How Zazen Informs My Music

My Zen Background

I was initially drawn into the idea of Zen when I went to the Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art in 2017. That was when I saw a collection of ancient miniature statues from Asia. I was particularly drawn to a Tibetan Buddha, with a gorgeous copper-green patina. It took almost three years for that curiosity to ripen into action – becoming a Jukai initiate.

Zen Terms

Zen is a specific type of Buddhist practice. It focuses heavily on seated, open-eyed meditation, known as sitting, or Zazen. Zen practice comes from the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which originated in China. The specific subsection of the group that I belong to is called Soto Zen, which comes from the newer Japanese lineage.

Becoming a Jukai initiate means that I agree to take the Zen precepts as my own – doing no harm, not clouding the mind, and so on. To successfully complete finish Jukai, you must go through the process of sewing a robe at a retreat, also known as a sesshin. When you are at a sesshin, you take on the noble silence, which is exactly what it sounds like: You aren’t allowed to talk!

Finally Walking Through the Doors

My first time at The Buddhist Temple of Toledo was full of surprises. Sure, I knew that I had to take my shoes off and bow at the door. But after that? Everything was a bit of a mystery.

I had been a Jukai initiate since early March, but I wasn’t able to attend an in-person event until very recently. After one Sunday Service, I dove in, head-first, into something comparable to a sesshin. It was called the Jukai Sewing retreat. For seven days, our lives were pared down to the bare bones: Eating, sleeping, cooking, cleaning, chanting, sewing. It changed how I think about my musical process.

Instruments and Liturgy

Did you know that there are musical instruments in Zen? Far more than just the Tibetan singing bowl, too. Zen practice and liturgy are accompanied by a variety of musical instruments, such as the: densho, han, and inkin. You can learn more about the musical instruments that are commonly used in Zen here:

That isn’t to say that Zen is full of music, though. Zen events are end-capped by music and chanting. Sure, the tanto (retreat leader) uses bells to let us know when to come into the Zendo or begin sitting. But over the course of the 12-hour long days, we only participated in “music, music” twice a day, for about 10-20 minutes at a time. Which made me want even more …

It Made My Cravings for Music Even Stronger

When you are in a sesshin you take up the noble silence, during which you talk as little as possible.

The quieter I was, the more the thought of music popped up. One day, comically enough, I found that when I meditated, there were all kinds of music rolling around in my head. At one point, I was listening to a blaring version of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” for the whole Zazen session. It sure did seem to go on forever.

But I have to say, it changed me. It made me really appreciate the music that I was normally able to play. My musical processes of the past almost seemed mindless, now. I couldn’t just play music whenever I wanted. It was a privilege to get to play, every time I was going to play and had played. And I sure couldn’t wait until I got my hands on that piccolo solo once I got home.

It Changed My Perception of Tempo and Time

During Zen retreats, we practice something called kinhin, or walking meditation. The tempo of your kinhin first starts out slow, with your feet and breath syncing together. Then, when the clappers sound again, you bow and begin the faster-paced walking.

Slow kinhin almost feels like participating in a spiritual marching band that has been stripped of its instruments. You must watch everyone in the line in front of you and match the pace of their breath and feet.

Once I came back home to my instruments, I felt that I was able to perform things faster with my fingers, without my brain zipping around like a hummingbird. Speaking of which …

My Body Became More Relaxed and Aware

In order to be a musician, you need to have a lot of focus. Often, a lack of upright focus is what gets us in trouble in ensembles – from miscounting in orchestras to having a muddy tone. I learned that Zen isn’t just about being calm, it’s about being aware. Being able to notice everything is an essential skill for both Zen practitioners and professional musicians. Meditation is just another way to practice it.

Zen Reduces Performance Anxiety

At the end of a retreat, you do something called open sozan. Basically, after days of silent Zazen practice, you are handed a microphone. I know it sounds ironic, but I am a musician who hates being handed a microphone, at least when it comes to public speaking or singing.

Surprisingly, after a week of dealing with my own anxieties, my voice came out confident and as clear as a bell. I didn’t know the how of it at the time, but Zazen and Zen retreats reduce performance anxiety and anxiety as a whole. This is because …

Meditation Physically Changes Your Brain

If you meditate for long enough, you get different amounts of different types of brain waves. Normally, our brain waves are really fast. This makes it hard for us to focus. Meditation increases the number of slow brain waves – theta and delta waves in particular. While full-time monks have the highest amount of slow brain waves, even just a few minutes of daily meditation can significantly change your brain and increase your level of relaxation. Other changes occuring after meditation can include strengthening of synapses and an increase in serotonin.


While backing away from the complexities of life sounds easy enough … it actually isn’t. Especially for me. There’s a reason why I got the nickname “Zippy” – it’s hard for me to slow down from this horrible mantra of “Doing things, doing things, I have to be doing things!”

As I’m typing this, I’m still getting over my “jet lag” of the sewing retreat. My knees are bruised from sitting Zazen incorrectly, for hours on end. But you know what? Me and my body and my brain and my musicianship are all the better for it.

More info on the Buddhist Temple of Toledo is available here:

Photo credit: Conscious Design, featuring Namah Yoga; courtesy

Aleah Fitzwater is a classical flutist, arranger, artist, and educator. She is also a music blogger. Aleah frequently writes tutorials on how to digitize music using optical music recognition. You can read more of her content on You can contact her at

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