Being present while performing and practicing is, I believe, the most profound and important aspect of all your music making – being able to freely access this state of mind will improve your gigs, your songwriting and your improvising instantly.
I’ll break this blog entry down into a couple of different parts – What is being present? – What does it look like? – How does it work? – Exercises to experience it – Exercises to integrate it – When you can expect it to work and (finally) Where to use it.
WHAT IS BEING PRESENT?
“Being present” is the best way that I have to describe the feeling of deep, soft focus that all great creative people can access at will.
It’s a place inside you where time and all the niggles of the world don’t exist, it’s a place of flow and authentic creation and it can be invigorating and exhausting. Les Murray, one of the world’s greatest living poets (and an Aussie!) puts it beautifully
“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again… You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it… Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form.”
When you play music from this place you don’t spend the whole time thinking “oh I gotta get this note” or “I hope the drummer comes in at same time as me”. Instead it feels more like you are listening to yourself play, like you’re outside of yourself and playing at the same time.
When you are truly present you will connect better with audiences and other musicians as well as always performing at your very best.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
If you’ve ever been to a concert and you’ve felt the artist on stage change the “feeling” of the room dramatically – you have experienced a performer who was being present.
Jeff Buckley was a good example of someone who was truly present while he performed. Also Tori Amos, Miles Davis, Ian Kenny from Karnivool, Thom Yorke from Radiohead, KD Lang, Katie Noonan, Bruce Springsteen, Antony (from Antony And The Johnsons), Jan Garbarek, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Mogwai. When these artists play they hold the audience in the palm of their hand. When they sing or play very quietly it’s like they’re casting a spell. When you see a great musician like that you feel transported, transformed – witnessing that sort of performance is something you might talk about for the rest of your life.
Even great performers don’t do it every time they perform though. Some nights you will see these artists and they will be in the zone for the whole gig, sometimes just for a few songs or even just for a part of a song. When they talk between songs you might notice that they have a completely different feeling from when they are playing.
Frank Zappa is a good example of a musician who goes there sometimes – often when he is singing or talking in the microphone he is more like a circus ringleader – just like a funny guy on stage – but then when he solos on the guitar, he’s gone, musical ideas just keep flowing effortlessly as he goes somewhere else for those few minutes of soloing.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
I don’t think anyone knows exactly how it works. But the good news is that it doesn’t matter how it works. If you have experienced it as an audience member or a performer you know that it’s real. The best news is that it’s something that you can learn how to do and it’s something that you can practice and get better at.
EXERCISES TO EXPERIENCE BEING PRESENT
Here is one of the easiest ways to experience being present.
1. Pick a really simple, repetitive task that involves just a little bit of attention and where your mind normally wanders away. (Like washing the dishes or painting a wall or washing your car).
2. While you perform the activity – let’s say washing the dishes – really pay attention to what it feels like to wash the dishes. Notice the sensation of the sponge in your hand and how it scrapes away the food or grease. As you turn the plate over feel the weight of the plate and it’s point of balance. Be aware of the sound of the water dripping back into the sink. Who knew that washing up could be so engrossing!
3. When your brain wanders way from doing the dishes (as it will), don’t fight it. Instead, notice what it is that you’re now thinking about and say these exact words to yourself. “Hey brain, thanks for bringing that to my attention but right now I’m just washing up.” Do this as often as you need to so that you can eventually be present for the whole task.
That exercise just starts you flexing your focus muscles – here’s an exercise that you can apply right now to your playing.
1. Blow, pluck, strike or sing a note.
2. Listen to the note – like, really listen to it. Hear how it fades away to nothing or how it’s texture and timbre changes over time.
3. Repeat this and explore how much information, how much there is to listen to, in just a single note.
4. Do this maybe in a scale or over a tricky passage that you are working on – don’t play it fast or in rhythm – notice how your fingers shift and how the note changes as your fingers shift – notice the quality of the note and how the instrument resonates differently for each note that you play.
5. Maintain this awareness as you add rhythm and increase speed.
6. Observe your playing/singing as if you were a listener and not the performer.
7. Try this for improvising as well!
There’s a fantastic book by Pat Pattison called Writing Better Lyrics. Chapter 1 – Object Writing outlines an excellent exercise that will teach you to be present while writing lyrics or poetry. I highly recommend it and teach it to all my writing students.
WHEN CAN I EXPECT BEING PRESENT TO WORK FOR ME?
Like anything, being present is something that requires regular experiencing (I’m going to say “experiencing” rather than “practicing”).
When you are nervous or underprepared it can be very elusive. For me nowadays, a successful performance is when I get to that place at least once and a fantastic performance is when I maintain being in that place for a long period of time.
Start by strengthening your mental muscles with the first exercise above – do that exercise as many times a day as you can. Bring it to your regular playing sessions (I don’t like the word practice) with the second exercise and be patient and kind with yourself as it becomes a permanent part of your playing.
Being able to stand on a stage and go to that place will happen, but it will only happen with experience and time. Seek opportunities where you can perform and try things out and it doesn’t matter if you screw up. Jam sessions are great – particularly jam sessions that don’t have a lot of chord changes (there’s a reason that Miles Davis wrote Kind Of Blue the way that he did).
WHERE ELSE CAN I TRY BEING PRESENT?
You can be present everywhere! Try it at work (I’ve been practicing it as I write this blog). Try it walking through a park. Definitely try it with your other creative outlets – remember that you’re probably creative all the time at work – putting together a great power point presentation or diagnosing then repairing a fault in an engine or playing a sport are creative acts too.
Know that every time you practice being present you are strengthening your “being present” muscles and your music making will only improve as a result.
Seamus is a writer, performer, educator and co-director at Independent Music Academy. He has been playing music for 34 years and teaching for 25. You can hear/read his work at www.kingcolossus.com
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