Pre-apocalyptic times, I played at Churchill’s, a delicious Spokane steakhouse. It was my first solo piano gig and to this day was the best part time job I’ve ever had. The gig was four hours in the basement of the restaurant… just me, an upright piano, jazz, and some older folks eating steak.
My first concern was whether I could actually come up with four hours of material, and the second was whether it would be any good. When I started this gig, I wasn’t the greatest jazz player and I didn’t know any Billy Joel (I still don’t). Today, I am a slightly mediocre jazz pianist and have a few more pop classics in my fingers. Not literally in my fingers but like in my mind that controls my fingers, just forget I even said anything…
I told my teacher at the time about this gig, and his main piece of advice was to “pay attention to your sound”. This seemed like a no brainer and I sort of passed this advice off as a given. As I played the gig more and more, I started to see what he was talking about. A lot of the time, musicians will rely on muscle memory and go into autopilot without ever critically listening to themselves in real time. I wasn’t really considering my audience or reading the room, I was just sorta going down my list of songs and stretching them out as long as possible. I once played Yesterday by the Beatles for 15 minutes.
After a few nights playing the four hour shift, my teacher’s simple advice started to make more sense. I would do a mental exercise while playing where I would imagine what I sounded like from the booth across the room. WAS I TOO LOUD? Did I sound jazzy, cool, hip, upbeat, modern? Was I achieving the sound that I really wanted? It was really an active meditation where I became more mindful of the piano and the way it sounded.
Mindfully playing was like switching from an automatic transmission to stick shift. A magical sensation occurs when you become connected to the tool you are using. It’s as if the machine becomes an extension of your own body. You are driving the car, not the other way around. I have no idea how to drive stick and I will probably never learn, but I’m guessing that’s maybe the case?
So how do you make the piano, the guitar, the saxophone, or the cheese drums an extension of yourself, and what does that even mean?
I think it boils down to hours of mindful practice, which requires consistency and patience. As I have discussed in previous blogs, you should know your scales, chords, and how to play with good touch. These basic ideas are your foundation, the alphabet that will allow you to form words, sentences, and entire paragraphs. The piano becomes an extension of yourself when there is a clear vessel through which your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs flow seamlessly from the body to the instrument to create an output that resonates with the listener.
This is something that we can strive for not just in music, but in all creative endeavors, our speech, friendships, etc. Making your mind and body a clear vessel with regards to your instrument, word choice, and relationships seems to be the result of mindful practice and attention. It is the ultimate and most extreme form of “being yourself”, advice we’ve heard 1,000 times.
A cheers to all three of my readers to becoming a clear vessel! If you have any thoughts or questions on any of these ideas please reach out.