Here’s saxophone master Chris Potter describing the same state:
Of course, simply “not thinking” doesn’t usually work. After reading Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery in college, I tried to not think while performing. But when thoughts popped up, I started thinking about not thinking. This didn’t generate great results.
Flow is a state of deep concentration, not just an empty head. Before arriving at the pinnacle “not thinking, music flowing” stage, we can direct our attention to specific areas that allow us to improvise better music. What areas are these? This is where you get to experiment.
In his Beyond Practicing course, performance psychologist Noa Kageyama (Juilliard, The Bulletproof Musician) tells us that practicing for performance is an entirely different mindset and skill set than perfecting our skills in the practice room. He points to decades of research in sports psychology that will help musicians perform at our best, even under pressure. Fundamentally, in performance, we want to direct our attention to the sound of our performance in real-time, rather than focusing on the mechanics, theory, or motor skills needed to execute it. After many hours in the practice room, we can trust our bodies to create the sounds we want to hear.
Flow only happens in the now, so focus anchors help us direct our attention to the present tense. The point is to keep your conscious mind engaged and occupied with an anchor, and to begin trusting your subconscious mind to take over.
These strategies are only effective for tunes you have totally internalized. If you are concentrating on the mechanics of playing your instrument or trying to remember what chord change is next, you won’t have the bandwidth to focus on the anchors. Choose a piece you know really well, or start with a free improvisation. In Harmonic Experience, W. A. Mathieu notes, “transcending knowledge is different from not having any.”
Shift all of your attention to a single point of focus and improvise a solo. Be sure to record yourself, because you may not remember what/how well you played. Announce each anchor out loud so when you listen back you know which are most effective. This list can get you started, but experiment with any point of focus that drives you into the present moment.
Before playing a note:
Focus on a specific approach to improvisation:
Come up with your own—the possibilities are endless.
A meditation practice is stellar concentration and focus training. In addition to lowering anxiety, it helps us direct our attention exactly where we want it to go. (Tara Brach’s guided meditations helped me start a daily practice: Web, iTunes.)
Even if you don’t get into the effortless, “the instrument plays itself” zone right away, this level of deliberate focus can make a huge difference in your playing. And it may be your gateway to the zone.