Monday, 18 July 2011

four steps

Kenny Werner spends the first half of his book introducing his reader to the idea that the mind, in particular 'the obsessive need to sound good', creates a tension in playing music which almost all musicians experience. He draws attention to the fact that most people play much better when it doesn't matter - playing with friends rather than performing, or playing alone. It isn't just the mind, conscious thoughts, which cause the problem, but the feeling of fear behind any thoughts which arise - the fear of sounding bad, which he suggests is tied up with the connection between a sense of self-worth and 'playing well'.

In the second half of the book, he starts to discuss practical strategies for overcoming this.

...We have talked a lot about the impurities of your purpose, your playing, and your practicing. Now we are going to look at a method of deprogramming and reprogramming. There are four steps in making this change in your life.

Step One introduces you to the inner self. It is a kind of meditation, a sharp contrast to the space people usually play in. As previously stated, many have experienced this state from activities like riding a bicycle, running or swimming, meditating and chanting, various martial arts and ancient tea ceremonies. Zen and yogic traditions are drenched in the awareness of this space. I've met musicians who have studied other disciplines and have attained the fruits of those disciplines, but could not retain the awareness while playing. It is just a matter of touching your instrument in that state, but they could never do that because they missed one little point: you must surrender the need to sound good. Otherwise you can't really let go!. Simple, but not easy! Learn a way of attaining inner balance and approach your instrument in that space.

The first two steps will help you observe all the thoughts and pressures connected with your instrument. You will learn to let go and love whatever you hear coming out. This is absolutely necessary to escape your dilemma. You can't fake it! Step One will help you get in touch with your intuitive self by bypassing the conscious mind, the epitome of all limited playing. Physically, you will intuitively move towards the most effortless and efficient way of playing your particular instrument. Daily practice will allow you to become familiar with the more effortless stance, or perfect embouchure, head position, or whatever. You will gravitate to the physical position that allows you to play without leaving the space.

Step Two is the retention of that awareness while the hands explore the instrument in a free improvisation. I don't mean the style of free jazz, but the intent. Your hands are free to wander, without your conscious participation. Again, this is only possible if you can release the need to sound good for a few moments.

If Step One and Two are analogous to crawling, Step Three is beginning to walk. In Step Three you will learn how to do simple things from this consciousness. The natural space you developed forms a foundation from which you relearn how to play. In this step, music begins to play through you in intelligent form. You start to experience what wants to be played, and what you can comfortably play. You learn to stay within yourself and not be seduced by your ego. Just as the space established your natural connection to your instrument and sound, it now establishes what can be played effortlessly over form, time, changes, written music or whatever. But it will also be the start of becoming real, and your playing will be built on more solid ground. Leaving the ego out of playing will remove the drama of trying to play what you wish you could play. You will be practicing the wisdom of accepting, with love, what you can play from the space.

The space itself is the teacher, and life becomes centred around learning to connect with the space. Music becomes secondary. You remember gigs not by how well you played, but by how much you let go. Those are usually the best gigs anyway, but now the priority has changed. You're no longer bothered by what is out there, but absorbed by what is here.

You're not condemned to your present level of playing for life, however, because in Step Four you begin a process of change and growth. Built on the solid foundation of the first few steps, with detachment and calm, and with self-love, you begin practicing things that can't be played effortlessly. Not only do you practice from the space, but you don't assume you've mastered anything until it plays itself from that space.  Step Four will help you acquire a taste for absorption into a subject, rather than skimming uselessly over many subjects. The discipline of patience overtakes you as you wait in a detached way for mastery to occur on what you are practicing. Every practice session becomes a link in a chain, a patient process that moves you towards your goal.

These steps can be life-transforming. You'll feel as free as a bird when you play, yet have great discipline in all your studies. If patiently followed, these four steps will transform your practice and performance (131-133).

It's not just a theory. This has started to happen to me, to a small extent, though as a natural process, rather than by trying to implement his steps.  I was probably influenced more than I know by Indirect Procedures, a book  on playing and practising by an Alexander teacher. He points out that when you play from a completely relaxed space, within your natural limits, you don't get injuries. And this is true for me too. I had playing injuries for years, which recurred even after long breaks. Now that I play more quietly within my limits, the playing is softer, more nuanced, easy, and there are no injuries.

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