Tag Archives: improvising

Learn to Listen to the Music of Silence

This week I returned to yoga after a long six-month drought.  Aside from feeling like a winded sprinter in the first 15 minutes, I was most surprised at how my mind, which normally falls to quiet stillness during meditation, could not find peace. I know it has a lot to with my less-than-desirable level of fitness, but it got me thinking about space and how I could cultivate it in the present moment.

In the last year, jazz improvisation has taught me a lot about listening for the space in music and finding opportunities to punctuate the silence with small musical phrases. More importantly, though, I’ve learned how to linger. What is that you ask?

It’s the exact opposite of trying to fill all the silence with sound and just letting one note ring and fade back to silence before moving to the next note. When I first started improvising, I often felt like the music was threatening to run me over if I didn’t keep up; I was left dizzy and floundering in the dust of partial and poorly executed phrases.  After witnessing a few of my flustered attempts, my teacher tried a different approach, “Hold a note and let it ring, give it space than move,” he said. “You have all kinds of time to make the next note, there’s no rush.”

The wonderful simplicity of this lesson was so freeing, that I seldom find myself struggling to link phrases together anymore. When I feel like I am getting ahead or behind of the song I am playing along with, I just pause, reset and resettle into a groove. Normally, if I feel this way it’s because I haven’t allowed myself to listen for the spaces the other musicians leave for me to discover, like little gold nuggets.

Sound and silence is just as important in vocal improvisation and chant as it is in jazz. I recently came across an excerpt of the book “The Yoga of Sound” in which author Russill Paul makes a beautiful observation about sound and the human ear:

“The ear is feminine and soul-like because of its receptive, deep, interior, mysterious qualities. This is why the quality of our hearing and kinds of sounds we hear are important; we derive healing and nourishment for our soul from the process. In other words, to neglect our ears is to neglect our soul.”

So how do you find space and silence in your daily lives?  If this concept of listening for silence is new to you, I encourage you to try it.  It really is music to your ears.

Perfect Wrong Notes and Happy Accidents… Bring ‘em!

I came across a great blog post last week from Dan Goodwin that really got me thinking about where my creative mindset was a little more than a year ago, where it is now, and how my guitar playing seems to exude new energy and confidence because I’ve changed how I relate to my instrument.

I no longer worry about gaps in progress,  which used to feel more like ravines I had to crawl out of, rather than an occasional bump in the road.  More importantly, I think the biggest reason I am progressing steadily now, is because I have learned to appreciate and anticipate what Dan calls “happy accidents”.

Dan cites perfectionism, having too many choices and an inability to have fun while creating the biggest reasons for our mental blocks.  Here’s what I’ve learned about myself, the musical process and laughing in the face of these three creativity stumbling blocks.

Perfectionism will stunt musical progress faster than any blister or broken fingernail ever could. Trying to make every note perfect before I played it, only added to my frustration. Worse, because I wouldn’t allow myself to play a “wrong” note I was unable to learn from my mistakes. In his book, “The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self” William Westney, encourages all musicians, at all levels of ability, to think of themselves as detectives.

“Be detached–in the best sense.  Avoid the ego-driven emotional roller-coaster of “Yippee—I was great! alternating with Aarrggh—I messed up!  Don’t take the outcomes personally.  This isn’t about our egos. It’s about gathering objective evidence.”

I’ll admit, I am not always great at staying neutral when I practice. It’s just too much fun to let out a hearty ‘Whoo Whoo!’ after nailing a difficult barre chord or finding a nifty lick, while improvising.  But, one thing I do differently is to not allow myself to react to frustration and negativity. The minute fatigue or frustration threaten to revert me to a cranky two-year old, I put the guitar down and leave my practice space.

Having too many choices is a nice predicament to have when you’re trying to decide which ice-cream flavor to fill your sugar cone with, but I agree with Dan, when it comes to improvising, less is more.  Lately some of my biggest Aha’s! have come while focusing on the notes of just two or three strings. It is truly amazing the combinations the fingers will find with a little focused attention.

It seems to go without saying that if we have fun while we create, we will be more productive and happy.  But just like with perfectionism, sometimes we make it difficult to experience joy because we set limitations on our ability to live in the moment.

When I first started lessons, I approached them ambitiously. “I am going to learn guitar in three years and apply for college, so I can get my degree in music therapy,” I told friends and family.  While all well intended, I realize now that my academic goals had little to do with answering that inner voice that lead me down this path in the first place. Now more than three years later, my goals for using music to heal others remain the same, but the timetable has been replaced with a desire to know my guitar as an extension of myself. I’ve come to realize that only through inner mastery and joy will I find the creative answers that will lead to personal and professional fulfillment.

Time to go practice… who knows what kind of happy accident could be waiting to happen?