“Contemplation Music Writing”: An Alternative to Mindfulness Programs

Aug 18, 2016 by

Part 1: “The Counting Technique”


As an inner-city elementary school teacher for thirty-four years (retired from the NYCDOE in 2002), I have had extreme positive results in the areas of Emotional Intelligence, character education, values clarification, concentration/focusing/centering, writing, reading, thinking, creativity, poetry, and vocabulary expansion/appreciation.


My education project, which uses an original form of writing called “Contemplation Music Writing,” develops intra- and interpersonal communication skills and creative self-expression (personal, journal, memoir, or therapeutic writing) through music (from rock/pop/Top 40 to classical and Native American flute), contemplation, writing, discussion, and selfassessments.


Students learn to write about their inner experiences and ultimately, to understand and appreciate them. The kids create greater openness and sensitivity to themselves, others, and the world, and also, show gains in their writing, reading, and thinking skills.


In a typical lesson, children listen to music for 10 minutes and write about whatever they experienced inside during that time. A discussion follows where their contemplations are read orally (and anonymously, if they choose) and probed for triggered images, feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Self-evaluations come two times a year where students have opportunities to assess progress in EI and academic ability.


Contemplation Music Writing becomes a vehicle to soothe kids on peaceful journeys of self-discovery and self-motivation. The student-centered project, whose motto is “Get into it, and get it out,demonstrates, in an organic manner, what I believe are prerequisite skills related to learning and living: experiencing, seeing, contemplating, reflecting, recalling, perceiving, critical thinking, analyzing, synthesizing, concentrating, imagining, creativity, feeling, listening, and communicating. By teaching about these processes in connection with writing, my students not only improved academically, but also developed the EI skills self-motivation, -understanding, -control, -knowledge, -awareness, -discipline, -reliance, -confidence, -efficacy, -respect, and -esteem.


My project is not a patchwork effort like many short-term, crisis prevention programs used in the schools to plug up societal problems. Contemplation Music Writing can be used as a one- or multi-year project starting in the second grade and going through high school. One purpose is to teach young people about EI and how it can lead to a better school and daily life via thinking, meta-cognition, creativity, feeling, communicating, decision-making, and problem solving. It allows them to explore knowledge about themselves, including intra- and interpersonal conflicts, hassles, problems, and negative emotions.


Contemplation Music Writing attempts to: increase focus (inner/outer), boost awareness, grow study habits, instill enthusiasm, improve productive flow, stimulate artistic expression, inspire imagination, elevate mood, crank up alertness, expand the work ethic, develop higher level thinking, energize, revitalize, and, at the same time, create a calm, safe, caring, and bully-free classroom and learning environment.


This personal writing, triggered by music, helps kids get into self and others via empathy, cooperation, communication, collaboration, and friendship skills, all keys to EI, social and emotional learning, character education, and values clarification.


I use two basic methods to instruct classes about inner experience and how to express it in writing and verbally:


  • The “counting technique” introduces students to the idea of, and what, “inner experience” is about.


  • Following this, the “music technique” takes children further into inner experience. It begins after several practice sessions with counting and continues for the rest of the year.


Instructions for the Counting Technique:


Close your eyes and count backwards silently by ones from 50 to 1. Take your time and don’t rush. When you finish, open your eyes and write what just happened inside yourself. There are no right/wrong answers for describing inner experience. Write what happened inside—that’s it.


Instructions on what to write about are purposely vague and left open because you want the children to discover and describe their experience without prompting. You don’t want to plant anything in their heads about what they are supposed to experience.


If they ask about the length of the writing, say: “Just write whatever you can remember.” The length can vary from a few lines to a paragraph to one side of a paper. You should practice the counting technique yourself to have an idea of where your children are coming from in their own written responses.


Count twice a week for one week with no discussion; the kids just count and write. In the second week, have one or two discussion periods for 15 minutes apiece. Ask questions about the responses and illustrate common experiences on the board.


Discussion questions should aim at:


  • Making sure everyone understands the pieces read aloud. Use a lead question asking kids to think about what happened in a classmate’s counting experience.


  • Having children express orally the experiences they forgot and did not write down. By practicing the technique yourself, you will realize how difficult it is to recall everything that occurs while counting. Listening to others triggers students to remember images or mind-pictures they forgot. A typical question to provoke such responses is: “Did anyone else have a similar experience?”


  • Developing students’ awareness of their inside worlds and creativity. Each work read out loud and discussed provides more knowledge about what makes up inner experience.


Read the kids’ counting experiences (no names, please) in a dramatic voice to heighten interest.  Expect some hesitancy in the early discussions because they probably haven’t talked about inner experiences in front of a group.  Participation will increase as more writings are read and the children relax.


Sample contemplation experiences, discussion questions, and suggested teacher illustrations after counting backwards (5th grade students):


  • I saw myself running next to the numbers. I went up and down hills. Then I stopped at number one and I fell into space.


Review the experience: What happened as the writer counted back? Describe what you pictured.  What would you call this type of experience? Did anyone imagine a fantasy or story?


  • I pictured when I had a little dog. It was so cute that I gave it milk and my doll clothes. He wanted a girl for a friend so I found one for him. My mother made me give up the dog because a man wanted him. I gave the dog to the man. I loved my dog.


Review the experience: What happened to the writer while counting backwards? Did anyone else lose track counting because a memory or something else interfered with it? What happened to you? Describe your experience.


Draw a diagram: One real eye looks outward, while an inner/mind’s eye looks inside at an imaginary TV screen inside the head. The screen shows numbers being counted until a memory intercepts it. Many experiences can interfere with counting; that shows you how difficult it is to keep your inner concentration/focus on the numbers and counting.


  • I felt my body relax and I didn’t want to open my eyes. I wanted to be relaxed forever, but my neck started to hurt and my body felt heavier and heavier.


Discussion questions: Keep them the same as the previous writings/contemplations. Describe this writer’s experience. What happened to the numbers? Why did s/he lose “sight” of them?


Defining experiences: This is a “physical or bodily reaction.” It was a “side-effect” to inner experience. At times, children will experience headaches, pounding hearts, and dizziness.


  • I saw a light flash at me. I saw a frog jumping around. I watched fish jumping up and down. The wall was falling inside my mind. The floor moved around. I saw a boat crash into another boat. The boat was melting. My body was falling. I saw myself.


Discussion questions: Can you describe the student’s experience? What type of experience would you call it? Did anyone else experience silly, goofy, weird things happening one-after-the-other while counting? Give an example.

Diagrams/Definitions: Illustrate the piece by roughly sketching the mind-pictures on an imaginary TV screen in the mind/head. Show an inner eye looking at the different images. Call this a “movie experience” (stream-of-pictures) because many images came one after another in rapid succession.


  • I felt angry, mean, terrible, mad, and worst of all, I was really happy.


Discussion questions: What doesn’t make sense in this writer’s experience? Why? How many of you experienced different feelings while counting? Can you name or describe some feelings you had? Why did you feel this way? Did anyone become confused while counting?  Did anyone skip numbers while counting? Why do you think this happened?


  • All I see is black.


Teacher notes: Variations of this response were: “Nothing.” “I didn’t think about anything.”  “I didn’t feel anything.”


Discussion questions: What is meant by this response? Did anyone else just see black? Why does someone see black? (Accept most reasonable answers. Maybe the student didn’t understand the instructions. He was scared doing something new, or got confused, and finished counting quickly.)


Illustrate the experience: On the imaginary TV screen inside the head, write the number “50,” and then draw a long, spiraling arrow to the number “1.” Darken in the screen with diagonal lines to “block out” all potential inner experiences.


These “black out” experiences will change after students practice counting back two or three times. Also, as they listen to and discuss the writings of others, the kids will become familiar with their own inner experience. They learn to relax and not rush the experience of counting.

After four counting sessions children will get the idea of seeing inside themselves and inner worlds. Funny things will start happening. All sorts of images and short side journeys occur in between the numbers.


Check out these sample writings from the counting technique (6th grade). Think about discussion questions you might ask your class, and also, how you might illustrate the following counting experiences:


  • I saw waves going backwards. I saw a man eating spaghetti and meatballs upside-down. I saw myself taking a bath upside-down. I felt relaxed. I felt good.


  • I felt like a turtle going very slow. Every number I said was like the step the turtle took. It looked like I would never reach number one.


  • I felt as if all my feelings came out of me. My heart felt tired. When I was getting up to six, it was hard for me. I couldn’t pass number six. It was like a nightmare. Everything was dark. My head felt like it passed an earthquake. I mean I have a headache.


  • I felt like I was getting smaller and smaller. My hands were flapping up and down. I saw myself flying in the air and the birds were calling me.


  • My mind pictured the numbers. I was counting and thinking about the numbers. I got some feelings I never had before.


  • While counting back, I thought about the time my cousins, my brother, and I were playing in the hall. My grandmother came out with a broom and we all got away except my cousin Diana. My grandmother started to hit her and everyone laughed. All this happened a long time ago, but I just remembered it now. It was like doing it all over again.


  • I felt like it was personal. I saw a picture of a man on a horse. It was the dream I had last night. I felt sleepy, too.


  • I saw the numbers that I was counting and felt like I was in space. I started shaking. I felt like I was floating around without a rocket. I felt a little scared.


Teacher notes: Keep in mind when I first started using the counting technique, I was “easy” on the length, so I let them write one-, two-, and three-sentence responses. And, as you can see, in most cases, less is more. When we completed the counting technique, and I was satisfied that the kids understood and appreciated what “inner experience” is, we moved on to the “music technique,” which will be Part 2 of this article.


Interested in learning more about “The Contemplation Music Writing Project”? See the following articles on EDUCATION NEWS:




For more information about “Contemplation Music Writing,” check out the following:


  • Contact the author at jeffreyppflaum@gmail.com for the complete “Contemplation Writing” article published by Teachers & Writers Magazine/NYC.


  • Teachers & Writers Collaborative/Magazine at www.twc.org for books/articles on writing, creativity, poetry, reading, and imagination.
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