“…as if we swim with fire.” Linda Hogan

August 19, 2016

Last week I gave workshops at Classical Guitarfest West every morning from 9–10 am. These were labeled as warm-up and technique but I chose to work on concentration.

When we work on pieces repeatedly they improve to a point and then our mind begins to wander. We think of groceries that must be picked up for dinner, projects that are due, any number of things but not about the music we are playing. This is a normal thing because after a certain degree of competency we no longer have to think about a task. Our progress stalls when we no longer attend to details.

At that point it is vital to reinvest, so that we continue to grow and develop. Playing the correct fingerings, pitches and rhythms is all very good, but we need to embody them fully. I remember reading about Pablo Casals studying his scores, always looking for new things, finding relationships between sections and making ever more sense of the music. I also remember Claudio Arrau discussing little tuneful bits in accompaniment figures [in the book Conversations with Arrau by Joseph Horowitz]. It struck me that these great ones were always reinventing themselves, and the music they played. Always looking for new things.

By performing tasks that require full concentration I hope that we find the resources to re-examine our daily work. If we practice being distracted – we will perform distracted. We must find a way to practice and perform focused. The first step on that path is to develop a fully attentive mind.

We can think of mindfulness including the quiet, still mind, and also the full, busy attentive mind. Paying attention to a complex task can be restful because we are not distracted. Monkey mind, the chattering of inner dialogue, is fatiguing because attention is scattered and unsettled. I believe that our best development happens with a focused, observant mind.

One of the exercises we did together was the counter rhythm 5 against 4. This can be done as outline below by counting to five and playing once every fourth subdivision for example:
ONE-two-three-four-Five- TWO-two-three-Four-five-THREE-two-Three-four-five-FOUR-Two three-four-five. [Block caps represent the beats and bold represents the counter-rhythm]. This particular problem requires considerable attention and while doing we are alert. Our mind can be focused on a complex task of the right duration and difficulty.

As performers we also need to be creative, if only because that will get us closer to the music we play. It is easier to think like a composer if we act like one from time to time. Owning the music is much easier if we make it up ourselves, even if it is a little modal study on a few strings. I borrow uneven metres from other music traditions because they open up new ways of feeling pulse, and require engagement – a fast nine beat pulse may take a few moments to unravel and the mind likes to solve puzzles.

The residents of Nasrudin’s village were asked to take part in a lottery, so dutifully the sage purchased some tickets. One of his friends asked what he would do with the money should he win. “Since I am old and have no family left the best thing would be to gift it all to a mosque that is very wealthy.”

The friend was shocked and said, “Would it not be better to give money to an un-wealthy mosque so that the money could go towards food and shelter for the destitute? Nasrudin, I am shocked at your thinking.”

“No matter,” the sage replied, “if Allah provides for the wealthy than I will too.”