Entering the zone & the law of no effort

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Unhooking your left brain

When I got serious about becoming a guitarist, I used to dream about performing on stage. I would imagine myself playing a solo, with one foot on the monitor and a big smile on my face. Just playing the notes effortlessly and enjoying the ride.

But it took a while for me to get to that place where I could play without a thought in my head. Because that's what it takes to get in "the zone". If you want to get to that place where you are one with the notes you play, where you don't think about what to play next and where the whole process of soloing runs itself, then you must shut down the part of your brain that thinks. 

Practicing is thinking

You need to think when you practice. You think your way to learning what you need to learn. You analyze what's going on, what you are doing and how you can best improve. You plan and measure and encourage yourself with your thoughts (Or you discourage yourself) You learn music theory, you learn scale patterns and sequences. You think your way to the skills you want. But to unlock your true creative potential and enjoy the process of creating music in the now, you must stop thinking.

"When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece" 

John Ruskin

And the reason is simple: Every thought you have carries with it an emotion. If you think "I'm running out of licks here" then that's what you are going to feel. Your body will be in a mild state of anxiety and the bodies way out of that anxiety is to focus on what you are playing. You become conscious of what you are doing and that is the end of creativity. Just like becoming self conscious is the end of spontaneity. 

One interruption and you're out of the zone
Music is emotion. And when you're fully associated to the music you experience the emotions of it. You are there. You are a part of the emotional expression of the music. (And this goes for death metal as well) But the second you feel the emotions created by a thought in your head, and not by the music you are playing, you're out of the game instantly.

Your brain consists of two halves: The logic left part and the creative right part. When you're in the zone, playing and enjoying yourself, you're doing it with the right part of the brain. One interruption from the left part of the brain will throw you out of heaven and into thought-land again. This article is about how to stay in the right half of the brain, all the time.

Diminished Sweeping Sequence

This sequence can be a bit tricky in the beginning. But stay with it and it'll open up new possibilities for you. See if you can expand this lick and play it up and down the neck using the diminished arpeggio. In the example in the video, I'm mixing it with the A-Harmonic Minor scale.

Once you know how to do it, you can be in the zone when ever you choose to. I do it whenever I feel like it. It's not hard, it's just a matter of focus. But you have to practice doing it before you develop the ability to turn in on and off. In this article I'm going to cover the first law of the zone:

The law of no effort

In order to experience being completely in the music you must avoid using effort when you play. Of course you need to move your fingers in order to produce the notes, but it must be as easy as breathing in and breathing out. If there's effort involved, your left brain comes online and tries to make it happen for you, and often with success. But this also puts you out of the zone. 

This is the main reason why I am so adamant about "mastering" something instead of merely knowing it. Most people master the art of brushing their teeth or tying their shoe laces, because they can think of other things as they do it. Once it was a conscious process involving the left part of the brain. But because of the endless repetitions it became effortless. 

"Easy" is not good enough

And please note that I'm not using the word "easy" here. Because "easy" means there's still a little effort involved. You have to get to the point where it's completely effort-less. It might seem like an impossible dream to make speed picking as easy as breathing in and breathing out, but it's not. In fact, it's going to happen to you if you don't stop practicing and playing. It happens every time we do things enough times over time. It happens because that's the way the human nervous system works, period. 

To prove this to yourself, try playing something that you can play effortlessly. Even if it’s as simple as one note or chord. And then play it with as much intensity and emotion as you can possibly muster. Listen intensely to what you are playing and notice that you can’t listen and think at the same time. Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time, so if you’re listening you can’t think. 

How to practice this

Does all this mean that you have to play super super easy stuff in order to stay in the zone when you solo?! Yes… If you’re using effort, you’re practicing, and that’s also great. But to get to the zone you must disconnect the left part of your brain completely.

Next time you’re playing a solo, try limiting yourself to playing very few notes or very very easy stuff. Make it a game where the most important thing is staying in the zone and not playing interesting lines. Don’t try to play something fancy, focus solely on listening to what you are playing, even if it means staying on the same note the whole solo. 

“You have to practice it until it’s easy. If it’s not easy, you won’t use it”

Yngwie J. Malmsteen

In my next article I’m going to show you how to get out of the learning mode and into the playing mode. Although practicing makes more things easy, it also creates a neural pattern of conscious playing that you must get out of in order to become the ultimate Zen Shredder… Take care until then and have fun.