How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times, With Adam Cole

Beau Henderson
Authority Magazine
Published in
9 min readMar 26, 2020


For me, being mindful means feeling empowered without having a false sense of power. It’s joy without euphoria. And in music it means I’m moving just a little bit faster than the current, but not so fast that I’m no longer responding to the moment.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Cole.

A Jazz Musician Who Writes Books, Adam has worked as a musician and educator for thirty years. His passion is jazz and the lessons it can teach us as humans. The spirit of jazz works its way through his fiction and nonfiction works.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Even though I had very little exposure to jazz as a kid, I always liked it when I heard it: A hotel piano player, a Monk record my mom used to play, they sounded like some strange undiscovered country. I used to improvise on the piano all the time, but never really in a jazz way, and I didn’t have anyone to help me learn about it.

Then when I was 20 someone told me about a college jazz improvisation class. Even though I wasn’t able to register for it, my friend said I should just go and hang out and learn. So I did, and it changed my life.

I became determined to become a professional jazz musician. I started taking lessons and when I left college and went home, I started the Adam Cole Trio. Jazz became a vital part of my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I got older and started a family, I had to give up my Trio. I went back to school to become a music educator, eventually teaching choral music in elementary and middle school. The story of those 12 years is one long, interesting saga of reinventing myself, dealing with my biggest fears, and learning how to bring my love of jazz to young people in the context of a public school music program.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

For my trio, I always hired musicians who were better than me and I treated them as well as I could. We had a lot of fun, the music always sounded great, and nobody ever called to cancel. Treat your people well, don’t be afraid to hire folks who are smarter than you, and watch what happens.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My uncle was always pushing books on me. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey was one of the ones that stuck. It’s full of very sound advice, presented in a way that’s easy to take in.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Mindfulness is being aware of the choices you have in the moment. Many things we think are automatic, even breathing, can be altered if we see the level of control we actually exercise over them. And knowing what we can control helps us better understand and deal with what we can’t control.

Even an addict giving into an addiction can be mindful and be aware that he or she is making an intentionally unhealthy choice. At the very least, it turns the poor choice into a deliberate one rather than an unconscious, automatic one. While this doesn’t solve the addiction problem short-term, it may improve one’s ability to manage it long-term.

For me, being mindful means feeling empowered without having a false sense of power. It’s joy without euphoria. And in music it means I’m moving just a little bit faster than the current, but not so fast that I’m no longer responding to the moment.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

In jazz it’s actually the difference between making music and just pretending to make music. There has to be a dynamic relationship of sound and movement between the player and listener, or between the players themselves. A relationship requires the possibility that one participant can influence the other. So if you’re playing a million notes, unless you’re paying attention to how those notes fit into your audience’s attention or the sounds the other players are making, it’s not really going to have a musical effect. It’s just you behind a wall of your own thinking. No one changes, least of all you.

The benefits of making music are well-documented. It impacts your thinking skills, your receptivity to feeling, and at some level your health. But that “going through the motions” thing I described just now will not reveal those benefits, at least not to the same degree. Because mindfulness is the difference between making music and making sound, it’s also the difference between receiving music’s benefits and not receiving them.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

  1. Operate from a stable base: In order to play jazz, you have to know what you know and can do. Focus on that. Have a solid base of knowledge and experience you can launch from and retreat to. There’s so much to learn in jazz and such a high bar to strive for that it’s easy to overshoot, to play lots of notes with no other purpose but to impress people. While this may fend off criticisms, it also prevents real music from happening because there’s no listening, no connection. Even Sonny Rollins, in a recent interview, said he was doing exactly that on one of his most famous albums, just playing notes, being impressive, and he regretted it.
  2. Feel free to improvise: If your base is solid, if you know what you know and are good at, then you can leave it. It’s important to take risks. Improvisation and structure go hand in hand. Too much improvisation means you risk a serious crash and you can take others with you. Too much structure and nobody can move. Be prepared, then make stuff up!
  3. Reflect on your successes and failures. I’ve listened to my recordings many times. My impressions of my abilities have changed over the years, and some things I thought were failures just after I did them I later re-evaluated. Both impressions were correct — noticing my shortcomings helped me improve, and learning to love my recordings kept me from feeling that my work has been pointless.
  4. Make the people you work with look good: I discovered after years and years of playing that when I focused on making the other players sound as good as possible, not only did they love me for it, but I sounded better too. When you try to impress people, even if you succeed all you end up doing is isolating yourself. When you focus on improving other peoples’ work, you become essential, valued, and happy.
  5. Teach others what you know: I had many great teachers. Even so, there were still things that eluded me. Most of what I was unable to learn from my teachers I finally discovered when I began teaching. I would come up with a way for my students to overcome a learning barrier. As they began to succeed, I started saying, “Hey! I wonder if that would work for me too!” And it did. When you teach, if you’re paying attention, you learn.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

  1. Listen first. It’s easy to jump in and offer your advice (or your notes). They may not be appropriate. Listening first ensures you’ll know what to say when you start talking.
  2. Say less, rather than more. Ironically, the less you say, the more people will hear. Of course, you can go overboard with that. There is a minimum in music and in conversation that’s expected of you, a certain amount of nodding and “I hear you.” But a few choice words beyond that are better than thirty minutes of silence-killing blather.
  3. Know what you’re talking about. If you say it, or play it, know it. It’s easy to get into a kind of self-deceptive groove where you really believe you’re making sense, or music. But if you were to look around, you might discover that nobody was with you. It’s best to be able to back up anything that comes out of your mouth, or your fingers!
  4. If you make a mistake, apologize. In music, if you play something stupid, stop, or get out of it, and retreat into a place where you can be supportive again. In conversation, if you say something stupid, just apologize. Don’t make it all about you, so that everyone has to reassure you. Just say “sorry,” and get back into a supportive place.
  5. Think big picture. Narcissists are really only concerned with themselves. They don’t frequently make the best musicians, although a few are good enough to convince people that they deserve to be worshiped. If you can avoid focusing on yourself, how good you sound, how much people like you, then you can keep your thoughts on what you actually need to do to make things go, and make them go well.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

I’m certified in the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education. It’s helped me over the years be a better learner, a more effective teacher, and a healthier human being. The best way to learn about it is to talk to a practitioner, since the information available on the Method can be confusing and, in some cases, misleading.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Growing up Jewish I learned this quote from Hillel that originally bothered me: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” The older I’ve gotten, the more I like the quote. It seems to encompass everything about working with people and improving the self. The third part of the quote doesn’t seem to fit with the other two, but in reality it encompasses them both. When should you start learning to take up for yourself, and when should you begin thinking about other people? If not now, when?

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

We are all people of great influence. I’d like everyone, including me, to discover how powerful we are. So many of us have been pining about how little we can do to change the world. And yet, with the Coronavirus we’ve seen just how powerful are choices are, how quickly we can change things when we want to. This is a powerful perspective. I’d like to see it continue, because there’s so much work to do and it must be done now.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Subscribe to my blog at Follow me on Twitter at @mymusicfriend. I am on Linkedin and Facebook as A Jazz Musician Who Writes Books.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!



Beau Henderson
Authority Magazine

Author | Radio Host | Syndicated Columnist | Retirement Planning Expert