Thursday, March 8, 2012

Practice With Your Mind - Perform With Your Heart

In the process of learning to communicate via music, there are two primary activities which must be experienced.  These two activities can be called many different things:  Receiving and Transmitting - Input and Output - Learning and Doing - Hearing and Saying - Seeing and Painting - Planning and Building - Cooking and Tasting - Practicing and Performing.


The first activity - Practicing (a.k.a. Receiving, Input, Learning, Hearing, Seeing, Planning, and Cooking) primarily involves the mind.

This is the process in which you learn your instrument - how to play the notes, the chords, the arpeggios, the scales, the modes, etc.  This is also the place where you learn music theory and more importantly songs.

This is where we develop memorization, understanding, muscle memory, technique, and the ear.  This is a place of the classroom, the teacher, and the lab/experimentation in whatever forms those occur for you.  This is where you learn the rules - and how to break them.  Time spent here allows you to get around on your guitar and play the sounds you are hearing inside of you.

The goal of practicing is to engraft all of the above into your subconscious - to spend so much time engaging the mind, the hands, and the ear in music that it becomes second nature - like talking, walking, or driving a car (all of which were awkward when first attempted, but now come to us without thought).

When I studied jazz and classical guitar at the NTSU (now called the University of North Texas), the only excuse the faculty would take for not being able to play a piece of music perfectly was that we had not practiced it enough.


The second activity we engage in as guitarists is Performing (a.k.a. Transmitting - Output - Doing - Saying - Painting - Building - Tasting) which primarily involves the heart.

This is the place where you are an artist, a creator, a communicator, a changer of the environment.  The bringer of the feast of sound to ears which have been fed a diet of junk food and are craving a musical feast of a home cooked meal.

As musicians, we bring an experience to our listeners that is unique - we take them to a place that other sounds can never take them.  But to do so, we have to play from the heart.  As guitarists it is too easy for us to fall into the "Hey, watch this!" redneck approach to showing off flashy licks and technique, using only our hands and minds - while the heart is left unengaged and the music we make is subsequently sterile and void of any lasting value.

When I practice, my mind is fully engaged.  I'm focusing on the fret board, music theory, technique, memorization, arranging,  etc. But when I perform, I tend to turn off my mind and play from the heart - using only those musical ideas which come easily to me because they have been engrafted into my subconscious during practice. 


Playing with the heart is very simple.  Try this and you will see how much difference it makes in your music.

  • Take a favorite slow lick that is easy to play 
  • Play it like you normally would
  • Now, play it again.  But this time put your heart into it - your feelings.  Muster up all your frustrations, your joy, your confidence and hope, your love, and your desire to change this world.  Pour it all out thru your guitar.  Put your stomach, your legs, and most importantly your heart into it.  Let it your guitar become the outlet for all those things you are feeling deep inside.
You should be able to tell a difference - a huge difference - in what is coming out of your guitar when you engage your heart.  Once you've played with your heart, you will never be satisfied by merely using your mind and hands.

On my pedal board I have four things written to remind me to do this.

  • Listen
  • Feel It
  • Emotion
  • Less Is More
Whitney Houston's sax player, Kirk Whalum, explained it to me this way.  If its not easy - if you can't do it in your sleep - then its probably not ready to bring out of the oven yet.  Make sure you have plenty of headroom in your chops - that you are not pushing into a zone where its not natural and driven primarily by your heart and spirit.


    Often we think what is missing in our music is gear.  If I only had a better guitar, amp, effects, etc. our sound would go up to the next level, when all the time the one component which will have the greatest impact on our music is right there waiting to be added to the signal chain - its the heart.

    Use your heart and see what happens.