“This piece is about music, Jeff. It’s not about you.”
So said Frederik Prausnitz, my conducting teacher, in a conductor’s orchestra session at Peabody Conservatory. My younger self, upon hearing this comment, did not know how to respond properly. I did what I usually did – I got angry and beat up on myself. There I was again, not doing what I should be doing, not doing what I needed to do on the podium, when was I going to learn… etc. and so forth.
But the phrase has stayed with me. And there is a great deal in it, I’ve come to realize. Of course musicians use their mind while making music – a lot, in fact. Lately, though, I have come to see that our minds can interfere and get in the way of the music making itself.
A few days ago I was watching The Empire Strikes Back again, showing it to my children (that was my excuse). And I was struck how much wisdom is imparted from Yoda to Luke in the scenes where Luke is undergoing his Jedi training. The koans http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/koan just kept coming:
“Try not. Do… or do not – there is no try.”
“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.”
I couldn’t believe how much resonance there was for me in these bits of dialogue. I thought about music making. When I am making the best music I can make, it’s because something has taken place inside of me – I am completely in the moment, in the music. I am not distracted by: a furrowed brow of a colleague, a missed note somewhere, a tempo transition that’s ahead. I’m not preoccupied with evaluating how well I’m conducting at the moment, I’m just… doing it. Not trying, doing.
When I am able to keep my mind on where I am, in the moment, making music as it unfolds, unfettered by other concerns, then music making is an unqualified joy and the performances tend to reflect that. The challenge that exists for me, as my conducting teacher so astutely observed, is to get my mind out of my… head. To stop trying. To keep my mind only on where I am.
Musicians spend so much time practicing, so much time evaluating the way they sound, the way two or three notes are displaced alongside each other. But the work of practicing is far different than the work of performing. When performing, all the practice, all the trying, all the hard work, ideally should go away and in their place should be an acute awareness of the music itself that is transpiring at that very moment. When I’m not performing at my best, invariably I’ve become caught up in the whirlwind of thoughts that are extraneous to the music – in other words, when I’m thinking, not doing. Ah, but yes, the question is … how to do that – how to cultivate the performer’s mind.
I’ve been doing a lot of work in the area of mindfulness lately and have found it immensely rewarding, in both the professional and personal realms. Each time after I meditate, I am struck at how much more alive all my senses have become and I laugh at how much I was missing even the hour before. So I’ve begun meditating before performances now and it has made a world of difference. If I meditate, I can calm my overactive mind (some of the over-activity fueled by pre-performance adrenaline) and focus on the present, the now, the music as it unfolds. When I don’t meditate, I am more distracted as a performer – it’s just the truth. When I have a quiet, listening mind, I’m able to be the best performer I can be. I can be in the moment, in the music, fully awake to what is happening right then. And I’m just… doing it – I’m not trying. I’m keeping my mind on where I am and what’s happening around me.
And wouldn’t you know it? That’s when the performances are “about” music, instead of being “about” me.
May the Force be with you.