Performing and the law of time

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The play-stop-evaluate-correct pattern

How many hours have you spend practicing? Now compare that with how many hours you've been playing with your band members. Chances are that, if you're aspiring to become the ultimate guitar god of this century (Or something a little less extreme) you've probably been practicing a lot more than you've been playing actual music with your mates.

And this is great! The more you practice the better you become at playing. That's a very true but also a very wrong statement. Because practicing means using your brain in a way that makes it impossible for you to be fully associated when you play music. Practicing and playing, are two very different things if you ask your brain.

When you practice, the past is very important. When you play music only the present is vital, and in a very real and concrete way. Practicing means playing something and then listening for whether or not you produced the notes you wanted to. You evaluate your actions every second to figure out ways to improve and get better. And every time you fail and play a wrong note, you stop and start over again. If you're a committed shredder you run the play-stop-evaluate-correct pattern hundreds of times each time you practice 10 minutes.

Running the right pattern is crucial

This evaluation pattern becomes an ingrained part of you and every time you pick up your guitar, the brain wants to run that pattern by default. But if you run this pattern when you play solo, it’s going to feel like a struggle to get through the thing. Your skill level will drop to half of what you can really do and you’ll make a lot more mistakes than you do when you practice.

Because in life and on stage you get what ever you focus on, and if you focus on the past and what mistakes you made, you’ll make more mistakes in the future. If there’s no past in you, but only a 100 % focus on what you are doing this moment, then you are where the music is; here and now, and you’ll open up the gates to your greatest moments of playing.

“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”


The law of time

The law of time says that: It is not possible to be creative outside this present moment. So any truly creative effort is always performed without thought. It's an experience not an action. You practice in order to be able to bring the right tools to the table when you play. But when you use the tools you have build, you must be completely focused on and associated with what you are doing, right now. No thought, no evaluation and no time.

A corollary of this law says that: Since your brain can only focus on one thing at a time, you cannot think while you play without loosing your creativity and focus completely.

No great solo has ever been produced in the past, it was always produced in the present. When you're in the zone there's no evaluation process going on. Whether or not you picked a wrong note one second ago is not important because it doesn't exist. Only the note you're playing now is what matters. If you spend one fraction of a second thinking about a mistake you think you made a while ago, you cannot be where the music is. You cannot be present here and now in what your doing in this instant.

The casualness of a tipsy mind

This might seem like some spiritual psycho babble to some, but it's a very real and practical issue. Anyone who's ever produced a great solo was totally present in it, because it's not possible to produce something great while not being there while it happens. You can't make great food while thinking of something else, and you can't create great music while worrying about your last mistake.

This is why some people are actually better musicians when they’re under the influence of alcoholic beverages. (I use that expression rather than just writing “drunk” because it makes it seem like I have no experiences in that department) Because alcohol often makes us less worried about the past and future and less focused on ourselves and whether or not we’re performing to out own highest standard. In this case the casualness of a tipsy mind, sometimes leads to better results.

The non alcoholic way to the zone

Practicing is nothing but a focus on your last mistake and how to correct it, the more you practice the more you wire your brain to run the pattern that stops you from unleashing your true creative potential. The way out of this is to consciously and deliberately practice staying present with what you are doing now and to discard any thought of evaluating what you just played. You must create an alternative neural pattern that you can use whenever you want to enter the zone. And you must create a strong enough pattern for it to be easy for you to access when ever you need to.

And luckily, this is quite easy! There are two practice methods that you can use to quickly develop the ability to stay present when you play. The first one I call “Not stopping” and the other one I call “noodling.” Incredibly inspiring and original names that, none the less, reflect how simple these two approaches are. But please do not let the simplicity fool you. These two exercises are the foundation of being able to apply all the different licks and techniques that you practice. Without these two approaches to practicing you wont be able to convert what you’ve practiced into actual music.

Wacky Blues Lick

This is actually an E- diminished triad over an E-blues scale. Notice how the notes on the B-string is part of the blues scale and how the notes on the other strings fit the diminished triad. I had to put in some chromatic notes on the B-string in order to make it work. But these are the very notes that give this lick it's wacky quality! Enjoy

The "not stopping" practice method

In order to break the play-stop-evaluate-correct pattern you must do the opposite. You must practice making mistakes without stopping. And you must do this consciously and deliberately. You can do this in several ways. One of them would be to play an improvised never-ending run. You simply start improvising at a comfortable level of speed and then keep on doing it no matter ho many mistakes to make. Keep on playing the next note and don’t take any breaks in between the notes.

Just keep on playing what ever happens. Even if you loose your place in the scale and can’t remember where the dots are on the fretboard, you keep on playing. Even if you just played something hilariously wrong then keep on playing. See if you can do runs of at least two minutes straight with no breaks. This will help you break the impulse to evaluate and correct every time you make a mistake. Make this something you do every day for at least five to ten minutes.

The "Noodling" practice method

The other way to practice the ability to stay with what you are playing now instead of thinking about what you just played, is to “noodle.” It’s the discipline of using what you have learned. Mixing every thing you know with every other thing you know. Have you ever noticed how you tend to play the same couple of licks every time you pick up your guitar?

This is great. But imagine if all of what you have learned came so easy to you! This can be your reality if you noodle enough. If you’re not careful, however, this discipline will only make you play what you know the best. And this will just make you better at what you already know. To use the process of noodling around to your advantage you must do it while you consciously and deliberately incorporate new things into your playing. So you might decide to mix one particular lick with what you know already, every time you pick up your guitar.

Expanding the effortless department

And you might decide to work on incorporating one lick only for a full week. It’s extremely important to always decide on what to focus on and then set a time frame for it as well. What new lick are you incorporating into your playing this week? The reason why I’m focusing on this is that what you play when you pick up your guitar is more often than not, what comes easy  to you.

In fact these phrases that you play are most likely completely effortless for you to play. And the more things you can put into that group, the more things you can make effortless and the bigger your actual usable vocabulary is. So the more you noodle and the more things you can noodle with, the easier it is for you to stay in the zone when you solo.

Imagine if you spend 3 hours every day for a month noodling around on the fretboard. Adding little new things and noodling them in with the rest bit by bit. You would have achieved two things: 1. Your vocabulary of effortless lines, licks and runs would have exploded and 2. You would have established a new pattern in your brain of just playing, playing, playing with no evaluation and the play-stop-evaluate-correct pattern would be just one of the patterns you are able to run, and not the only one.

“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind”

Zen Proverb

Your plan for the week

If you use these two practice methods every day for just five minutes each, you will find that you’ll begin to relax much more when you play solos, and you’ll have a lot more fun playing and practicing. And then see if you can decide in advance what practice style you are going to use so that you keep them separate. If you’re not consistent in what practice routine you use, you’ll confuse your brain and not establish any real lasting pattern. Distinguish between the hard core skill building repetition practice and your other two routines.

In that way you teach your brain to go from one pattern to another and not mix them up. So that when you have to play in front of other people you can turn on that Zen mode and leave the play-stop-evaluate-correct pattern at home.

What ever you do, act.

And as a final note remember this: The difference between those that develop great skills and those that don’t is action. Most people wont even read an article like this, instead they’ll insist that the only real secret to learning anything is repetition and nothing else. But out of the ones that do, very few act on what they’ve read.

The only thing you must do to put yourself in that special group of people who get what they want is to act. Even if you didn’t follow through the last time, and even if you’ve decided to do something in the past and not done it, and even if you never succeeded at anything, the only thing you must do to succeed at this is to act. One more time. Every time you get inspired, act.