Learning to play again

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How the mind gets in the way

Two different days. Same scenario. I am rehearsing for an upcoming gig I've been graciously invited to play with a singer/songwriter/guitarist and a bass player/percussionist/backup vocalist. None of us has ever played together before. We met at a jam session and our lead guy summoned us together to join him for his gig.

The difference between the two days? How wild my mind was the second time around. And how it prevented me from going “full out” with my expression. Interesting to notice. I’ve talked before about the freedom of the first take, and how I’ve found that when I’m totally open, not trying to “get it right” or worried about “playing the wrong notes,” I usually create something very interesting and often artistic. The minute I start redoing, rehearsing, recreating, researching – in the sense of trying to “live up” to the quality of the previous takes or the original version of the song done by the “people who knew what they were doing” – I lose it. I start trying way too hard. I start thinking, second-guessing, and measuring. The sound becomes stiff and artificial.

I've played at six different jams in the past two weeks. I'm beginning to see that there is such a difference between playing from a place of pure listening and ownership of everything coming out in the moment, versus needing to know what you're doing. I used to play mainly from this latter place. I either "knew" a piece or didn't. I had the confidence that I could learn anything if I just practiced it enough. But this confidence didn't make "on the fly" or improvisational sessions possible for me. These weren't fun because I was attached to the idea that if I just had more time to practice, I would know enough to be able to join in. In fact, I always felt slightly underpracticed. Not quite as good as I could be. My so-called confidence was something I held in private, something that was conditional upon my having more time to prepare.

Aside from instilling an obsessive work ethic that served me well at things like getting into Harvard, getting through medical school, and impressing people who think that the more degrees you have the better person you are, I haven't found this constant feeling of slight inadequacy to be that useful.

In fact, here are some of the ways it has made my life more difficult/less enjoyable/less peaceful:

  • Not wanting to approach new people with my services/skills/ideas until I have developed them to perfection. By the way, when you’re creating and inventing, there is no perfection, so this is a formula for never putting your stuff out there.
  • Constantly questioning how I can do more, how I can measure up to “Everybody Else” who seems to know what they’re doing better than I do. I’ve talked in previous posts about the plague of believing “I am never doing enough”.
  • Not celebrating or acknowledging the small steps I am taking in completely new directions, because I am preoccupied by a greater vision of how things “should” be. I get so lost in an idea of what I want to be, that I totally miss what I actually am right now. There’s nothing wrong with having visions; I just need to remind myself to bring my attention back to the tiny beautiful little things happening right now, which are often drowned out by the volume and intensity of my big future vision. Funny how the mind blurs those lines, isn’t it?
  • Becoming a bystander versus a doer. I’m trying to find a new balance point between observing and doing. I’ve previously erred on the side of doing more than I needed to, and now I’m finding a new dynamic state of doing and observing.

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Bringing "play" back into "playing music"

I can't tell you how antithetical this is to the way I have lived for the majority of my life. It's only now in my exploration of what play means, for me as an adult, that I see how I have forgotten what it's like to play.

Remember when play used to feel like this?

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We all have that pure joy somewhere inside us.

My little musical excursions into improvisation are like baby steps for me to train a completely new way of being. I remind myself to be gentle with the child in me who is learning to walk again. I’m discovering – actually, in a way, I’m teaching myself - what it’s like to FEEL my way through musical situations – and life - without a piece of paper in front of me, and just my body to guide me.

Talk about a practice in relaxation! I often have no idea how my fingers or my vocal cords are finding notes. When I let go of needing to know, they just get there. And sometimes they don't. But my ears guide them back again, as long as I keep my mind quiet. If I spend any time in that mode of slight inadequacy, thinking I need more practice, or more time, I've lost the connection to the music. The reality is that the music is happening right now, and I don't have the option of considering "what if" I had more of this, more of that, a little better this or a little less of that. I'm either part of what's going on, or I'm lost in my own head, and not connected to the music.

Great metaphor for life, too, actually. If we spend all our time planning, wishing, wanting things that aren't there, worrying about the future, believing we can use our cleverness to outsmart this moment, we miss the opportunity to connect with the music of our lives. We are somewhere in our minds, sitting it out, dreaming about how much we would be able to do if only we had more time to practice.

And then we miss the chance to just listen and play.

Photo credits (used under a Creative Commons license):
Cat playing guitar by Andrew: http://www.flickr.com/people/fozzeee/
PLAY sign by Ed Schipul: http://www.flickr.com/people/eschipul/
Girl in pure joy by Jesper Sachmann: http://www.flickr.com/people/sachmanns/