart (or your belly).
Listen while being open to any images that may arise.
Listen like an alien who has never heard music before.
Listen as if you had only an hour to live (an instruction to be used wisely keeping the particular audience in mind.)

When we compared notes afterward, each of us listeners—just three of us on the workshop—had their favorite episode, but we all had enjoyed being given permission to think about other things; it put us into a relaxed mood (“mind-wandering” has a bad rep in mindfulness circles, but I have thought for a while that there may be some benefits.) The players commented on the fact that listening and playing are inextricably linked and they particularly liked the “alien” suggestion. One of them said what she would really like to experiment with is to play and “not care at all about what others would think of her, not trying to fit in with the rules, but being completely herself.” This reminded me of the famous research by an Australian palliative care nurse, who had asked hundreds of her dying patients about any regrets they had. The top one was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;” followed by “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”(Independent) So they played one more time with that instruction in mind.

By now, the piece of music had become very familiar and I had been taking delight in tracing, against the background of sameness, the states of mind the different ways of listening had stimulated in me, and the nuanced variations in how the players had interpreted the score. But this final version was of a different order altogether—it had a magical quality. I was reminded of the murmuration of starlings against an evening sky, illuminated patterns spontaneously forming and reforming, collective crescendo and decrescendo arising with unselfconscious precision, abandon, and subtlety. It was utterly liberating being part of a breathtaking, awesome adventure, and I didn’t want to miss a single moment of it.

We didn’t spend much time talking about our responses afterwards—these things are hard to put into words (even if I am having a go at it here) and there were other things to move on to. But it made me reflect on matters of self, selflessness, and fitting in with societal norms. Groups will always keep a lid on the behavior of individuals that seem “too selfish,” and to some extent this is obviously useful for collective survival. We internalize those imbibed messages and rein ourselves in. But looking at it from a spiritual angle, what may appear like the unselfish or selfless mindset of a well-adjusted group member could actually be the very opposite—being intensely occupied with questions of self, how one is seen by others, afraid of sticking out, being found lacking, and so on. Fear-driven, we may spend most of our time trying to fit in and then die frustrated by not having fulfilled our potential and missed opportunities for self-transcendence. Whereas someone daring to show up with their creativity and fuller range of emotional expression actually risks their self, and in that sense is more self-less. The spellbinding beauty I had witnessed at that workshop was perhaps the result of the players and the audience entering, momentarily, that zone of self-forgetting. Clapping doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to such an experience and the Scottish Ensemble actually ask their audiences to keep the silence after the last notes of the music have faded, when maybe there is something “happening strangely in the room as the sound glooms over you, me, everything,” as Alastair Reid says in the poem quoted above.

The magic of that last version may have been due to that instruction to stop trying to fit in, but the fact that they had already played it several times before probably played a role, too. “Practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes—and neuroscience explains how it works. Nerve cells “fire and wire together,” and repetition forges those connections into the more clearly and strongly defined pathways we are most likely to take again. Much of this happens under the radar of conscious experience—we are not aware how efficiently and elegantly we brush our teeth, unless we are forced to use the non-dominant hand for some reason.

Where this becomes really interesting in terms of enhancing the quality of our lives is when we deliberately choose what we want to perfect in this way. We can actively mold ourselves into beings who are less judgmental and resentful, for example, and more attuned to joy and love. This re-shaping happens in subtle ways—we can’t just forcefully push down unwanted feelings and experiences. That only reinforces patterns of unkindness and aversion. “What we resist persists,” another saying goes. The very way we apply ourselves to this creative project of becoming who we want to be, must have the qualities we aspire towards. For many of us, regular meditation is our playing and practice field, but we can take any opportunity to become more aware. We play the tune again and again, with gentle patience and persistence, attention to detail, and ultimately, with glorious self-abandonment.


Hanson, Rick. 2013. Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain and Your Life. New York: Harmony.

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About (Scottish Ensemble)
The most common regrets of the dying, according to a palliative care nurse (Independent)

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