Twin Cities musician ‘meditates’ to the beat of his own drum

an older man in a gray hat plays a drum kit
Twin Cities-based musician Marc Anderson plays the drums at one of his gigs.
Courtesy of Marc Anderson

Marc Anderson is a Twin Cities-based percussionist. For the past 30 years, he’s traveled the world learning and performing musical instruments of many different cultures. Along the way, he became an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

Marc joined us today to talk to MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about the intersections of his Zen Buddhist faith and being a professional percussionist.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

[RUTH MACKENZIE, "KALEVALA SALMON DANCE"] CATHY WURZER: This is the song Kalevala Salmon Dance by Ruth Mackenzie. Now you probably hear some drums in the background there. You're in for a treat. This was Marc Anderson, a Twin Cities based percussionist on those drums. For the past 30 years, he's traveled the world, learning and performing musical instruments of many different cultures. And along the way, he became an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Marc is on the line to talk about the intersections of his Zen Buddhist faith and being a professional percussionist. It's a treat having you here, Marc. How are you?

MARC ANDERSON: I'm good. Thanks for having me, Cathy. How are you?

CATHY WURZER: I'm good. Thank you so much. You know, your professional music career got started many decades ago. You took off when you collaborated with Steve Tibbetts back in 1977. Describe your life back then.

MARC ANDERSON: Let's see if I can remember what my life was like back then. Well, I know that was-- my son was born in 1978, and my daughter was born in 1972. So I know that I was raising one child and about to have another one. And we had fairly recently moved to the Twin Cities. I started things off in Austin, Minnesota.

And so I was just trying to learn how to play really. Like I would play with anybody basically. And fortunately, I was lucky enough to find somebody like Steve, or he found me actually. But fortunate enough to hook up with somebody like Steve Tibbetts, which really changed lots of things for me.

CATHY WURZER: So you started practicing Zen Buddhism in the early '80s, is that right? What drew you to Buddhism initially? Well, I originally was drawn to meditation because we started having trouble in our marriage, Roberta and I. And I went and saw a therapist, and he was kind of a snarky guy, and I didn't like him at all.

But somehow, it sort of-- it induced an insight, and I walked out of his office and thought, well, I'm never going to see him again. And then I had this really basically an insight that like there was something about the suffering I was going through that was just fundamentally human, and that it actually wasn't likely anybody like him could help me with that, and that I was going to need something else.

And meditation, I had read a couple of books on meditation already. But I just thought I need to learn how to meditate. And I went home, opened the yellow pages, and found the Transcendental Meditation Society, first thing to come up. And I called him, and I learned-- Roberta and I both actually learned the technique for TM, and I did that for a couple of years.

And then I just needed more of a community that seemed available with TM. And then I went to Minnesota Zen Center, and I walked in the door. And the vibe of the thing, the smell of the incense and the Japanese decor. And it was like I found my home. Like I knew right away actually.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. And as a percussionist too, I have friends who are also percussionists. To this end, some of my friends feel like there's a spirituality with the drum. Like each drum has its own unique voice and vibration, and it kind of connects us to the truth of the spirit that runs through everything. That's according to some of my friends. And I don't know if you've experienced that as a percussionist and then how that dovetails with Buddhism.

MARC ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, I basically think all art practices are essentially spiritual practices. And music seems to have a particularly kind of magical feeling to it. And then people do seem to relate to drumming particularly maybe because of its kind of deep visceral thing, but I actually feel that way about all music.

And people have the impression that like Buddhism or Zen or something is about being quiet. And then like I'm this noisy drummer guy over here, and so they wonder what the relationship is. But in my experience, the way I see it now, like I understood music as basically a spiritual practice pretty early.

And then now, you know, many decades with both practices, the trajectory is actually quite similar. So the early part of learning music, basically you're doing what people think of in the meditation world as mindfulness practices. So you're just trying to learn how to focus long enough to be able to play a scale and then be able to play through, all the way through a song. And so that's what you do kind of preliminary practices in contemplative traditions.

And then you need to be able to open the lens up wider in both cases. So in music, you got to you have to be able to open the lens enough so that you could hear somebody else and still play your part. So that project, that trajectory continues until you get to these kind of higher levels in either one of them, whether it's meditation or music, where what you're really trying to do, and the same thing is true actually in sports. You can see it in sports.

What you're really trying to do once you've taken on the muscle memory and you know the tunes and all of that stuff, like you've done your homework, then what you're really trying to do is get out of your way, out of your own way. You want the self to kind of, the constantly chattering mind. Like what you really get good at is letting go of that and just being inside the activity, which is 100% what meditation is about, and it's what really great musicians aspire to.

CATHY WURZER: How do you help people who are just starting down the road of meditation? Maybe they are interested in Zen Buddhism. How do you help them get out of their own way and become a part of the flow?

MARC ANDERSON: Well, for me, it's changed quite a bit in the last couple of years. So my tradition is Zen Buddhism, Japanese Soto Zen. And the long tradition of the path and doing that typically is that you learn kind of basic mindfulness practices. But all of these things are originally kind of come out of monastic traditions. So I did that for years, and then that was the way we did it. And I did dozens of arduous retreats, and I've read 1,000 books on Buddhism and been around teachers and just immersed myself in it.

And one of the things that I started to think along the way is like, well, almost nobody's going to do this. Like very few people have the time, or they just can't get interested in it for one reason or another to go through this. And I just kept thinking, there must be another way. Like these teachings, they're not Buddhist teachings really. They're just human teachings because you find versions of the same teachings everywhere, like literally everywhere. All of the religious traditions, all the Indigenous cultures, you find similar teachings.

So I just kept thinking, how could you do this? And actually started a nonprofit to try to figure that out, like how could I do this outside the confines of the tradition? And then I bumped into some teachers, and there's kind of a growing movement really of people that are teaching meditation, but it's called direct path teaching or non-dual understanding, where you can actually point somebody in into having the experience, kind of a non-dual experience, which means a unified world, like rather than the separation between subject-object, like you feel this union, which again, like all traditions are kind of pointing at that thing.

That's actually happening to everybody all the time. And all you have to do is just point out how people can notice it, and then they have to work with it. Like if you really want to experience that and start living from that, then you have to figure out how to integrate it, and that takes a long time.

But rather than do this kind of long progressive path, I've switched, and now I have a bunch of different ways that I can talk about it and point people directly to it. And that seems to be way more effective.

CATHY WURZER: Say, I've got-- I wish I had more time with you here. I need to ask about your performing career, your performing life. Are you going to be anywhere out in the next few weeks if folks want to come see you?

MARC ANDERSON: Well, we're a little late because I did two really great performances this past weekend. So I don't have anything coming up other than I've been doing a lot of sound baths, which are kind of a combination of music, and gongs, and singing bowls, and handpans, and all kinds of stuff. And I'm doing a sound bath tomorrow night at a warehouse, a chapel at Macalester College, and it's open to anybody. 7:00 o'clock.

CATHY WURZER: 7:00 o'clock. I got it. We'll write that down. It was really a pleasure, Marc. Thank you so much.

MARC ANDERSON: You're welcome, Cathy. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Marc Anderson is a Twin Cities based musician and Zen Buddhist priest.

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