How to Bring a Zen Musician’s Mind to Your Work


work-life-balance-zen-suitI have never mindfully practiced the habits of a Zen monk, exactly. However, the more I read about the habits of Zen monks, the more I realize that I learned a lot of about their ways of life while I was in music school.

There are many things I love about the habits of Zen masters; the simplicity of their daily lives, the concentration and mindfulness of every activity, and the calm and peace they find and maintain in their days.

Why would we want to live more like a Zen monk? I think everyone could use a little more concentration, tranquility, and mindfulness in their lives, don’t you?

I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve discovered to work very well in my daily musical practice that align with Zen-like living. I am no Zen master … I’m not even 10% of the way there. However, I’ve found that there are certain principles of musical practice that can be applied to any life, no matter who you are or what your occupation is.

Here are some tips:

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” – Shunryu Suzuki

    1. Do one thing at a time. Musicians single-task, they don’t multi-task. First scales, then etudes. When you’re washing dishes, just wash dishes. When you are eating, just eat. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating (this one is really tough for me).  You will accomplish more by focusing on one task.
    2. Practice deliberately. Brain study has shown that slow, deliberate practice wins every time. Do not rush your tasks. Instead, take your time, and move slowly.  It takes practice to do this, but it helps you focus on the task, and the task will be completed more efficiently every time.
    3. Finish your tasks. Focus completely on one task, and don’t move on to the next task until you’re finished. Give yourself a time limit for your tasks (“My goal is to type this paper, and I will give myself 1 minutes to do so.”).  If you must move on before you’re finished, make sure you set the first task aside in an organized way (a folder, a note on a pad, etc.)
    4. Do less to accomplish more. Instead of practicing entire pieces of music at once, many musicians will focus on getting 8 measures perfect.  If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. Don’t fill your day with endless to-do lists.  Pick 2-3 tasks and complete them really well, instead of doing a lot of things mediocre.
    5. Take breaks. Musicians do well when they practice for 20 minutes and break for 10.  Taking a break allows your brain to absorb what has been learned and recover. Don’t schedule things close together — instead, leave room between things on your schedule. This relaxes you a bit, and leaves space for when one task takes longer than you planned.  Our schedules sometimes look great on paper, but in practice creates stress.
    6. Have a routine. Musicians have routines for many things they do, from practicing to performing to meditation. Routines give us something to “latch on to” — if it’s important enough to have a routine, it’s important enough to be given your entire attention, and to be done slowly and correctly. You can create any type of routine that makes you feel comfortable, but make it a daily practice.
    7. Set aside time daily for your tasks. There are certain times in the day a musician designates for certain activities; specifically practice.  For a non-musician, there is a time for showering, a time for work, a time for cleaning, a time for eating. Many times, I forgo eating if I am busy, much to the chagrin of my health!  If it’s important enough for us to do regularly, consider designating a time for it.

Zen monks and musicians stay in the present and tend to live simple lives, at least while practicing.  Hopefully these tips will help you bring some zen-like moments to your day!


  1. As a classical guitarist, I could not agree more with these tips and the likeness of a Zen monk to a musician. I often refer to myself as a monk, especially when students imply that I live the glamorous life of a rock star. An excellent post again, Tony!!!
    cj recently posted…Why My Kyocera Brio Kicks Your iPhone 5′s AssMy Profile

  2. This makes a lot of sense! And boy do I remember playing countless scales and etudes on the piano! While I can multitask if I need to, I definitely do better when I focus on one thing at a time.
    Untemplater recently posted…Is Your Life For Rent?My Profile

  3. I am very guilty of packing too much into my day and not leaving enough little breaks for myself. I am trying to get better at this!! I do find when I give myself even just a few minutes to relax that it makes a huge difference. It’s somewhat ironic that we pride ourselves on being able to multi-task when in reality focusing on a single task is generally better. It’s very hard to do a lot of things well at one time. Great post Tony!
    Shannon @ The Heavy Purse recently posted…Teachable Moments: Talk to Your Kids about MoneyMy Profile

    • Shannon, we are all guilty of overloading ourselves. Focusing on one task is easy when you are a musician…I’m trying to bring it all to my other work.

  4. As a side note, check out Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Miracle of Mindfulness.” :) Awesome starter book for the aspiring Mindful Zen Master!
    Vincent Nguyen recently posted…On Wind, Superpowers, Growing Up, and a Yellow Fuzzy JournalMy Profile

  5. It takes a trombonist to tell me what guitarist has been trying to tell me for years! I’m reading this and thinking, yes CJ does that and that and that.

    I do not like to-do lists and only have them for lessons I have to plan, and I keep them to four or five items. I used to do many things in a day but none very well. Now, I am much more productive and happy. “Do less to accomplish more” is so true, and it’s really been what I am striving for. Perhaps I need a clarinetist to really drive it home! Thank you, Tony.
    Tammy R recently posted…Why My Kyocera Brio Kicks Your iPhone 5′s AssMy Profile

  6. Oh, and…your new look is very Zen-like. So peaceful and pleasing!
    Tammy R recently posted…Why My Kyocera Brio Kicks Your iPhone 5′s AssMy Profile

  7. It’s so important to take time in your day and just mediate. I’ll often lay in bed with music on just reflecting. My wife wonders if something is wrong, but I’m just taking time to think.

  8. I really need to work on #’s 1 and 4. Maybe my lack of any sort of musical talent is my excuse. I can see how being disciplined as a musician would require all of those steps, but I can only play Old McDonald on the piano after four years of childhood lessons. Maybe I should have had this list way back when!
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  9. I love this list. It’s so ironic that what the zen monks do is exactly opposite of what most modern Americans are doing to get more done. I had a client last week who is struggling with her business. What we finally concluded is she needs to take more time off, be creative, enjoy nature instead pushing so hard 7 days a week. Like I told her, “I don’t know if your business will improve, but your life will.”

  10. Great post. With the onslaught of daily distractions in our modern lives we get lost in thinking about the future, past and instead of just focusing on the present. I always hated multitasking. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Sadly mulitasking like has become embedded in our culture.
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  11. I am guilty of never taking breaks but I am a stickler for getting things done, one at a time.

    As an acoustic guitar player and singer myself, I have to laugh when someone at a party or get-together plays a few riffs of one song, then goes into a few intros of songs like Walk This Way by Aerosmith, without ever being able to play just one song the whole way through. These people can’t seem to focus and would stand to gain a lot by practicing what Zen Masters do.
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