Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Tuning Slide- No Wandering

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

On those long notes behind the trumpet solo,
if anyone lets his mind wander for a minute
he is dead.
-Don Ellis

Things are moving along nicely. You are in "the groove." You are feeling what the rest of the group is doing. It can be a concert band piece or a trio. You know the music is working its magic on you and you couldn't feel better.

Then for  moment you get distracted. It could be something out of the corner of your eye or a note that didn't land just right from you or someone else. Maybe you just remembered something you forgot to do before you left home. Perhaps a memory of another performance was triggered by a note or just a random thought drifted up from the unconscious.

Suddenly the whole mood and feel changes. You aren't lost- you know right where you are, but the groove is gone. You are not in sync with what's happening.  If you are in a concert band you may get away with it. If you are in the midst of a solo, as great trumpet player Don Ellis so bluntly put it- you're dead.

Now, I know Robert Baca said the same thing about "panic" that I quoted a few weeks ago. The truth is, though, it's true. It took me years to realize the truth of it- and why my performances were often riddled with moments when I "died." No one noticed most of them except perhaps the director and the person sitting next to me. But distraction is for me the worst of.....


Just kidding. Another way of describing this result of distraction is that obstacles appear when we take our mind away from the sound, the music, or the goal. Obstacles are things that get in the way of doing what we want to or are usually able to do. When I have listened to recordings of some of my solos in the big band or concert band I have often noticed one thing in particular- the sound. Perhaps it is better to say that I notice when my "sound" goes flat or isn't alive. The obstacle is not that I can't keep a clearer sound, the obstacle is maintaining it when I am distracted.

Sometimes I get distracted by the fact that I just did the previous line or phrase better than usual. I take that moment to congratulate myself- and I am distracted. Sometimes I get distracted by paying too much attention to the audience and I get flustered. Sometimes in life I get distracted by "the small stuff" and miss the goals and hopes I have for myself.

Even good things can be distractions, of course. If it takes me away from my goals, it is a distraction.

High-wire artist, acrobat, and daredevil Nik Wallenda of the famous Flying Wallendas has this to say:
I've trained all my life not to be distracted by distractions.
Nik Wallenda
Perhaps the word for what Wallenda does is maintain focus and being mindful. Staying in the moment is essential. Notice that he says he has had to "train" all his life to do it. I do not think it comes naturally. We are easily distracted because that is how our brain is constructed. It is part of the ancient survival system. To learn how to do this takes time and energy.

We learn in the practice room when we work on our pieces so that we know them more than just technically. We learn focus as we become familiar with the rhythms and flow that make the music alive. We learn mindfulness as we take the time to sing the parts out loud to feel the movement. We discover awareness as we listen to ourselves play and how what we are playing fits into the greater picture of the music.

But we also improve our musical focus ability when we take five or ten minutes on a daily basis to meditate or focus on our breathing as a way of bringing ourselves back into the moment. What we do in the hours of the day when we are not playing music can have a huge impact on how we learn to avoid distractions. Our music is not a box we can separate from the rest of our lives. Nor is our life a separate box from the music.

As we learn to integrate who we are and what we do, we find that our music will flow from us.

And we can flow from our music.

Practice mindfulness. Stay in the moment. Pay attention to your breath. Feel the pulse of the music as you play. Remember the sound you want and play it. Don't think about it; don't analyze it. In your practice - just play it so it is yours.

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