After making music with them, what I like most about musicians is talking to them. The hang before and after a gig is usually a source of inspiration. Last night was like that. We filed off stage, all 19 of us, either onto the dance floor or into the green room. One thing that’s annoying is that musicians often start making instrumental noise (piano plunking, bongo tapping, trumpet blowing) while others are conversing, meaning you have to shout. So much shouting… But I digress.

On Monday we played Mike Rinta’s new arrangement of El Cantante, a song by Ruben Blades that I recorded in 2007 on my second album, produced and arranged by Wayne Wallace. There was a moment on stage during the first few bars of the intro where I looked at Mike with unfettered joy — those first few chords were killing! So when he came into the green room I was bursting with compliments for the arrangement. I asked him what those first few chords were and he turned to the slightly toothless upright piano, showing how he started with triads and then added in dissonances.

We started talking about practicing music, and I mentioned the concept of deliberate practice. He told me he’d attended a workshop by bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding in which she said she writes down everything that goes wrong on a gig, then practices it later. This reminded me of a process we used to follow in the magazine editing business: The postmortem. I’d take the final, printed copy that we got a few weeks after putting the issue to bed and we’d go through it with sharpies and post-it notes, passing it from one editor to the next, making positive and negative comments about writing, topics, design, production and so on. Then we’d meet to discuss what we’d noticed.

I told Mike I was reading
Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery
for the third time. He said “I listen to the first meditation in that book [on the accompanying CD] at least once a week. Tonight before my first gig I wanted to listen to it but I didn’t have time.” He said it really helps him and that he’s listened to it for years (by the way, you can download the four meditations from that CD for free on Werner’s site, though I don’t recommend using them without reading the book.). I told him about what I’d recently been reading that went a bit counter to Werner: “the myth of flow.”

“Discussions of peak performance now appear widely, and all of the talk has spawned a problematic myth. The premise of the myth is that all high-level performances are peak performances and that, therefore, unless a musician attains a peak inner state on stage, the performance falls short. Nothing could be further from reality,” writes Gerald Klickstein in The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. “Of course, every performer wants to be as free as possible on stage. But if you can’t perform well unless you’re in a peak state, then you can’t function well as a professional musician.”

Klickstein is right to compare musicians to athletes. Sometimes we fly through a set as if our fingers or feet had wings, and sometimes each note or step is a struggle — yet the audience should not have a clue. I’ve often felt frustrated on stage with bad monitors, deafening noise, personnel problems or unrehearsed material. Ironically, when I decide to compensate for those troubles by “selling it” as hard as I can to the audience, I often get more positive audience feedback afterwards than on the nights when, musically, I was soaring. The audience wants to feel the music. They don’t care how we achieve that feeling, technically speaking.

I told Mike about another passage of Klickstein’s:

“The musicians who lack preparatory skills fall apart when things aren’t just so. After going bust on stage, they often claim that in an earlier practice session they were in the zone and performed flawlessly. Actually, their fragile learning creates only an illusion of control. Because of their belief in the peak-performance myth, however, rather than improving their preparation skills, such musicians look for extraneous ways to induce a zone-like state in which their flimsy foundations might somehow hold up.”

Mike’s response to this was interesting: “If you are thinking about how you were burning earlier in practice, then you aren’t here, you’re there. It has to be happening in this moment, now.”

The music doesn’t play itself in the future or the past, it comes through us now. The only way to let it flow through is to be here, not anywhere else.