Charlie Parker said that to play music you need to learn as much as you can, practice it, then get up on the bandstand and forget everything and just play. But what does he mean just play? How do you forget everything? Its an excellent question. Piano virtuoso and educator Hal Galper said that if you think you’re dead! Strong words to be sure but truer words were never spoken about music.
Galper relates a great story about Dizzy Gillespie that applies to this topic. A bunch of children are backstage at a High School concert and one of them asks Dizzy what he’s thinking about while he’s playing music. Now that’s a good question! What would a virtuoso like Dizzy Gillespie be thinking while he’s playing? Gillespie said, “Well most people thinks it bee bop buh do bee bop buh do. But its not its BEE BOP BUH DO BEE BOP BUH DO!!!” Wow, now there’s a great description of what’s going on in your head while you play music.
The lesson here? You’re going to play exactly as you hear. If you hear something loud and clear in your mind you’ll play it loud and clear with your hands. I guess we could call this type of mental process “thinking” but really what we’re doing is listening. And we know that listening is one of the most important things a musician can be doing. That goes for when they’re playing, practicing, enjoying music, or heck just about anywhere else in life.
To improve your head games you need to stop thinking and start listening. Music goes by to fast for us to be thinking about anything at all. That's what Galper means when he said that if you think you’re dead. By the time you’ve thought about whatever it is you want to do the moment has passed and your hands will be one (or maybe several) steps behind.
When I’m playing banjo I like to hear music in terms of whole phrases. If its my job to start a song with a banjo kick-off I try to take just a moment and hum the melody to myself just to get it cycling in my brain. I may not have even played this song before but maybe I know how the melody goes. Bluegrass tunes especially have a lot of the same melodies or they borrow phrases from other songs. Even if I don’t have a break that I’ve played a thousand times I can play the melody that I hear in my head and I’ll be able to improvise a satisfactory banjo solo and sometimes it’ll be awesome if I hit things just right.
BUT, if I think about anything I’ll just mess up! It happens every time. This goes back to what Charlie Parker was talking about. Practice, Practice, Practice. Then get on the stage and just play. If you’re playing music in a style where improvisation is an element or maybe even a key ingredient, learning to just play is important beyond measure. Even if you go out there intent on playing something exactly as practiced. Be it classical, rock, country, folk, hip-hop, whatever, you need to learn to turn off your internal voice and learn to listen to your intuitive voice.