Mental Challenges

How Learning To Play the Guitar Became My Go-To Meditation Practice in Quarantine

Zoe Weiner

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

I’m no stranger to trying new musical instruments; growing up, I was fortunate enough to even have the option to ignore my parents’ pleading, begging, and full-on bribery to practice the various musical instruments I had signed up to learn over the years. All of it was to no avail; I “lost” my recorder once a week, left my rented clarinet sitting in its case for so long that it actually started rotting (yep, that’s a thing that can happen), and, until last year, there was an electric keyboard hidden under my bed that hadn’t been played since 2002. I wish I could tell you why I was so apathetic in my follow-through with learning new musical instruments, but I now know one thing for sure: As an adult, I’m much more reliable in the pursuit. In quarantine I began learning to play the guitar and have been relishing the stress-relieving, meditative benefits of learning a musical instrument.

After trying any number of activities—like exercise, journaling, and actually meditating (which, for what it’s worth, is something I’ve never particularly enjoyed)—to calm my quarantine-induced anxiety when the world starting upending at the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to pick up a Fender Malibu Acoustic Guitar ($429) to see if it would help. Research notes that benefits of learning a musical instrument include lowering stress, improving mental health, and clearing brain fog, all of which I desperately sought to help me power through the zillionth month of WFH fatigue.

“Playing an instrument forges new neural pathways in the brain, and the integration of the left and right hemispheres increases as playing an instrument lights up the whole brain,” says Murray Hidary, the composer behind MindTravel, an integrative outdoor music experience. “Playing an instrument regularly as an adult is one of the best ways to ‘use’ the brain, and it has emotional and psychological benefits.” Among them? Improved memory and cognition, thanks to the intense fine-motor-skill focus that playing an instrument requires, and reduced [symptoms of] anxiety and depression due to the fact that listening to music spikes your cortisol.

“Playing an instrument can act as a meditation in that it can take you away from the day to day and let you focus on the simple movements.” —Jennifer Schwartz, vice president of digital product at Fender

Then, there are the meditative benefits that come along with learning a musical instrument: “Whether it’s strumming power chords to release some angst or energy, or just focusing on a simple scale, playing an instrument can act as a meditation in that it can take you away from the day to day and let you focus on the simple movements,” says Jennifer Schwartz, vice president of digital product at Fender.

You know how other forms of meditation work by asking you to focus on something like a mantra or a breathing pattern? Well, when you’re playing an instrument, the movement and music focus in the same exact way. “It takes our attention away from the thoughts that can easily lead us into future worry and anxiety and hand-hold us gently into the present moment,” says Hidary.

Now, I have to admit: Learning to play the guitar has proven to be a lot more challenging than I expected. I thought that I’d pick up the instrument and immediately be able to strum out a campfire-ready version of “Wonderwall,” but that turned out to be far (like, really far) from the case. But now—unlike when I was a 12-year-old with a rotten clarinet—practicing has become a legitimately enjoyable experience. I use the Fender Play App, which offers pre-recorded lessons that help you build on your skill set, and my daily jam sessions have become my new favorite way to tune out the madness of 2020. “Adults make some of the best students because the motivation is inherently there, and with that enthusiasm comes an authentic attentiveness while learning, which translates to meditation,” says Hidary.

And though I still can’t play anything more intricate than “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” I can still reap the mediative, calming effects that support the reason I picked up the guitar in the first place. “It doesn’t require advanced technique to achieve a profound shift in awareness—the engagement is the necessary ingredient for a meditative, present moment experience,” says Hidary. And though I dream of the day when I can wow people at parties with a rousing rendition of Taylor Swift’s Our Song, as far as reaping the mental and emotional benefits of learning a musical instrument go, practice makes perfect.

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