Whether you’re playing solo, in a duo, in a band or in an orchestra, music performance is a powerful event that centres on connection. It has the power to unite and transport people unlike any other art form. Music is one of the most important and beloved aspects of my own life, and it’s something I’ve done since I was very young. It came naturally to me, so I followed it where it led me, not without encountering my fair share of bumps in the road. I took piano lessons from some great teachers until I was 17. It was at this time that hormones, angst and the insatiable rhythms of house and rock music won out and I left home to join a rock band. I spent the better part of the following 12 years on the road almost non-stop until my husband and I moved to Lethbridge, AB, where I decided I needed to take a rest and have a look at where I was in my life. The following are a few simple things I’ve distilled from my experience this far.
1. Listen Better, And To More.
This is the #1 tip for a reason. You can learn and re-learn this 1000 times and then still go deeper with it. There’s hearing something, then there is listening to something. There’s listening to something and analyzing and judging it, then there’s listening to something and feeling it. Listening vs hearing implies attention, and in our (western) world where humans have an average attention span of EIGHT SECONDS (!!), that’s going to be a challenge for most of us. Alas – we want to be better musicians, right? So we must flex our focus muscle and up our attention span significantly. One very excellent way to flex said muscle is to begin a daily meditation practice which I highly recommend (and you can read about mine here.) Applying this to music simply means focusing on the sounds you’re hearing and noticing how the feelings, sensations and mental images change over time. I said noticing, not judging! Neuroscience has told us some significant things about how we experience music. When we hear a sound, for example a pure sine wave vibrating at 440Hz, a specific group of neurons in our brain begin firing. The really interesting part? They fire at a rate of 440 Hz. How does this happen? Sound is vibration traveling through the air. When these vibrations reach your ear, they stimulate and vibrate your ear drum. These vibrations are passed through your ossicles or ear bones into the inner ear which is shaped like a snail and called the cochlea. Inside the cochlea there are tiny hair cells, about 18,000 of them per ear, and when their tips vibrate the movement is translated into electronic signals sent to the brain, which then fires neurons at the frequency being sent. Thought electronic music was futuristic and unnatural? Our brains have been making electronic music for millions of years! So when you hear Don McLean’s American Pie, your brain is synchronously firing neurons that exactly match the vibrations coming out of the speaker you are nearby.
Listening can be applied by non musicians and musicians alike by taking some time to listen to recordings, sitting in a public place and listening to the din, going to concerts or even just sitting still and noticing all of the sounds you can hear while sitting at your kitchen table. The key is to make the time for it, which doesn’t mean putting it on in the background while you do other tasks like laundry or while you’re eating, not while you’re scrolling through Twitter or reading your favourite blog (ahem.) Not that there’s anything wrong with music in those situations, but you’re going to miss the majority of the experience. Simply sit, let the sounds come to you, and notice your experience.
For musicians, this has to extend to be true when you’re playing music. When you’re playing solo, you have to be experiencing the sound you’re making. It’s a powerful feedback loop. You play, causing vibrations which hit your ear drums and get translated to electronic signals and then your brain fires neurons and you open to this experience, which affects your performance. If you’re playing with others, the process is the same but you must recognize that you are part of a larger whole, and you need to listen to and experience the whole sound – not just your own. What results is an incredibly connected experience between musicians and music. Your audience is invited into this connection – their neurons are firing at the same frequencies as yours are.
Want to know more about music from neuroscience? Check out Daniel J. Levitin’s excellent book This Is Your Brain On Music.
2. Play With The World’s Best Players
“What?! Aaron, dude, I’m not exactly hanging out with world class musicians everyday, and if I was I highly doubt they’d want to jam with me!” I know, me neither. So you do it behind their backs. The musicians won’t even know you’re doing it. Just get yourself comfy with your instrument, press play on your favourite recording and go to town. Maybe they can’t hear you, but remember that you can hear them, and so you need to listen and play. If you have a good music collection, a library card or an internet connection, you’ve got access to sitting in with the world’s Greats any day you like. You can learn many great lessons from playing with recordings, and if you’re attentive to the whole sound while you’re playing, you can see how you’d fit in with The Police or the Dave Matthews Band or Rush. Try different types of recordings like live concerts, studio albums, unplugged versions and accapellas.
This is particularly geared towards improvising or jamming with other musicians, though it does extend to all performance I believe. Have you ever been a part of a conversation where nobody is really listening to one another, but everyone is talking relentlessly? Booze, caffeine or cocaine really seem to be great for this situation… If you’re caught up in this conversation, you may feel highly stimulated and involved. However if you’re on the outside listening in, it’s a very different story. Similarly, I have been part of many a jam session where the players play on and on, not really listening to anybody else or maybe not even themselves. The individual musicians feels elated, while the crowd at the bar is wondering when the fuck Jazz Odyssey 2016 will relent and leave them with some peace. This shows a key difference; experiencing the music in your head and thoughts, versus experiencing the actual sensations of the music directly and fully, in realtime. In the very same way, we can get lost in thought at any time (most of the time for some of us) and be missing out on experiencing the direct sensations of life, in this very moment. An excellent way to come back to ourselves and the present moment is by leveraging the power of the pause; temporarily stopping whatever we’re doing to notice what is happening right now. What is our breath like? How is our body feeling? What sounds can we hear? What is dominating my thoughts? The answers will always change, but it’s the act of noticing that’s important. In a musical situation, particularly a jam session, pausing opens up musical space, and opens up mental space. We stop the unending and automatic flow of notes and riffs to reconnect to what we’re experiencing in that very moment. How’s your breath? Does it coordinate with the feel and rhythm of the music? Is your body tight or relaxed? What can we hear right now? The next thing we play will have a different, more focused intention behind it, and will automatically hold a connection to the present experience. Remember, your audience hears the whole sound and potentially sees the whole picture, moment by moment. They do not follow the narrative in your head.
In non-jam situations, where you’re performing your part, pausing can take a different form. You’ve probably often heard many great musicians talk about the space between the notes being more important than the notes. This again suggests attention. Just because we’re not playing doesn’t mean we’re not present, fully.
4. Cultivate Your Inner Pulse
Music happens in time. Time marches on but music can move from very slowly to incredibly quickly. The perception of time is changed fluidly by music, and this is a really important aspect of its power that you must acknowledge. However it’s not the only thing that distorts our perception of time. From the moment we’re born, we experience time passing, and how we experience this is also constantly changing, relative to how much time we’ve experienced. When we’re one day old, 24 hours represents our entire life. Therefore day 2 is a very long time to us. When we’re 30 years old, 24 hours is approximately 1/10950 of our life so far, and so doesn’t feel like a long time at all.
The sense of time is what synchronizes musicians when they’re performing. In traditional popular music we look to the drums and the bass to give us our sense of time. It’s said the bass provides the pulse and the drums the style, but I’d argue that both roles provide some of each. Furthermore, this doesn’t let the other musicians off the hook. Having a secure and easy hold over counting time is a force multiplier for ensembles. In fact, one of the aspects that gives electronic or computer music its distinct power is the incredible accuracy it provides with regards to timing. As humans, having more precise control allows us to play with time, to push it to add excitement and intensity and to pull it to add relaxation. In ensembles and bands, the way each musician or section uses timing adds greatly to the overall sound of the band. A guitar player who chooses to push the time combined with a bass player who chooses to pull it creates a very different feeling than the opposite scenario. The key is to hone your skills so that these are indeed your choices, empowering you to (almost) literally manipulate time.
Here’s a simple exercise to help hone that skill that I learned from Victor Wooten’s excellent book The Music Lesson:
A 4/4 drum loop playing at 120 BPM. I suggest starting with a 4-bar progression over top of this. The key is, DO NOT stray from your pattern. No extra notes, no fills, no nuanced ornaments. This is harder than you think! Play in time with the loop until you can easily make it through the whole recording a couple of times in a row without any variation and feel tight with the loop.
The same loop, with every fourth bar silenced. Perform the exact same progression, without variation. Again, do this until you can do it a couple of times in a row without variation and feel tight. The idea is to hit that downbeat with ease and confidence each time.
The same loop, with every third and fourth bar silenced. Perform the exact same progression without variation until you can make it through a couple of times and feel tight. Same goal – hit that downbeat with ease and confidence without fail.
The same loop with the second, third and fourth bars silenced. Same deal – do it without variation until you can make it through the whole time easily without fail.
The same loop, with only beat 1 of bar 1. Again, the same progression without variation practiced until you land on that downbeat easily and without fail. This won’t be easy at first so don’t beat yourself up! Just try, fail, and come back tomorrow and try to fail better.
Only once you’ve been able to nail step 5, move onto practicing this with a fill / solo. Begin as always, with a 4-bar progression of your choice/whim. For each step, fill the blank time with an improvised riff or solo. You’ll be amazed at what happens when you do – timing seems to go out the window! Again, practice and practice.
Do you have any tips for upping a musician’s game? Let’s chat on Twitter @aaron_collier.