Right now, Tony and his wife are on an epic year-long journey around the entire circumference of his home country, pulling a trailer and stopping at some incredible places along the way judging by the pictures I see on Facebook. I am jealous! I think everyone here in the U.S. should attempt such a thing; this country has some truly spectacular areas that sadly, most people will not make the effort to see. I’ve been blessed to experience a lot of them and it has definitely helped shape my perspective on so many things. Sorry for the digression from today’s topic, which is what Tony and I call “The Zone.”
Since I’ve known Tony via the wonders of email (we have never met in person but I so hope to some day!) I’ve watched him progress from raw beginner to an accomplished guitar player. It’s been very cool to observe from afar. I’ve said here and to my students, other musicians and friends that I so wish I could do my first year or two all over again. After getting past the initial couple of months of frustration and pain the joy of discovery overtakes almost anything else. What can I do this week that I couldn’t do last week? Oh…so THAT’S why you use this finger on that chord instead of the one I’ve been using! And so much more…
But after almost 60 years of playing the guitar and teaching for close to 50 of those years, I must measure my progress in terms of: What can I do this YEAR that I couldn’t do last year??! Part of that, probably the major part is some degree of laziness on my part. Surely, not practicing as much as I should is a huge factor and having my head up my @ss about what constitutes “good” music vs. bad held me back for an embarrassingly long time. However, about 30 or so years ago I found myself entering The Zone from time to time and that was and is wonderful!
The Zone is, put simply, a state of mind where one can completely relax and just kind of let things happen, sometimes very creative things that would not reveal themselves otherwise. Once experienced, it is frustrating to be outside of The Zone. So what follows is a basic outline of how you can find it and hopefully enter it more often than not.
It starts with knowing a song or piece of music as perfectly as you possibly can. Easy for me to say, right? Here’s the thing: playing and memorizing some very basic and fundimentally uncomplicated songs is the way to go because if you are confident in your version of a song, even simple ones, the door is open to relaxation, even bliss.
But to boil it down even more, what is the definition of musical relaxation? There are always conflicting circumstances that will battle your quest for musical relaxation and there is no question that ego enters into the equation. For me, being relaxed when I play - and definitely when I perform - starts with physical comfort. Little things like how comfortable is the chair I’m using? I use a folding guitar player’s stool made by On-Stage, model DT7500, which has a padded seat and a foot rest bar about 12 inches from the floor that allows me to rest a foot on it (the leg which supports the guitar). It also has an open, padded circular holder for the neck of the guitar that extends from beneath the seat and padded supports for the guitar body that fold down, which means I can leave a guitar stand home - one less thing to carry to gigs. I am 5’10” tall and this stool (the third one I’ve owned) is just right in terms of height, plus it is light weight and folds down to being almost flat for easy transport. I do miss having a back rest though (like the less portable stools in my studio) and I have my eye on a stool made by Gator that does have one, plus what appears to be better padding. So, from the get-go I know I will be comfortable in a sitting/playing position.
Another essential is having my guitar as easy to play as possible. That means keeping the action adjusted to where I like it but also optimizing the “feel” of it. I absolutely hate sticky-feeling guitars! That is always an issue in the summer when it’s hot and humid here on Cape Cod. I pay special attention to the back side of the neck because I absolutely MUST be able to move smoothly from one area of the neck to another. I am a big fan of the remarkable products made by Music Nomad (you can see them in the Guitars, Amps and Ukulele section of this site) and before I play I always apply some of the cleaner/polish to the back of the neck and using a dry cloth, rub it into the neck and thoroughly buff it off.
So, assuming those physical aspects of being comfortable and relaxed are taken care of, I can get into the music. Depending upon the circumstances (a gig, playing with friends or by myself in the studio) I ALWAYS begin with a fairly simple and uncomplicated piece of music. It is a dead-certain reality that if I start with something harder and mess it up, that unpleasantness will affect a lot that comes later. This is where the dreaded ego factors rear their ugly heads. I want to play as best as I can - we all do - but somewhere in the back of my mind I remember playing a complex song to perfection, and man, did that feel good! I want that experience again! But the likelihood of that happening right from the start is slim, at best. Then my ego leads to frustration and that too can keep me out of The Zone. So: keep things simple from the very first note!
The last thing I’ll address is very simple and very much overlooked by 95% of the musicians I’ve seen. Take a few deep breaths before launching into your first piece of music. That allows your “musical brain” to focus. My guitar hero, the British jazz guitarist Martin Taylor makes a point to do some simple yoga right before he performs if time allows and I can understand why.
Sooner or later, you WILL find The Zone, I promise! It is that point where you are totally relaxed and at the same time, totally focused. Because focused you must be!! Allowing yourself to go into auto-pilot mode will lead to disaster. And for me anyway, those disasters can snowball into more and even worse ones.
Playing the guitar can be a hugely positive and life-changing experience and for most of us….it is! If you always remember to “be your own best friend” and push back your ego The Zone will always be within reach.
Peace & good music,