In my younger days, I studied martial arts; specifically, formal Japanese styles such as Shotokan, Gojo Ryu, and Aikido. I went the furthest with Shotokan. But it was my experience with Aikido that probably had the most profound effect on my approach to combat. That was primarily because of my mentor, life coach, and Aikido instructor Dan Retuta of the Crestone Healing Arts Center in Crestone, Colorado.
Admittedly, I never went very far in Aikido; in fact, I more or less just dabbled. But Dan has been a lifelong friend whom I have known for almost five decades, and he has been the wise older brother that I didn’t have. But more than just Aikido, the most important thing I learned from Dan was what I’ll simply call the “warrior way.” It is a way of thinking and acting – living, to put it simply – according to how a warrior would live. And no, it’s not at all about fighting. It’s about honor, courage, discipline, integrity and decisiveness, and belying its name, it’s also about inner peace and stillness.
In one of our numerous conversations, Dan said something to me that has stuck with me since, and something that I have passed on to others whom I mentor and that is: “One of the reasons we repeat a movement or technique over and over again is to have it etched into our entire being, to make it become part of our essential being. That way, when we’re finally faced with a real-life situation, we won’t think about applying a particular technique; we’ll just do what is appropriate for the situation without any thought. In a way, our martial art is revealed in the moment. That is satori, where thought and action are one.”
Sound familiar? In music, we practice techniques over and over again so that when it finally comes time to perform we just execute the technique. Without thinking. A simple way of looking at satori is what many would call being in the zone.
For example, when I was taking piano lessons long ago, my teacher taught me how to play scales. There’s a specific technique for playing scales up and down the keyboard. I practiced that technique for hours at a time to learn all my scales in every key. I did it because my teacher told me to do it, but I didn’t really understand why until she had me learn a more complicated piece that required that I apply the technique. In one section, there was a phrase that had an ascending scale of sixteen eight notes. As I read it, I just climbed the scale, applying the technique I had practiced – without thinking about the technique. After I did that phrase I stopped and said to her, “NOW I get why I practiced all those scales!” She just smiled.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I recently joined another band. As the new member, I was reluctant to let it all hang out because I didn’t want to offend anyone. But as I’ve become more comfortable with the other band members, I’ve started to be myself; not that I was trying to be someone else in the past, but I was treading a lot more carefully. That changed with my last gig.
When it came time for me to do my first solo, in that instant, I forgot about holding back, and just went for it. I don’t remember what I actually did, but I remember thinking to myself after I finished, Did I actually just play that? 🙂 One of the things I did was a quick sweep pick over a couple of triads; something that I’ve practiced in the past, but never applied. I did it without thinking about it and I realized I did it because it just fit with what I was playing and with the song. I smiled knowing that what I just had was a moment of satori. Such a cool thing!
It is difficult to show exactly how to achieve that state. It’s not as if you can do it willfully; not at all like Okay, now I’m going to get in the zone. But you can prepare yourself first by simply practicing and mastering techniques. Moreover, what I encourage a lot of people to do is simply play against a backing track. But instead of practicing patterns, and thinking about what you’re playing. Just go for it. Don’t care about technique. Play what you’re feeling. It might sound like shit. But don’t care. Feel yourself conjoining and commingling with the music. The more you can separate your conscious, analytical mind, the easier it will be to drop into the zone.
As a Star Wars aficionado, I love the life lessons contained in the movies, especially those that revolve around the Force. As Obi-Wan said in Star Wars: A New Hope: Let go your conscious self and act on instinct. Here’s a clip to close this out:
When it comes to playing music, no wiser words have been said…