This is a guest post by Josiah Boornazian.
One of the most difficult aspects of music making for me is truly listening while I’m playing. I think this is a challenge many (if not all) of us face. It doesn’t matter whether you’re freely improvising an unaccompanied solo or playing in a huge band with little or no improvisation. It’s always a challenge. In today’s world, our attention spans are getting shorter and we’re constantly bombarded by both external and self-generated distractions that fragment us internally and make it difficult to fully respond to the immediate challenges of improvising.
Just look around, you don’t need to be a neuroscientist or professional social researcher to see that we are surrounded by potential distractions and social pressures that constantly take us outside of direct contact with the immediate “living moment.” Everywhere you turn there are distractions and pressures that remove us from direct experience of the reality around us. It’s all too easy to spend too much time “in our own heads,” which makes creative improvisation really difficult.
There are so many things to fill our time and our occupy our minds with: cell phones, emails, computers, television, movies, social media, work obligations, billboards and advertising, school and schoolwork, relationships, politics, world affairs, etc. The very nature of our busy and complex society conditions us to have short attention spans and poor concentration abilities. Many of us are constantly busy and always running from one task or one form of stimulation/distraction to the next. I’m not judging right now, just observing. I’m not necessarily saying all this is good or bad, right or wrong, it just is. What I am talking about is the fact that the current state of our reality creates problems or challenges for us as musicians and improvisers.
While I’m playing, my own thoughts can take over and they often drift, creating internal fragmentation and/or disruptions. There’s a gap or separation between my thoughts (that voice in my head) and my actions (making music). I’m trying to play a solo and my brain is so active: “Man that line sucked!” “What does so-and-so think of what I just played?” “Uh-oh my teacher just walked in the room, I better be on my game and prove this or that!” “Man I’m hungry…” “That person sitting in the front row is really hot, and now they’re watching me closely!” This can go on and on, and I’m sure many of us have had similar experiences and thoughts while playing music. It’s a real and common problem that makes true and effective improvisation difficult. John Coltrane supposedly said that “the emotional reaction is all that matters.” Well, conscious, over-active thought inhibits and disrupts that in-the-moment emotional reaction Trane was talking about.
Now, on the other hand, when everything is working – when the music’s great and that voice in our heads is quiet – we “know” it or feel it (after the fact, at least). When self-conscious thought goes away and there’s nothing but a true living connection to the music where we’re simply creating in the moment, there is no internal voice, there’s no internal fragmentation, there’s no separation between our mind, spirit, and body. There’s no gap or distance between the creator (ourselves) and the creation (the music). There’s a direct living relationship between us and the music in the immediate moment. We have many ways of talking about this creative state of being, and we know it as a special feeling when it happens. Everything comes together, the music “clicks” and we say things like: I was “in the moment,” “in the zone,” “on a higher plane,” “lost in the music,” “in the eternal now,” “one with the music,” “in a creative flow,” “overcome with the passion/emotion of the moment,” “so focused I didn’t know if the tune lasted a minute or an hour,” and so on. Perhaps it’s just an indescribable feeling you get that you can’t translate into words even if you tried.
In my experience, there’s a massive gap in the way we teach and talk about music when it comes to the idea of focused attention, true listening, deep awareness, or whatever you want to call it. No one ever directly taught musical awareness to me, per se. In my personal experience, I rarely hear people talking about it in-depth in academic settings.
So how do you become more aware as a musician, improviser, and listener? How do you marshal your attention to reach your full potential as an improviser? How do we “turn off” or quiet down that often critical voice in our heads (our so-called “internal monologue”) that makes it so difficult to truly improvise and create meaningful music? Why is it that the more I try to “get out of my own head” through effort, the more I seem to get caught in the same cycle of self-conscious thought and sabotage myself? Can awareness ever even be taught or learned in the first place? These are the questions we have to think about and address if we want to overcome the challenges of awareness in improvisation.
Even though I realize this may seem to contradict the very fact that I’m talking about any of this, before tackling any of these questions I have to say that ultimately you have to figure out what true awareness is on your own terms through direct experience. Maybe this is why awareness isn’t typically “taught” in schools or music lessons. This might seem frustrating, but it’s the nature of the reality of awareness. We’d like to have easy answers. It’d be great if there was a simple formula or mechanical rule that we could follow that would guarantee us results. It’d be so simple if there was a ritual I just had to memorize and perform – and “ta-da” I’ve magically “achieved” awareness. It’d be wonderful if there was some mantra, some verbal formula I could recite to instantly “get it” or “arrive” in the “awareness zone.” But it doesn’t work that way. But don’t take my word for it. Explore awareness for yourself on your own terms and see its nature through the lens of your own experiences and mind.
All that said, it’s still useful to talk and think about awareness. Talking about the implications of awareness is like opening the doors of a many-roomed house. We can open many doors with thought, with talk. But ultimately you have to walk in and explore these rooms on your own so that you can really see for yourself what true awareness is actually all about. There are no teachers, no gurus, no masters, no experts, no authorities, no structures, no shortcuts, and no beliefs that can replace direct personal experience.
I’ve discovered that, for me, improvisation and awareness fundamentally work the same way. There’s something mysterious, intangible, and unquantifiable about improvising. I’d like to be able to tell you “transcribe these solos, memorize these scales and chords, and practice this many hours a day with a metronome and you will be guaranteed to be a great improviser at the end of it,” but, like awareness, improvisation simply doesn’t work that way. There is no one way. Also, there is no “end” or arrival point. It’s a continual journey, a never-ending process with continual challenges. And the challenges always require fresh responses.
Improvising with true awareness first requires us to see how our conditioned responses to everything detach us from reality and are often ineffective. Seeing this fact allows us to then move away from obsolete habits and come into direct contact with what is immediately happening around us. What’s happening around us will always be new, by the very nature of reality. So, structures, habits, and formulas are irrelevant when it comes to awareness.
Pre-programmed responses to life’s challenges become worn-out artifices we hide behind, and they make us stale, stiff, and dull. They make true learning and creativity impossible. Structures often simply don’t work, and they rarely make sense in the context of awareness and creative improvisation. Formulas take you away from the challenge of the immediate living moment. Challenge is always new, by definition, and by its nature. Most of our verbal thoughts – many of our memories, structures, formulas, habits, theories, etc. – are reconstructions of things we already know from the past, so verbal thought rarely leads directly to new creative innovations.
That’s why we talk about insight as an “epiphany” where new ideas or visions seem to miraculously connect and fall into place to lead us to a new realization, truth, or creative achievement. We speak of insight as a flash of inspiration that seems to transcend conscious thought. Classic examples of insight include Albert Einstein’s famously non-scientific “thought experiments,” where he used his creative imagination to make leaps outside of traditional logic in order to formulate his theories, such as general relativity. Later on, relativity was eventually supported by logical, mathematical, and experimental evidence, but initially, the scientific community rejected Einstein’s ideas as too “artistic” or “imaginative” – they weren’t “rigorous” enough in the traditional scientific sense for many of Einstein’s contemporaries.
Many great improvisers intuitively understand that structures in improvisation are often counterproductive, even if they never state this directly. And I’m not saying we should never use structures. I’ve found structures to be incredibly useful while practicing, composing, analyzing, and learning music. What I’m saying is that structures aren’t always appropriate and useful, and excessive reliance on predetermined musical structures can stifle creativity and innovation in improvisation.
I’ve heard it said that Charlie Parker once told a student to learn all the scales and chords he could, then “forget ‘em!” If this story is true (and it doesn’t really matter if it is or not; it’s plausible, and seems to authentically reflect Parker’s attitudes), then Bird is talking about “letting go” of what you’ve worked out beforehand when it comes time to actually improvise. He’s basically talking about awareness – about being open and responsive to the newness and unremitting challenges of improvising. He’s talking about letting go of preconceived musical structures.
Every time you play music it will be with different musicians in different contexts. And even if it’s the same band playing the same music in the same venue, everyone’s mood changes, intervening life experiences change us, the atmosphere created by the ever-shifting audience changes, etc. There’s always change.
This is as it should be. Miles Davis said that “bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and being safe,” and he said that “to keep creating you have to be about change.” There is always newness in change. Some people might view this as a problem. It’s not a problem. Change and challenges are never the real problems. Problems themselves are never the problem. In fact we need problems and challenges; without them, life would be boring and we would stagnate. So if we have problems with our problems (in life or music) – if we find we can’t deal with challenges and newness effectively – it’s because our responses to our problems are inadequate.
Regret is an indicator that we didn’t respond totally and effectively to a challenge. We didn’t react successfully to the freshness of the music in the moment, so we hang on to the memory of it and work it over and over again in our minds. Just try to watch this and see how it all works as you play music. If something didn’t turn out quite right, if the music wasn’t as good, meaningful, or effective as we wanted it to be, then afterward (or sometimes during the music) we think, “Why did I/he/she/they play that?” “Oh man that sucked.” “That didn’t sound as hip as I imagined…” And so on and so forth. It’s all symptomatic of the same problem: playing around with our thoughts and egos and not operating with full awareness in the moment. Maybe we can learn from this process of post-mortem musical dissection, but ultimately my question is this: is there a way to bypass this counterproductive judgmental process altogether and be truly in the moment while we’re playing?
Again, you can only figure this out for yourself through trial and error and direct personal experience. And it’s important that you see that it doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with what I’m saying here. Ultimately, agreeing or disagreeing is irrelevant – at least until you’ve really tested out these ideas for yourself. So we shouldn’t be concerned with agreement or disagreement here. What is important is that you start looking at yourself, by yourself, and for yourself in order to begin to see for yourself. No one can look for you; you have to see for yourself. Begin to watch how your mind works and see if anything I say here is helpful and true for you.
In the meantime, all I can do is share with you some of my observations about myself and those around me for you to reflect on as you begin to watch yourself. I try to see myself clearly in order to see my internal processes when it comes to playing music and dealing with the problem of awareness. You might find that you share some of my experiences and insights, and either way you can test out these observations in your own life and see if they are useful and true for you:
- My best moments musically and personally seem to be where there’s real passion. By passion I mean totally letting go, abandonment. When you’re passionate about something, you’re absorbed in it and you dive into it with abandonment. By passion I mean being so invested, interested, absorbed, or “lost” in the music that I (at least temporarily) let go of “me,” my “ego,” my personality, my thoughts, ambitions, fears, desires, hopes, agendas, preconceptions, etc. This doesn’t mean I forget who I am (how can I?), and it doesn’t mean I can’t be aware of my identity and be proud of what I’ve achieved on some level. It also doesn’t mean I’m not confident in who I am and what I know that I can do. It’s simply that my ideas about my confidence and my abilities (which are based on my memories of the past and my projections about the future) are not really always relevant to the action of making music in the immediate moment. My sense of who I am and my achievements are important on some level, but all of those aspects of ourselves live only in our memories of what was. Memory is beautiful, but it’s just there, and self-consciously playing around in memory can potentially distract me and disconnect me from the immediate challenge of improvising in the moment, so I just “try” to relax and “try” to let go of it all. I try to let go of fear (especially fear of the unknown and fear that my responses to challenges won’t be adequate), memory (especially memories that are irrelevant to the music), ambition, “ego,” agenda, etc.
- I say “try” but I really mean an effortless kind of trying, an effortless movement, an effortless shift of awareness where I let go of all of my internal and external tension (if it’s detracting from the music). Letting go should be effortless, it’s holding on that takes effort. Just imagine holding tightly to a 50+ pound dumbbell for an hour and then visualize what takes more “effort”: holding on longer to all that tension, or letting go? Ideally, I’m not concerned with my conditioning or my personality, and yet I’m not trying to escape them, because I can’t. I am my personality and conditioning. Can I ever truly “escape” myself? What I am doing is trying to avoid getting too wrapped up in all my ideas about myself. I’m trying to step out of my own way and let go of any psychological and physical tension that may be preventing the music from flowing. That’s when true, authentic, meaningful, and creative improvisation happens, for me. And of course the great irony here is that I only “know” or “realize” that these moments of true passion are my “best” moments after the fact. When it’s actually happening, I’m not thinking in those terms at all – verbal thought itself is usually quiet. The moment I think, “oh man, the music is great,” then it’s no longer great – I’ve already stepped outside of direct contact with the reality of what’s happening “here and now,” and I’ve let self-conscious thought take me away from what I’m doing (creating). When I separate myself from the music with too much self-conscious thought, the creative energy of the moment that made everything seem so magical in the first place is destroyed or weakened.
- It’s sort of a paradoxical “mind-bind” (like a Chinese finger trap – that toy that grips tighter the more you try to pull your fingers apart), but observe for yourself how the more you try through effort or force to quiet your mind and be “in the moment,” the more you sabotage yourself and get caught in the same self-perpetuating trap of self-conscious thought. A mind trying to quiet itself with thoughtful effort is a very busy and stressed-out mind. Watch this in yourself and see if it’s the case for you. To break the cycle of internal conflict, stop trying to “defeat” or quiet thought with more Just passively and non-judgmentally observe yourself and the way you work. Just watch all this as it happens and “ride the wave.” You might find that just by seeing how it all works, a quietness might come. By watching myself and how my mind works, it’s like opening a window and inviting a breeze to come in. It might come, it might not; it’s out of our control – you can’t force it. The breeze is awareness, or peace, or quietness, or being “in the zone” or whatever you want to call it. Opening the window is the act of watching yourself and the way your mind works so that you can see your problems (and their solutions) clearly.
- I try “practicing” awareness. I’m trying to “recondition” myself to awareness more often as opposed to being predisposed to internal fragmentation and conflict. I do this by simply watching myself and seeing how I operate, seeing how the processes inside my head work and perpetuate themselves. When you see yourself clearly, a lot of internal problems resolve themselves. Once you see the problems within yourself clearly, you generally see the solutions immediately and obviously. You see how fear, desires, ambitions, conflicts, and being “in your own head” are all tied together and symptomatic of overactive thought, which is always reaching into the past and jumping into the future and taking you out of the immediate moment. I’m not saying any of this is necessarily bad or good, right or wrong, it just is, and I just try to observe it without judging, without ambition, and without trying to force change on myself (because this just creates more tension and conflict). Conscious thought and our egos (and rational judgment, analysis, ambition, etc.) are necessary and useful, but not in every context in life, so see if you can watch your own thoughts and see if the watching doesn’t allow quietness to come occasionally. Perhaps by doing so, quietness will begin to come more easily more often (especially when you’re playing music).
- For example, by watching your mind as it gets caught up in self-distraction, you may begin to see the layers of thought underneath the surface level thoughts that are the real cause of the thought-conflict. Often the solution of a problem presents itself the instant you clearly see the true nature of the problem. So let’s say my problem is excess physical/psychological tension when playing fast, intense music. I tense up and I can’t keep up with the tempo, it doesn’t sound good, and it’s not effective emotionally. If I look closely at the tension, I see that the root of that tension is anxiety. By looking into the anxiety, I see that it comes from fear – fear of not playing well, which means fear of judgment, which is insecurity. Then I see that this fear of judgment (the insecurity) has no basis in reality. I begin to see that since improvisation always involves newness, challenge, and risk, I can never truly feel totally “secure” in the first place. So why and how am I afraid of losing something (“security,” by which I probably mean “certainty that the music will turn out the way I want or plan it to”) that I can never really have in the first place? Besides, the audience (with a few occasional exceptions) doesn’t want to judge me anyway. The audience wants to experience meaningful music. Audiences generally don’t want us to fail or sound bad. They’re usually “on our side,” cheering us on, rooting for us, hoping we succeed so they enjoy themselves. And if even if there are some people who want to be hypercritical, negatively judge us, or tear us down (often because of their own insecurities), I begin to see how that type of person works, and I realize that their opinion doesn’t matter. I begin to look at the nature of the relationship between myself and a cynical critic with an agenda and I start to see that the insecure detractor who wants to hurt me only has as much power over me as I choose to give them. And again what’s important here is not “knowing” all of this superficially. It’s not just saying these words that matters, but rather it’s this whole self-reflective process of really seeing how I work that allows me to see clearly how and why I create most of my problems for myself. Truly seeing the nature of the problem gives me the solution. When I see clearly that I create my own tension through insecurity (which is pointless and unjustified), and then I feed my insecurity with fear and ambition (and I also see that I give critics power over me by choosing to believe that what they think or say matters), I begin to see that I also have the potential to let go of these old thought patterns and move away from the bad habits (e.g. negative self talk, hanging on to irrational fear, giving power to others, etc.) that are the root cause of the problem. Truly seeing the simple reality of the basis of my fears and insecurities – and how none of it matters – opens up the possibility for me to effortlessly let go of it all and move beyond it into a better headspace.
- You can also “practice awareness” by practicing focused listening as well. Don’t let music simply be passive background sound accompanying other activities in your life. Draw your focused attention to the music while listening. You can “practice” this by creating fun listening “games.” A lot of musicians will listen to a whole song and concentrate on one aspect of the music only: maybe you just focus on the ride cymbal, just the bass line, just the pianist’s left hand, etc. It’s difficult, but potentially rewarding, and it’s essentially the same skill as “getting out of your own head” and listening to the rest of the band when you’re improvising. You can also “practice” similar focused listening “exercises” while you’re playing with live musicians.
- Try to have balance in your life and see how everything you do influences your music and your creative abilities. Everything we do as individuals is connected – and everything in our lives influences our music. The more we become attached to the illusions of safety, security, and habit in our daily lives, the more we limit ourselves creatively, artistically, and musically. Exercise and healthy lifestyle choices influence our ability to manage internal and external tension. Interpersonal relationships influence the way we see ourselves and connect with the world around us. And so on and so forth. If we’re living with awareness, every activity in our lives is a form of practicing in a deep and fundamental way. Every moment is an opportunity to become more and more connected to the immediate reality of the moment, which makes improvisation and creativity flow more easily and naturally when we play music.
- Another idea to consider while addressing awareness in the context of ensemble improvisation is the difference between dialogue and discussion. Improvisation is all about musical dialogue, as opposed to discussion. Discussion has the same root (-cuss) as percussion and concussion, and implies the competitive battering of ideas back and forth until one idea or person “wins.” The focus is on being persuasive, manipulative, and aggressive, not on coming together to seek truth or beauty as a team. Dialogue comes from Greek dialogos, which comes from dialegesthai (to converse with) and from dis (through) plus legein (to speak), which implies a working through of problems collectively: “conversation, especially one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.” The implication of dialogue as opposed to discussion is that dialogue is done together as a team with a common goal in mind.
- So as opposed to just operating in your own headspace (or being competitive, or trying to “prove” something, or whatever), try to work together as a musical team. Don’t let yourself be disconnected (caught up in your own thoughts) while playing. Connect with everyone you’re making music with. Reach out with your ears, your consciousness (i.e. your focused attention) and be aware of what everyone is playing. Open up a musical dialogue where everyone is working together as a unit in pursuit of a common artistic goal. Think of your band as a team of musicians trying to combine your talents to achieve a higher artistic goal. By pooling together your collective musical resources, you can make greater music than you could ever make on your own. But you can only be successful in this way if you let go of your self-absorption, your preconceptions, your agenda, and your need or desire to impress others or “prove” what you know.
- Practice free improvisation and regularly step outside your comfort zone in life and in music. Miles Davis said: “You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” When you’re truly playing “free,” there are by definition no expectations, no structures, no formulas, no preconceptions, etc. There’s nothing secure, safe, or comfortable to fall back on (except your own expertise and imagination, of course). Improvising freely, especially with other musicians, immediately forces you to listen to and react to others in the immediate moment. You don’t have the structure of a tune to fall back on, hide behind, or get wrapped up in. Playing free is a great way to explore awareness and see how your music making process works when you free yourself from pre-planned creative strategies. You can expand this idea further and contrast totally unrestricted free playing by also working with directed free improvisation where you introduce some creative parameters to your free playing.
- Expand improvisation, awareness, and creative living to all aspects of your life. Miles Davis described his special way of living thus: “I’m always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up in the morning and see the light. Then I’m grateful.” Try to really connect with your immediate surroundings more often. There is so much depth, richness, complexity, and beauty in that world that we often miss because we spend so much time in our heads (and/or on our phones, computers, tablets, etc.). I’m not saying that every minute of the day has to be an epic search for the euphoria of inner quietness. Obviously we need to think consciously, analyze and judge things, remember things, and make future plans often in our daily lives. But if we occasionally try to open ourselves up to a different type of awareness, perhaps that special level of focused attention will come more easily and often when it comes time to improvise.
- For example, in addition to developing your awareness with focused music listening, listen to the sounds of your immediate daily environment; draw your focus to your sonic environment more often. You might be surprised how rich your everyday sonic environment is, how much variety and texture there is in the daily background noise that we generally ignore and filter out (for example: birds chirping, leaves rustling, horns honking, heating/cooling systems whirring, your own breathing and heartbeats, etc.). Stop and look around more often. See the trees, the colors around you, the texture of the roads and sidewalks, the sky, the people, the buildings, the animals, everything. Just see it, notice it, observe it. Smell the air, feel its temperature and how it flows about your body. Truly taste your food when you eat and drink – don’t think about other things, draw your attention to your sense of taste – what’s its temperature, texture, flavor combinations? Truly feel your clothes and the touch of your loved ones on your body. Draw your attention to your body more often: what is your posture as you’re reading this right now? Do you have any physical tension, and if so, why? What is your physical position in space right now, and how do you use your muscles to stand up, walk, lift things, eat, etc.? And be aware of and physically in touch with your instrument in a focused way draw your attention to it while practicing and playing. And so on and so forth. There is so much to creatively observe and engage with in the world around us, and I’ve found that a truly aware mind rarely seems to have a problem with boredom. Boredom doesn’t need to exist because there’s always something to see or experience, always a potential renewal of the challenge to face the newness of life and have a deeper and broader awareness of everything around you. Living with this kind of awareness in our daily lives has the potential to powerfully transform us and both directly and indirectly influence our creative capacities as improvisers.
- Lastly, consider trying to directly and consciously implement improvisation in any or all of the following fields/activities (and begin to see how various creative disciplines are interconnected and how every artistic activity you engage in feeds your overall creative energy):
- Improvising dance/physical movement to music
- Improvising acting a scene (with and/or without cues/guidelines)
- Improvising speeches and conversations (for example: one word back and forth free association spontaneous poetry or dialogue with others)
- Improvising painting, drawing, sculpting, or any other visual art form
- “Free” creative writing
- “Free” or “off-the-cuff” creative speech making
- “Free” or creative conversation in your day to day life
- Directed musical improvisation: including trying ideas like making “music that doesn’t sound like music” (a Miles Davis concept)
I hope some of these ideas are stimulating and inspiring for you, and I hope they help you to meet the challenges of improvisation in a creative and effective way. If nothing else, I hope you are now more interested in engaging in creative self-exploration, self-observation, and self-inquiry. True and total awareness as a new way of looking at things, as a new way of living, creating, and improvising is a continual challenge for me, but it is always at least as rewarding as it is challenging. Living and playing music with total awareness is extremely difficult because of the immense strength of our habits and conditionings and the self-perpetuating power of over-active thought. Living with awareness – where you move away from the past, away from habit, away from structure, away from pre-programmed responses, and away from conditioning into the newness of the moment – is dangerous; there’s always risk; there’s always the potential you will encounter the unknown as you face the newness of change and the freshness of challenge. But true awareness is demanded of us if we are to step out of the old and in the perpetual challenge of the new, which is the very definition of creativity and innovation. I hope you enjoy the journey, stay open to the infinite possibilities of music, and never stop exploring!