“By not caring, you play better” - Kenny Werner
A few days ago I was soundchecking on guitar for a regular freelance gig. The band used the extra time to do a quick runthrough of the songs. The drummer counted in the first tune and everything felt great! My tone felt like an extension of my hands. The often awkward pedalboard dance became graceful and musical movement. I heard the other players clearly and slipped into the pocket like a warm bath.
“I’m killing today” I thought to myself, self-satisfied, with satiated ego. “I can’t wait to rip in front of the audience.”
I did not rip in front of the audience.
We took our places on stage and the drummer counted in the first tune. My head was spinning with expectations from soundcheck. I wanted to recreate that magic moment all over again. “I am a session player” I thought, “recreating a moment on demand is my job.” While this is true in a broad sense, it isn't entirely accurate. I learned this the hard way. Really, the job is to bring the best music out of every different moment. My guitar part might be the exactly same, but it has to feel like the first time, every time.
Nostalgia for the effortless groove of soundcheck set me up for failure. Instead of feeling deeply connected to the band and my rig, I felt sluggish, disconnected and self-conscious. By self conscious I don’t mean that I was embarrassed or insecure. I mean that I was hyper aware of myself in the moment. I wasn’t playing the music but thinking about playing the music. Thinking too hard about playing well was a huge distraction from the music I was supposed to be playing!
From the outside looking in, the set didn’t seem that different from soundcheck. I met my professional standards and did the job I was there to do. But the magic was missing. In soundcheck I had surrendered to the music, free of expectations and fear of messing up. I had the mindset that it was “just” a soundcheck. Because of that mindset, I didn’t make any mistakes at all. As soon as I felt it really “mattered,” the thinking came in and ruined the flow. It was like someone had tied the laces of both my shoes together. When the drummer counted in, I fell over myself trying to walk.
These moments happen to all of us, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Even when our thoughts get in the way of our best performing selves, we can still “make the changes.” And while this has happened to me before, my work with Effortless Mastery set me up to respond differently. In mindfulness meditation when you notice your thoughts straying you nonjudgmentally return to breath. Because of my practice routine this week, I was able to make a similar course correction onstage. Mid-song, I took a literal deep breath and focused on the drums to center myself. I was back. The mental chatter slowed down and I was in the flow for the rest of the gig. I was back in the pocket.
I can’t help but wonder how many gigs I didn’t catch myself and played while distracted and self-critical. I'm sure there were many sets where I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the band because I was trying too hard to sound amazing. My intentions were good, but those good intentions led my inner critic to intervene where it had no business. By all metrics, everything should have gone smoothly. I knew the music cold. I was in time and in tune. But music is more than its objective mechanics. The secret ingredient of inspiration was missing. Even if no one else could feel that 5% difference, I could.
No excuses. We work on craft so that we can perform at the highest level even when can’t find inspiration and flow. I don't believe it's useful to wait around for inspiration to strike to do our best work. We are artists and artisans. We can rely on the consistency and confidence that comes from technique and skill. However, that is only the starting point. We still need to tap into the spiritual dimension that makes music making bigger than scales or click tracks or good intonation. We each need to find our flow state.
I can feel the results of the exercises set out in my last post. I did the meditations before practicing and set my instrument down when I lost my flow. I didn’t let myself phone anything in or mindlessly noodle in the practice room. I strongly believe that this practice is what allowed me to catch myself onstage the other day. My abstract hypothesis was stress tested in the real world. I wasn’t sure how tangible the results would be in so short a time, so I am pleasantly surprised at how noticeable they were.
I can’t say that these exercises are the prescriptive solution for everyone. I just know that they worked well for me and I will continue practicing to dive even deeper. I was able to recenter in a real world gigging situation, when I otherwise may have been lost for the rest of the set. That is invaluable from my perspective. I’m not satisfied with uninspired, technically fine work. I would be in a different profession if I was. I’m chasing the lightning. It’s reassuring to know that I can hone my ability to find it when it seems lost inside a mental cloud. I just needed to return to the breath. Return to the groove. Surrender.