“When I was writing, I forgot to be sad. I forgot to worry about the future. I forgot where I was. I didn’t know that could happen…Did you know that you could sit in front of a screen or a pad of paper and change the world? It doesn’t last, the world always comes back, but before it does, it’s awesome. It’s everything.”
This statement by Milwaukee Bucks MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo just speaks volumes to what is required to get into the flow; whether it’s in sports or in the creative work of writing, composing, or improvising. It’s all about being in the now and not worrying about the past or the expectations for the future.
Thanks to philosopher/actor/podcaster Austin Hayden for sharing this.
“I enjoy just playing my horn and going into the type of meditation that playing involves. It puts me mentally in a place that is always transcendent and above real life. I love playing just for myself. It’s a great experience.”
Sometimes, someone says something that really makes an impact on me. It may be a small part of a much more wide-ranging conversation, but there’s that one point that really hits home and becomes a real “a-ha moment.” In Episode 42 of the Performers Pathway Podcast saxophonist Walt Weiskopf said this:
“In my teaching, I’ve said that when you sit down to practice, try just to start playing. Have something you’re working on. Don’t think too much about what am I going to do. Just start your project.”
“I could go down the black hole of, “Am I practicing the right thing? Should I go on to a different tune?” Sometimes I tell myself, don’t think. Just play the routine. And that’s half the battle, is just getting through your routine. At this point, my routine is get the horn out, put a reed on, and play “Hot House” in 12 keys. Which I’ve been telling myself I should be able to do, but it was a huge project for me. It took me months and months.”
So, there are a few takeaways for me here:
First, have a routine. A project you’re working on. Don’t think about it too much as long as your working on something that’s has some challenge to it. Just getting on the instrument and spending time with it is valuable. Second, don’t go down the rabbit hole of , “Am I practicing the right things?” If you haven’t yet developed the mental or physical skills needed to execute the music you’re working on, why worry about moving on to another challenge? Finally, we need to have patience. Weiskopf, a world-class musician with 20 critically-acclaimed CDs and countless sideman credits, including performing and recording with Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Steely Dan admits that his project of playing Hot House in all 12 keys took months for him to master.
So set your goal and make it your daily routine to get to work on that project and chip away at it a little bit everyday. Don’t question it. Don’t get discouraged when it feels like you aren’t making progress. Don’t skip a day when the novelty has worn off, and you’d rather play something new. Yes, you can absolutely modify your goals and routines as you progress, find new inspirations, or approaches, but don’t jump from one idea to another too quickly. Put the time in to fully master the music even if it takes months and months.
This has certainly made me reevaluate what my daily practice routine could look like and I’ll be sharing more of that here soon.
Possibly the best presentation I’ve ever seen on the concept of musical concentration and the practice habits to help get you into the zone. A highly recommended watch.
One question this video has made me think about a lot: does it matter whether we keep our eyes open or not when when play, and specifically while we are improvising?
Assuming I don’t have to read music, there are a few things I might be doing with my eyes when I play: looking at my hands, keeping my eyes closed, looking at something else happening in the room, or open but unfocused. I think any of these things are fine to do and over the course of a gig I’ll probably do all of them, but as I’ve considered how each of these situations affect my ability to listen, focus, and to tap into a flow state, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that keeping my eyes open but not focused on anything specific seems to be the best situation for me, especially in terms of deep listening and really getting into the flow.
I have no problem with looking at my fingers if I’m trying to complete a technical passage. The visual support often helps me with movements that require a high degree of accuracy, like a big position shift or a harmonic I want to be sure to nail. But if I’m improvising, I think it might actually limit my imagination. I’m not sure, but I feel like looking at my hands while improvising may actually lock me into playing ideas that I know I can play – or at least ways of moving through changes that are familiar tried-and-true routes around the fingerboard.
Keeping my eyes closed seems like the natural option for going inward and digging deeper into the music, but as Paul notes in his video this may not be the distraction-free environment we think it is. In my case, I’m a really visual person and closing my eyes doesn’t mean turning off visual input. It just means changing the visuals. In fact, my mind’s eye may create an even more powerful visual world if I’m not careful. In some instances, this can really lend itself to the flow of the music, but it can also just create a new set of distractions or even give me the illusion that my music is coming across with more depth and meaning than it really is for the listener. So while closing my eyes occasionally is fine, I have to be careful not to create an alternate reality that is not connected with what I’m delivering musically.
Obviously, looking at something else happening in the room generally takes me out of the flow and sets me on autopilot so I’m not going to spend much time on it here. I do think there is a need for some autopilot on a gig and that you need to be aware of things happening in the environment and respond to them if necessary. Whether it’s thanking someone for dropping a tip in your glass, responding to a staff member asking the band to turn down, or something else, this skill super-important but does not lend itself to focus or flow-state.
Finally, that brings me to eyes open but unfocused, or at least not focused on anything specific which is the big takeaway for me here. Paul mentions focusing on something or someone in the room. So far, I think I’m more successful in bringing my gaze to some non-specific middle distance that isn’t really focused on anything. Whatever gets you there, Paul puts it best that it’s really about making your “eyesight disappear.” This is an interesting place to be in because I can be aware of outward visual cues if need be, but I’m not generally as distracted by them as I might be just looking around the room, nor am I sinking into my own internal world that can happen when keeping my eyes closed. Further, I feel like it really let’s my ears take over and allows my fingers to follow the music in my head rather than me trying to conjure up music by focusing on what I think my fingers can do. As I experiment with this, I find myself reminded of my first dog, Katie. When she caught the scent of something exciting her nose would take over completely and her eyes would get a faraway look in them as she became fully engrossed in processing whatever olfactory information she had discovered. Similarly, I feel like I can more fully engage in listening – whether to internal ideas or external musical conversation – when I disengage from visual cues in this manner.
I’m going to keep trying this approach for a while and see if brings additional insights.
The 3-note enclosure patterns shown leading up to each circled note are commonly heard embellishments in bebop playing and are applied here to each note of a major scale. I’ve notated it here in all keys with guitar tab placing the patterns mostly around the 5th position but once this exercise is mastered you could transpose any of the patterns other places on the fingerboard. Some keys will likely feel more difficult than others. Personally, I feel that the fingerings for the F and Eb major scales are some of the more intuitive and may be a good place to start if this is a new pattern for you. Scales with 5-fret stretches, like the A , D, and G scales here took me a little more time to get under my fingers but as always, YMMV. Probably the most important thing is to internalize the sound of the enclosure patterns and where they fall in the scale and let your fingers follow your ear to find the sounds in each key. In other words, don’t depend on the tablature or designated fingerings too much.
Enjoy the challenge and please let me know if you work through it.
Sweet charm of my solitude, Creator of the calm in my nights, Share the secret worries of my tender yearnings! Now joyful, now plaintive, Oh guitar, echo of my sighs, Express with my attentive voice Both my pain and my pleasure.
Swing All the Things You Are All of Me Alone Together Autumn Leaves But Not for Me Bye Bye Blackbird Cottontail Days of Wine & Roses Don’t Get Around Much Anymore Doxy Fly Me to the Moon Foggy Day Four Have You Met Ms. Jones How High the Moon I Got Rhythm If I Should Lose You If I Were a Bell In a Mellow Tone Just Friends Night & Day Oleo Pennies from Heaven Perdido Satin Doll So What Softly As a Morning Sunrise Solar Star Eyes Stella by Starlight Summertime Sweet Georgia Brown Take the A Train There is No Greater Love Things Ain’t What They Used to Be There Will Never Be Another You Well You Needn’t What is This Thing Called Love
3/4 or 6/8 Alice in Wonderland Footprints My Favorite Things Some Day My Prince Will Come Up Jumped Spring
5/4 Take Five
Latin Black Orpheus Blue Bossa Caravan Ceora Corcovado Girl from Ipanema Green Dolphin Street Little Sunflower Maiden Voyage Night in Tunisia Recordame Wave
Funk Chameleon Mercy Mercy Mercy Watermelon Man
Ballad Body & Soul Georgia on My Mind In a Sentimental Mood Misty My Funny Valentine Polka Dots & Moonbeams Round Midnight Skylark
Blues All Blues Au Privave Bessie’s Blues Blue Monk Blue Trane Equinox Freddie the Freeloader Now’s the Time Sandu Tenor Madness Walkin’
More Advanced Blues for Alice Cherokee Donna Lee Giant Steps