Paying Attention: How it can help your playing

So I was sitting in my room, playing guitar as usual, and I realized something… I wasn’t in my room playing my guitar at all!  I was in the future, playing guitar in front of people, eager for their approval of what I was working on, eager to hear the praise of “how good I sounded”.  I was being swooned over by girls, and winning the adoration and lesson times of young musicians, booking major gigs for an audience that “really understands me”.  I was somewhere else, which is not just a problem for me (and everyone with a heartbeat) in music.  It is a huge problem in life.  The idea though is so prevalent and forthcoming though in music that I feel it should be talked about in this context first.  You must be present to improve at music.  Let’s give that one it’s own little paragraph


There.  I feel much better now that you know that.  Because it is huge in our field.  Without presence, you cannot read the signals that music (the entity), your body, your life, your friends and teachers, the universe, or ANYTHING is sending you, because you are not at the registered mailing address.  This sounds bad, and it is (as far as bad can be defined)… but it is also great news because if you are here, you are now subject to a wealth of musical knowledge that you were previously unavailable to.  Let us look at a few examples of how presence can help the improving instrumentalist.

  1. Technical Improvement:  Being aware of the signals that your body is sending you can have major effects on your playing from a technical standpoint.  First though, we must define “good technique”.  Good technique is simply the ability one has to accomplish any musical “goal” with the least amount of effort necessary.  So, all the effort required, but none past that.  Imagine if you will with me, that the trumpet requires a certain velocity of air to play high because of physics.  Will rearing one’s head back and bending one’s back aid in any way to further compress air to achieve “high note air velocity”?  I believe the answer is no.  Things of this nature are example of extra effort that one can learn to avoid if one is listening to the messages the body is sending (pain, discomfort, stress, strain, etc.).  I’ll never forget the days I watched Rahsaan Raas hit in the doubles while sitting on a chair, face pointed to the ground almost, but taking in more air than a freight train and letting ’em fly.  No extra effort.  Does Wynton really look like he struggles with the horn to get those notes to come out?  What about Sergei Nakariakov?  Perhaps there is some extra effort at that level of mastery at the trumpet, but through years of study (and prodigy-like behavior from Mr. Nakariakov) those two provide pretty clear examples of what it looks like to play high notes, wide phrases, heavily articulated passages, etc.  It looks easy.  Like any baby chimp could do it.  Like they could do it in their sleep.  “I could never do that.” says the negative self.  It’s wrong, as usual.  You can, if you learn to listen to your body.  The best posture to take is the one that is the most relaxed while holding the instrument.  The best amount of finger motion is the one that comes from setting your fingers free as opposed to constricting your joints.  Your wrists are best served by being straight because that is what feels the least strained.  There is a great deal of science one can do to determine the proper way to sit, and the angles at which the clarinet sounds best, OR you can listen to what your body is telling you, and learn to play from an attentive and relaxed space.  Learning to pay attention to my playing has saved me a lot of money that could have been spent on even more classical training, but with presence these days I am able to solve technical problems by simply finding the space from which things come through with the least effort (physically, this is easy to do.  The mindset can take a little work… for another post).  Examples of this could fill volumes, and for this alone presence is worth a million dollars.
  2. The Development of Musical Sense:  Imagine you are performing your classical solo, or perhaps you are playing guitar for your friends, maybe you are at a jam.  But really, you aren’t playing your solo, you are thinking about what others think of you, whether or not you are “in tune” or playing with “appropriate tone”, you are elsewhere, outside the moment at hand.  How can you, if you are outside the moment at hand, deal with the prevalent musical issues RIGHT NOW, like contrast, connecting with the audience, and listening to the other musicians you are playing with.  Great conversationalists are listeners more than they are talkers, and as it is in English, so it is in music.  In fact, the bassist Victor Wooten once said that he is an English speaker fist, before he is a musician (music is definitely just a language by the way) and so he approaches any music question first as an English question.  In English, we listen as we talk and base “our performance” on the information we acquire in the moment.  No performance, no conversation, no speech is independent of context.  All things happen in the present, and if you aren’t here, you cannot speak through the moment and touch the human hearts that are here.  Being present will allow you to use musical information that is in present, and accomplish the “goals” of music (all of which also exist in the current moment.)  This is also true of composition,  Pat Metheny once said to Scott Wilson that he sits at the piano for a long time every day, and often won’t play a note.  When asked why he responded “You have to be at the train station when the train comes in”.  With this advice, Scott said he had the most prolific summer of his life.  Bela Fleck often calls his message machine at home, and sings the ideas that come to him in the moment so he can work them out later.  The idea is that your practice, your performance, and your composition (all the creative activities in music) can be centered around the idea that you are here, in this context, growing and weaving through current circumstances and emotional environments (like Bruce Lee or something!… In fact just like Bruce Lee says “Be water my friend”).  Music in it’s pure form cannot be expected, it is like Robert Fripp said “Maturity in a musician is the ability to achieve innocence at will”.  At first glance it sounds like new age trash.  But I can attest that it is most certainly real.  How many times do you think Coltrane’s quartet played A Love Supreme before recording it?  Hundreds?  It was not new to them, in the traditional sense.  But when you hear it come through the speakers, it sounds as if they were hearing it for the first time.  That is special.  Everything else will seem stale to you when you learn to see things as though they are new.  Because in truth, because of the way time moves forward… they are!
  3. Creativity:  If you are thinking about the future, or the “results” of your practice and your performance, this will constrain you creatively.  You will be constantly evaluating whether or not what you are doing is “valid”, or whether or not it is “cutting edge” enough to play publicly.  You will become subject to the fear that what you are doing isn’t good enough because you are placing it in a context of the greats of the past and your expectation for what you “should” sound like in the future.  Can you see how that sounds?  What you “should” sound like?  How stale!  To play to expectation, based on the performers of the past and the direction music is going these days, is an absurd goal.  Firstly, because the performers of the past HAVE ALREADY PERFORMED!  In fact, what makes the greats of the past great is that they played what they felt about the society they lived in! They did not, as we try too often to do today, try to be valid.  They gave om-age to the past by performing in the present.  Also, to try and predict what people are going to listen to in the future is as fickle as predicting the weather, or what particular style will be “in” next season.  Even Gregorian Chant has had a modern revival… who saw that coming?  No one, the people that do chant were probably just as shocked as the rest of the musical community.  The majority is going to do what it is going to do, regardless of how you good you are.  So now, FINALLY, you don’t have to worry about it!  You can just live in the present and explore the instrument and music and harmony without fear, because being afraid serves none of the functions that it is supposed to.  It will NOT make you famous to pander to the interests of the public, only pure luck will make you famous.  I know several bass players who are objectively better than Esperanza Spalding, but she is famous and they are not.  Go figure.  They don’t care, because they know how awesome they are, and how much fun it is to freely create in the moment.  If you believe in God, go ahead and see it as your right, as a child of the greatest creator of all time, to create whatever the hell you want and not be ashamed of it.  And being able to listen to your creative spirit IN THE MOMENT, will greatly enhance you ability to do that without judging yourself.  On that note, also know that you are different from the you that you used to be, so the things you create today make look and feel and sound different than that which you have liked and done in the past.  In fact, you may come to dislike the things you have done in the past, but don’t be afraid of that, because you have changed.  Significantly.
  4. Getting to Work:  A common problem for developing musicians is figuring out what to work on when they are practicing.  There is so much that can be done, it is hard to pick a single direction to go.  Future-oriented (distracted) practice will often appear busy, as though the practitioner is working very hard on a great many things.  This manner of practice though, even if studiously followed for great lengths of time, results in little growth.  Deep roots are harder to pull that shallow ones.  Practicing for depth is the way to go, and choosing a single direction to focus on is the way to obtain depth.  Simplify simplify simplify.  To quote Kenny Werner quoting Bill Evans “Practice the minimum”… amount of material.  Such progress can be obtain from just working on the tongue, where it strikes the reed, the lightness of it, how to tongue at different dynamic levels.  Or simply working on dissecting rhythms at sight can result in miles of conceptual gain in only minutes a day.  Tackling giants simply doesn’t work.  The physics hates you.  Instead, chop him to bits, and deal with each bit individually.  Not only is this more effective practice, it is practice that is easy to do!  Anyone can convince themselves that they are going to work on just tonguing for just five minutes!  The problem is that it doesn’t “feel” like anything is getting done, but if you learn to pay attention to your practice, and pay attention to the moment, you will notice that you are (for the first time maybe) working on the real problems that are hindering your development.  Presence will outline for you which technical, musical, rhythmic or otherwise elements are truly keeping you at the level that you are standing on.  To boot, presence will inform you when a skill is mastered and needs no more practice.  So often we become fixated on playing that which we play well, simply to pet the ego.  Though it can serve the moment to play something that is mastered, there will always come a time to sharpen a new axe, and listening to the present will guide you toward the work that needs to get done.

Hopefully that is enough to convince you to get your head out of the clouds and come back to the moment to practice.  More posts will come on obtaining the type of presence that I am talking about, and incorporating it into your practice, but please do not feel hindered by waiting for me to tell you how to do it.  Just go do it today!  You don’t have to wait for anyone to take a deep breath and play in the moment.  It is such a gift. And practicing for the future is one of the major barriers that holds people back from improving in the present moment.  Learn to relax, take a deep breath, and play naturally (working with the natural tendencies of your body and mind, as opposed to trying to change them “If you go against nature, you are probably going to lose” -Dr. Ray Smith).  Your whole life may get better!  Try it now!  What bad things could possibly happen as a result of just being here?