“The mind in its natural state can be compared to the sky, covered by layers of cloud which hide its true nature.” – Kalu Rinpoche
Once we learn to generate movement from our core and not interfere with it, once we start to follow rather than control the music, we experience an extraordinary new space.
Like a city dweller suddenly finding herself under a huge desert sky, for some this space can be terrifying.
What do I put in it?
Who am I in it?
In fact, it is there we find connection. With ourselves, the music and the audience.
“In order to really be, you have to be free from the thinking… Non-thinking is an art and, like any art, it requires patience and practice.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh (Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise)
Thought is necessary. We need to think during our practice – about the composer’s life, the harmony, the metre, the structure. We need to observe how we are playing our instrument and how it corresponds, or not, to what we hear in our inner ear. But thought in the form of planning, judging, remembering and commenting takes us out of the present moment and when we are thinking in this way, clear observation is impossible.
Here is an example of a ‘thought’ during practice, which is in fact a judgement, followed by a clear observation.
Judgement: ‘Out of tune!’
Observation: The note was flat, which means I did not prepare the shift enough. My elbow needs to bounce higher so the forearm falls further.
‘Thoughts’ we have during concerts can be even more harsh: ‘You have no right to be on stage!’ ‘Your teacher will be disappointed!’ But they can also be ‘positive’: ‘Think about releasing your thumb on the G’. ‘Go to the B flat’. ‘Good. Must remember that for next time’. ‘Relax’. ‘Try to be present’.
Every one of these thoughts does the same thing. It takes us out of the present, even the one that asks us to be in it. Because a concert takes place in the present moment, I believe that fifteen minutes’ meditation a day can be far more helpful than four hours’ thinking which we call ‘instrumental practice’. I also believe that if our practice could be composed of clear observation, listening, both leading and following and respecting the natural movement of our body, we would have to do very little of it.
Getting Ourselves Out of the Way
As musicians we fear that, unless we inject every phrase with our ‘personality’, our playing will be boring. Unless we do things to the music we won’t have an ‘interpretation’. However, when a musical line falls like an autumn leaf, or rises like an eagle soaring on a thermal, is this our personality? Or our interpretation? When we are able to get ourselves out of the way, there is no ‘I’ to judge or be judged. Because there is no judgement there is no duality, no perfection, no imperfection, no right, no wrong, no them (the audience) and us (the performer). There is only a magical moment-to-moment unfolding.
A pandemic rages. The concert halls, pubs, theatres and colleges are empty, and the music has stopped. A global pause button has been pressed in the life journeys of all musicians. Not just pit players, not just students, not just rappers or folkies, but all musicians.
The wall between stage and pit is just one of those that can exist between people, even playing the same music in the same place at the same time. However, thanks to Covid 19, a chink appeared in that wall last night, and through it the twain did most certainly meet.
In the recent and fascinating discussion on the benefits of yoga for musicians on The Exhale, someone asked the question ‘What about Pilates for strengthening the core?’ and, in his answer, my wise yoga teacher, Peter Blackaby, confirmed my hunch that isolating any muscle group or body part, even ‘the core’, to make a movement is counter-productive to flow and energy.
“I knew there was no way I could practice the amount I needed and not just completely destroy my body. I wondered how other people did it. It never occurred to me in college that it was something I could learn”