Doing any complex action (like playing the horn) needs three things for optimal success. They’re simple, but take practice to do. They are:
1. Relaxation. Muscles come in pairs, each pulling in the opposite direction (a muscle can only contract). If both pairs pulls to any degree at the same time, the result is tension. The process of learning to play very efficiently is largely a gradual process of learning what muscles not to use at any given moment. Start your day, start your practice session with taking inventory of your body. Sit upright (erect, back not touching the chair back) in a chair, eyes closed. Start with the toes and work upward, looking for tension. Use deep breaths to relax any points of tension you discover. You can also go a bit farther if you wish and do some stretching: arms, legs, neck, torso. Give yourself a head and neck massage. You will thus be beginning your day and your practice session with a feeling of calm and relaxation. (It’s important to be relaxed, but remember we want alert-relaxed, not sleepy relaxed.)
2. Focus. After preparing the body, we come to the considerable challenge of preparing the mind. We want to practice control of the little internal radio that blares about something/anything all the time so that we can focus on the task at hand, right now, and minimize useless distracting chatter that takes us out of the moment and into the past or future. Remember: your head is not your friend. It has one value, and one value only, and that is to keep yakking. It doesn’t care if its noise makes it hard for you to carry out the action (i.e. playing the horn, especially in performance situations), it just wants to keep blabbing at all costs. It is not at all easy to turn down this mental radio, but the good news is that you can practice focus (i.e. quieting the blah blah) and get better at it. And you do need to practice it – you can’t suddenly say on the day of the concert, “Well, I better practice focusing now.” Just spend a minute or five or twenty every day. Three ways to do this:
1) Think of a word, preferably something mellifluous and neutral in meaning. “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “Coronary Thrombosis” are not good choices. “One” is good. Even a nonsense syllable will work. Repeat the word, focusing on it alone.
2) Pick an object (a whole note, a spot on the wall, a candle flame) and look at it. Keep your attention on it.
3) Using a slight rasp in the throat, follow your breath in and out (eyes closed).
When (not if) the radio creeps in with distractions (“Isn’t today laundry day?” “These shoes aren’t comfortable.” “I wonder what’s for lunch.”), just return your attention to the word, object, or breath. Repeat as necessary. The more you do it, the better you will get at it, and the quicker you will be able to call up this focused state.
3. Ego detachment. This may be the toughest challenge of them all in this culture. This was covered in some detail in the previous post, “Trick Question,” so I won’t go into it much here. Just do this: observe yourself when you practice or perform. Did you stay ‘egoless’ while you were doing it? When that unpredicted event (=mistake) happened, were you able to notice it, perhaps make a note for later, and move on without any emotion (frustration, irritation, etc.) attached to it? Did you stay in the present moment at all times? This kind of self-awareness is the beginning of getting control of the “drunken monkey.”
Relax. Focus. Detach your ego from the results. Make these simple ideas part of your daily routine and harvest the benefits later when it counts.