Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Playing through the subconscious

I've been playing the Bach piece more and more in front of people.  I'm pretty much forcing myself to perform it in front of people.  I figure if I perform it enough in low pressure situations I'll have less nervous energy when I perform it in front of a larger audience.  I even performed it out at an actual gig about a month ago.   My nerves were pretty wound up and I hit a few duds and got a bit lost for a second but overall I was happy with the performance.  A classical guitarist told me that it would be 2 years before I would be ready to take this out of the oven.  I'm not quite to the 2 year mark so that performance was a bit ahead of schedule.  I'm figuring that by next spring it should be on lockdown and I'll have full confidence to perform it.   It's pretty close to that now.  But how do I break through to next level?  How do I get this thing where I hardly make a mistake or make none at all?  Most importantly though, how do I make this piece the most musical?

I've been noticing that when I'm playing the piece my mind will wander in and out of consciousness.  At some moments I'm having an inner dialogue that is not really helpful.  In fact it is distracting.  Maybe I'm thinking about my hands or feeling nervous.  Then a moment later I'm focusing only on the sound I'm hearing come from the guitar and suddenly I'm not really there at all.  There is only the sound and the music.  I'm controlling it but not actively.  It's just happening all on its own.  This is an amazing place to be.  This is where music happens.

 I've read about this musical state in a couple of books on the subject.  One notable book is "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green.  This book is an excellent introduction to playing through the subconscious.  It highlights lots of exercises designed with the goal of getting to that place I mentioned earlier.

I've also read some quotes from John Hartford where he mentions that he really tried to play through the subconscious.  He didn't want to be thinking much about the music at all.  In one quote he said that when he's playing his best he's just a set of eyes floating above his hands, detached.  He's no longer thinking.  Charlie Parker also said something to this effect.  He practiced until he could just forget everything.  Here's a quote I found.  I've seen it a few places.

"You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

Clearly something is going on here we can learn to use in our music making but how do you get there?  Here are a few suggestions to help you play through the subconscious.

  • You've got to know your fingerings.  If you hope to play subconsciously you can't be thinking about what finger goes where.  Know that stuff cold.  Learn it then forget it so to speak.  Or at least learn it, then stop thinking about it.
  • When practicing focus only on the sound of your instrument.  Don't think about anything else.  You'll find that sound is telling you all you need to know
  • Hopefully music lifts us out of everyday existence.  It's transportive.   Liberating.  Strive for that feeling of detaching from day to day complacency.  Try to go somewhere else with your music making.  
  • If you hit technical problems go back and work on those problems when you find them.  Maybe you need to revisit some fingerings or improve your muscle memory over certain passages.  Playing through the subconscious means that mistakes should be few and far between.  They should be so small that they won't upset the music.  Everyone makes mistakes but not everyone makes music.  
  • Don't worry about making mistakes when playing through the subconscious.  Worry about making music.

I hope that helps.

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