Learn how to zone in and play, no matter your skill level

Longer ago than I care to admit, I attended a seminar with one of my all-time favorite pickers, Howard Roberts. It was a two-day deal, and for the most part I was too inexperienced to have a clue about much of what he talked about. But one thing that stuck in my head (and I am sure he wasn’t the first to say this) was to study your instrument—but, when you go out to play the gig, forget everything you know and just play. At the time, this seemed completely unfathomable to me. How could you forget what you know—and why in the world would you want to? I guess the reason it stuck was that it was so far off my does-not-compute scale that I just had to file it till later.

It’s Later Than You Think…

Meanwhile, I was playing in bar cover bands and waiting for my genius to be discovered (I’m still waiting, by the way). One night at the OK Lounge in Marion, Iowa, we launched into our version of “I’m a Man” (a la Chicago). During my solo I had what I can only describe—and, believe me, I hate to say this—as an out-of-body experience. I had no sense that it was me playing and somehow, at least in my head, I entered “the zone.” Before I continue, I will splash some cold water on this and say that I have no idea if anyone else noticed—or even if what I played was actually good. But the important thing is that it was just the music sailing under its own power. I had no sense that it was me doing anything. I saw my hands doing things I didn’t think they could do and I was amazed.

Years went by with a few repeats of that moment. Like many, I was on a quest to find my spiritual path in life. This finally led me to some study of Buddhism. After a fair, though not vast, amount of reading, lectures, and retreat attendance, a couple of things dawned on me. First off, Buddhism really should just be a philosophy and not a religion—it seems that was what the Buddha intended anyway. So whatever your religion, Buddhism is worth a look. Just skip past all the supernatural stuff and look at the basic nuts and bolts of what the guy said. One of my favorites: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I can’t say it any better than that, and it seems to me now that that was just what Howard Roberts meant.

Another book I found along the way was pianist Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within. This book has caused quite a debate in online music newsgroups, because Werner talks about telling yourself that you are a master. Many people get hacked off at this, saying they know they aren’t masters and that so-and-so is a real master and how dare anyone compare themselves to that person and blah blah blah. They are missing the point entirely. What Werner is saying is that, whatever level you are at in your playing, own it, be it, be in the moment. If you walk onstage worried about how you don’t measure up to whomever you regard as a master, it will be impossible for you to play at the top of your game, because you are wasting energy and mind space with stuff that has nothing to do with the present. He doesn’t mean you have to think you are God’s gift to the guitar. When you are practicing, you can compare yourself to Joe Pass or Buckethead and decide that perhaps they play better than you. Big deal. Just sit down and start practicing.

Here’s a fact: No matter what guitar you own or how much you practice, you will always just be you—no more, no less. So we just need to find peace with that and give ourselves permission to be who we are. Someone (I forget who) said that your style is made by your limitations. It might have been Miles Davis that said that, but it was certainly true of him. Miles, for me, was one of the all-time greatest musicians—but he wasn’t the fastest trumpeter, nor did he have the highest range. What he did have was great tone and a musical sense that seemed to never fail.

Wile E. Coyote Syndrome

Watch out for your inner critic, because he won’t help you. I’m talking about that voice in your head that will list, at great length, all the reasons why you can’t be a master—or even play well…and what were you even thinking being onstage…and these guys are better than you so what are you doing here…and…HELP!

Remember the old Road Runner cartoons? There was always a moment when Wile E. Coyote would go off a cliff and run through the air. Then he inevitably looked down and had that moment of “Oh no!” and down he fell. The zone can be the same way. When you have that out-of-body feeling and you’re soaring, the critic inside you can shoot you right down. Practice playing and just having the critic shut up. At first you may only be able to make it go away for a second, but try to remember how it feels so you can try to expand the feeling. Don’t think about expectations. No worries about playing faster or being cool/hip/rad or whatever. Remember, we are just talking about feelings here, so pay attention and find your way through. (I so want to say “Use The Force,” but I won’t).

Being in the zone means you are there for whatever happens. You are locked into the present moment. Relax. Breathe. And just be…there.

Pat Smith
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke, and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser, and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.

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