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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Thoughts On Performing, Focus, Zen, and Hayoun Leaving

Last night I played a great gig with Circles at the Annex Live, with Parc-X Trio opening for us.  This morning I had some thoughts about what might be the best way to direct one's mind while playing the sort of music Circles plays - music that is sometimes tricky technically, but is also very improvisational.  On the one hand, you are looking to be creative and play something new, but on the other hand, it isn't totally free - there are certain guidelines and things you need to get right. So there are two challenges. (Or at least two challenges, anyway!) So where do you direct your attention? How do you use your mind so that you can accept inspiration and hopefully make the music better in a subjective sense (e.g. more expressive, interesting, inspiring, etc.) while still keeping it of a high quality in an objective sense (e.g. playing the right notes, playing with good rhythm, playing in tune, etc.).

There are lots of things you could think about in trying to make a piece of music more expressive.  Sometimes I think about something which is emotionally evocative to me that I think connects with the feeling of the music somehow. For example, if it is a love song, I could think about someone I love and how I feel about them. Or, for example last night was the last gig Circles will play with our piano player Hayoun Lee before he moves to Korea, so I was thinking about that sometimes. But that sort of thinking is kind of dangerous - it is easy (for me anyway) to get off on some train of thought, and before you know it, I've missed a shot or a chord or something. On the other hand, it can be helpful - it can give a little inspiring boost of emotional intensity.  I think it is best if kept very abstract, for example, just calling a person or situation to mind, without thinking about any specific issues or ideas that relate.

Another thing you can think about is planning ahead in the song. Like at one point last night when we were playing the song Little Candles Hayoun was on his third chorus, and I had expected him to take only two (although I was glad he took an extra one because it was sounding great) so I was thinking "I really doubt he will take a fourth chorus, so that means the melody is almost certainly coming up after this chorus, and in rehearsal he built his solo up a lot at the end which sounded great going into the melody, so I'm going to try to build this even more and see if we can do something similar this time, but even better." This type of thinking is necessary to a certain extent, but again, it is easy for me to think too much, and then it takes me away from the music, and I'm liable to make a mistake.

I think the best way to focus your mind, especially with this kind of music, but it would probably apply to other types of music as well, is to listen to yourself and the other musicians. Focusing on listening solves many problems. First of all, only by listening carefully can you play in tune and with good rhythm. Secondly, it becomes like a meditation, and it clears the mind. You aren't thinking about ideas, so you don't get lost in a train of thought. You stay focused. Thirdly, you experience what your fellow musicians are playing, and instead of just having your own ideas about what should happen next, you can pick up on theirs. You become a team.  Also you get energy and inspiration from them. Whoever seems most inspired at any given moment, you can listen to what they are playing and draw from that. Then later on at some other point, maybe you will lend them some of your energy. Fourth, by listening, you focus on the present moment, rather then creating expectations about what will happen next. Of course, unless you are playing totally "free" music, you always have some plan or expectation of what will happen next - e.g., we're going to follow this chord progression, this form, etc. - but if you sort of leave thinking about that up to the periphery of your mind, and focus on the present moment, then you have the possibility of being very spontaneous. It can seem like magic. For example, the band suddenly becomes quiet, or loud, or you realize that in one beat, the drums are going to decide to drop out, so you drop out with them. Of course this type of "magic" comes not only from being very focused in the moment but also from playing together a lot, so that you develop a group intuition.

I see this all as relating sort of to my meditation practice (I've done Zen meditation with varying degrees of regularity over the past fourteen years).  I know other jazz musicians have been inspired by Zen, for example Bill Evans and bass players Scott LaFaro and Gary Peacock, both idols of mine. I've noticed that on the rare and precious occasions when through meditation I manage to achieve a fairly clear mind, everything I experience becomes beauty.  Sights, sounds, tastes - even the most "mundane" - everything is wonderfully beautiful. I've come to suspect that the experience of what we call "beauty" is a byproduct of all perception, but usually our perception is somewhat dull, and the lessened beauty-experience is covered up by our distracted and cluttered mind. When the mind becomes clear, perception is enhanced because more mental resources can be directed to it, and the clutter is removed, so you notice the beauty-experience, which is more powerful. I'm reminded of the quote by Henry David Thoreau: "You cannot perceive beauty, but with a serene mind."  Just as I've found that a clear mind precipitates beauty, I've also found it goes the other way - that strong aesthetic experiences create a clear mind. I'm sure many people have experienced this - we see or hear a beautiful work of art, and we're awestruck, and our mind just empties of its own accord.

On an even deeper level, I think that you have to trust that even without thinking about meaning, it is there. In the present moment, everything that makes me who I am is there. So if I'm playing a ballad or a love song, I don't have to deliberately decide "okay, I'm going to think about my girlfriend now" for my relationship and my experiences with my girlfriend to inspire my playing. Those neuro-connections are there no matter what I do. If I try to deliberately express something, perhaps that is less honest then if I just focus on the moment and "allow" something to be expressed - even if I never really know what it is. It all happens on a level below (or beyond?) conscious thought. If you have this kind of trust, either as a performer or a listener, the music takes on a depth of meaning beyond what you can put into words, or even understand with your thinking mind.

I think those two things - the possibility of real spontaneity, especially as a group, and the trust that everything that I've ever thought or felt is present in each moment somehow - is what is most exciting for me about this approach of focusing on listening combined with performing improvisational music. If I'm open and receptive, amazing and unexpected things could happen! And I don't mean just musically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. That makes me excited, and before long I'm drawn into a creative flow. Also, the whole "beauty-experience" is very inspiring for me.

But sometimes things don't feel inspiring. If things aren't "happening", then I think it is best to just focus on listening and do your job, which for me as a bass player means keep the form, play the roots, play with good rhythm, play in tune, etc. If you clear your mind and focus on listening, maybe you will tap into the sources of inspiration mentioned above - maybe not.  At any rate, you need to do your job.  Because that's the other side of the whole experience - even though it is so amazing and profound, at the same time it is very ordinary and mundane. Perhaps this is expressed by this Chinese poem:
Rozan famous for its misty mountains;
Sekko for its water.
When I could not see them,
never was I free from the pain of longing!
I went and I returned.
It was nothing special:
Rozan famous for its misty mountains;
Sekko for its water.
Or by a famous Zen saying: “Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water.” Or, to quote a more contemporary, western voice:

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.

Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time - it's easy.
I once asked Hayoun what he thought about while he played, and he told me that he sort of meditated on the sound of the ensemble. Maybe that is when I first started thinking about these ideas. I've always been very inspired by Hayoun's approach to playing music because it seems to me that he's always been very dedicated to making music from a space of being present and open to possibilities, and I think that makes the whole experience of his art richly meaningful and exciting. That's my impression anyway - Hayoun is a man of many thoughts and few words (unlike me, as this blog post evidences!).  Hayoun certainly plays unexpected things sometimes, which keeps me on my toes. Check out his blog to gain some insight into his thinking. I'm certainly going to miss him when he moves to Korea in a few days. I'll look forward to the next time we play together - whenever and wherever the universe decides that will be!

P.S. I'd love to hear what other artists or art lovers thought about this subject. Post a comment!

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  1. Good question. I've always considered myself someone who flies by the seat of my pants. So is everyone else in my band. It is impossible to say that we've never played the same thing twice, but no one in the ensemble is what I would call a "lick player". For this to work, I have to be ultra-comfortable with the form to the point where I no longer have to count or think of chords/scales. That takes a while. I also don't really plan stuff out in advance, I really follow my instinct in the moment. Someone might take 1 chorus or 15, so I just try to stay really focused in the moment. If I do this well, and the band is communicating fluidly, I usually don't even need a visual cue to know that we're switching sections or ending a song,the playing speaks for itself. While we try as much as possible to play the correct notes and rhythms, I believe everyone in the band is more interested in group interaction. We've always played with an "anything goes" mentality and I believe that the heights of inspiration make up for the occasional flubbed notes or missing beats.

    At this point in my life, I find that working on myself as a person is about as valuable as working on anything musical to achieve artistic freedom. It can be listening skills, exercise or cooking. That being said, I always wish I had more time to shed!

    Thanks again for the gig and hope to see you soon.

    Alex Lefaivre

  2. Thanks for sharing Alex. Really interesting to hear how you and the rest of Parc-X Trio approaches playing your music. I really enjoy your sets. I've heard others say that the key with this sort of music is to be able to get back on track if you make a mistake (like dropping a beat), more then avoiding making a mistake. That is certainly something I can relate to.


  3. I was practicing soloing on some standards tonight. I think the way you need to use your mind is different when soloing on complex changes as opposed to accompanying or soloing on very simple (perhaps modal) changes. With standards, when I'm soloing, I think about patterns, and I try to hear a melody. I just focus on those things until inspiration takes over. If inspiration leaves again, I default back to thinking about patterns and trying to hear a line. Those two things create a mental impetus that creates energy that eventually leads to inspiration. They're the equivalent of "doing my job" (as mentioned in the post).