Actually, I don’t know how profound I’ll actually be, but something I learned many years ago has had a profound effect on how I live my life, and on a smaller scale, how I approach playing music. Today’s thought was spurred by a New York Times article on “Mindfulness” that a friend shared on Facebook this morning. In reading the article, I looked back to a time before I was married and doing a lot of soul searching; trying to find the true essence of “me.” In the process, I learned about living in the “NOW,” and always being present.
As one person was quoted in the article, “Intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgementally” is what living in the “now” is. Developing that sense though isn’t easy because our lives are filled with constant distractions. To live in the now requires quieting the mind. Though it might seem paradoxical, by making our minds still, we actually expand our awareness – of everything. We become responsive as opposed to reactionary. Response is intentional while reaction is instinctual. Big difference between the two.
So what does any of this have to do with playing guitar?
One habit that I’ve gotten into before I start any gig is a few minutes before I come to the microphone, I find a quiet place, or just sit at my rig, close my eyes, and do what I call “drain my mind.” I take myself to a place where I’m not thinking about work or other things that would worry me. I think about the first song I’m going to play, and tap into the emotion of the music and the meaning behind the lyrics. Then I try to feel the energy of the crowd. Once I’m “hooked up,” I start the first song. It’s not really psyching myself up – lord knows I don’t need any motivation to perform. It’s literally clearing my mind to open myself up to the songs I’m singing and even more importantly, tapping into the energy of my audience.
I’ve found that when I’m bothered or distracted, it affects my performance. That probably goes for pretty much anything I do, but especially with playing guitar – whether I’m gigging or in the studio or just playing alone – if my mind isn’t clear, I have a hard time expressing myself, and my performance is just flat. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I was really bothered by a programming problem that I was working on solving, and I spent most of my time on the way to my gig thinking about it. I set up my rig, still ruminating over the problem, then I started the gig without first draining my mind. The net result was that I was just going through the motions.
I was sounding okay, I suppose because I was getting some tips, but I wasn’t really connecting with my audience. So instead of doing my typical 1.5-2 hour first set, I cut off my first set at an hour, left the stage for about 15 minutes, and spent the time in a quiet place, going through my routine (I also got a dram of Macallan 18 year old scotch to enjoy ). Mind you, I wasn’t really stressed out; I was just distracted. While I was enjoying the vanilla accents of the Macallan 18, I found my “happy place,” and realized that I hadn’t drained my mind before starting. So I took a few minutes to just quite my mind and put the problem away; promising myself that after my gig I’d work on the problem. Once I got back on stage, I felt totally plugged in, and had a great evening. I was so inspired, I did a lot more soloing than I had ever done (that actually established a precedent because I now take a lot more time to solo)! So what about the work problem? Funny thing is that by draining my mind, I found the solution while I was driving home. In quieting my mind, I was able to see the missing connections between my objects. I got home, coded them up, and all was well! It took me all of 10 minutes to solve.
The point to all that is that when we quiet our minds, we open ourselves up to all sorts of possibilities, plus we allow ourselves to focus more intently. I know that seems paradoxical, but I’ve found that in order to focus, we have to first drain our minds to expand our awareness. Only then can we focus.