Fast Forward Friday with Jonathan Flowers

jfFor this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed Zip Creative client, composer, musician and music educator Jonathan Flowers. He is currently writing a book with the working title Mindfulness for Musicians: Free Your Mind to Play Life More Beautifully. To learn more, visit his website at

Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it?

I am writing a book with the working title Mindfulness for Musicians: Free Your Mind to Play Life More Beautifully. Mindfulness is our capacity to pay attention to our moment-to-moment experience with awareness, open-mindedness and compassion. It is what happens when we let go of our likes and dislikes about past and future events, and allow our attention to rest in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation has received so much recent press as a way to reclaim mental focus in today’s digital multi-tasking world. Much has been written about applying mindfulness to business, sports, psychotherapy and K-12 education.

Music seems to be a ripe application for mindfulness since the present moment is the canvas on which our art unfolds. The opening chapters address what mindfulness is, how we can practice it, and why this practice is so beneficial for health and wellness. Simple mindfulness routines are presented to minimize stress, maximize creativity, and sharpen mental focus during daily musical and non-musical activities. Reflective practices are also suggested to help musicians remain true to their artistic visions in the face of distractions, stress, acclaim and setbacks. The exercises in the book will be customized to meet the needs of child, teen and adult musicians of all skill levels. Finally, an extensive bibliography is being developed, as well as a companion website with practice materials and guided meditations.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

As a teenager, I had the privilege of studying with a renowned piano teacher, Seymour Bernstein. Seymour has been my guiding influence as a musician and educator, and he is the inspiration for this project. Seymour doesn’t just teach piano, he shows his students how to live life more beautifully through the study of music. He taught me to focus on process over product. If a musician learns to savor the moment-to-moment process of practicing, our intentions will flow through us when we perform. He also taught me that external awards fade but internal rewards endure. Music empowers us not by bringing us acclaim but by harmonizing our hearts and minds with our true nature. Seymour also emphasized the importance of body and breath awareness. Years later, when I became interested in meditation and yoga, I realized that Seymour had been teaching me about mindfulness, although we never used that word. Seymour’s work is profiled in a wonderful documentary film entitled Seymour: An Introduction directed by Ethan Hawke and released this past spring. (See the trailer by clicking here.)

The impetus for this project has been my experiences teaching vocal music and music theory in public high schools during the past decade. I have observed that students’ attention spans seem to get shorter with each passing year. I believe that distracted attention is a pernicious side effect of our digital, data-driven age. In response to standardized testing, students must learn more material in less time. Teachers also must limit time for creative inquiry to focus instruction on questions that have a single right answer. In response to increasing competition for college admissions, many students are being encouraged to pack their resumes with as many honors classes and extracurricular activities as possible. Also, in a changing and uncertain job market, being “well-rounded” seems more practical than spending hours practicing music. Trying a bit of everything seems a safer bet than supporting students to focus on what they do best.

As people become more connected to their cell phones, their attention becomes increasingly disconnected from their present surroundings. Focused study becomes replaced by “texting while learning.” Projects become opportunities for “working while chatting.” Face-to-face conversations have become opportunities for “talking while texting.”  Most importantly, as teens are put under the microscopes of test scores, grades and social media, they become disconnected from their highest truth and best selves. In everything they do, they start worrying about the final product without focusing on their process of learning and growing. For all of these reasons, I think that student musicians in the digital age face more distractions and time pressures than prior generations. My mission is to help today’s music students and teachers to reclaim the mental focus they need to create harmony on stage and in the world.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes who have had an impact on you and your work?

My teacher Seymour Bernstein has shaped my attitudes toward teaching and learning music and realizing its power to connect our bodies, minds and hearts. The conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein is a hero because he refused to be limited by musical categories, he was fearless in expressing himself as a musician and citizen, and he was so effective in sharing the joys of music with a broad audience. Brahms, Beethoven and Bach are heroes because they showed that introverts, like me, can let the power of their work speak for itself. They also each had a courageous creative process – they weren’t afraid to defy conventions, and they were willing to write, rewrite and rewrite again to produce their best work.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

This year, I left public school teaching to offer private instruction in piano, voice and music composition, and theory through my studio, Mindful Music, in Bala Cynwyd, PA. I am preparing several choral compositions and arrangements for publication and accompanying recitals for two singers. I also am developing instructional materials for Advanced Placement Music Theory Courses.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

I would be composing music for films.

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

In addition to daily piano practice, I meditate, exercise, cook creative meals, learn from fellow musicians, read widely, and take time to experience great works of film, music, theater, visual art and writing.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

I would let go of self-criticism and unconstructive criticism from others who have misguided priorities. As Janis Joplin once said, “Be true to yourself – you’re the only you you’ve got.”

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

Don’t be afraid of mistakes, they are our best teachers.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

I admire the Vietnamese Zen priest and peace activist Thich Naht Hahn. During the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the 1960s, he has devoted his life to making mindfulness accessible to people of all religious orientations throughout the world. He reminds artists that “when we have joy and peace in ourselves, our creations of art will be quite natural and they will serve the world in a positive way.” He also teaches that if we want peace with others, we must first create peace within ourselves. That process requires us to accept our interconnection with all other beings and to stop dividing humanity into “us” and “them.”  His message of compassion and empathy is exactly what our troubled world needs to hear.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

My mission is to help others to discover their inner joy and discipline through music and to share that joy with others through teaching, performing, writing and composing.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

To uplift others through their work, artists need to discover for themselves what true happiness is. We create our own suffering when we think “I will be happy when …” or “I was happy when …” We can’t live in past glories, because our world and our mind change continuously. Betting on future happiness that is contingent on circumstances is also risky. Soon after we obtain the object we are seeking, we want more. We accomplish a goal, then we get bored and want more success. Soon after we obtain influence, acclaim or wealth, we feel we don’t have enough. Our cravings even can cause us to take another person’s love for granted. Meditation practice has taught me that even when I feel sad, the present moment contains more than I need to be happy. When I fall short in any area of my life, I can observe my frustration, realize that it will pass and learn from the event. Memories and aspirations help us to grow, but they aren’t enough to make us happy right now. Happiness will find us each time we breathe, savor the present moment and remember that we are alive.  Happiness is a verb – it happens right now.

Q: Final thoughts?

If you are a musician or other creative person who practices mindfulness in any form (e.g., meditation, prayer, focusing, visualization, yoga), I would love to hear from you. How do you cultivate mental focus for your art?  How do you deal with distractions in today’s multi-tasking digital world?   Do you have insights for using technology in mindful ways? How do you manage praise and criticism from others? What do you do when you are stuck or filled with self-doubt?  How do you face obstacles that are not under your control? Please contact me through my website at I would be pleased to quote you in my book!

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