Saturday, February 23, 2013

Playing Music as a form of Contemplative Practice

Music can be a mystical thing, even for a secular bloke like me. Playing tunes is almost an act of meditation.  My musical motivation, whether playing a tune by yourself or in the company of others, is to get in the groove, to surrender to the flow, until you're in that fluid place where the music plays itself.  Growth in music is like the growth of a tree - a natural unfolding of activity rather than consciously planning to achieve a desired goal. It's not about technique or your skills on an instrument - what you can or can't do - it's about an awareness of the present.  The feeling produced by participating in the flow of sounds and being actively aware of your bodily and emotional reaction to the music.
Thought is not needed to "know" traditional music. You don't have to understand the music with your mind. You don't even have try to feel it with your heart. Simply and spontaneously allow the music to reveal to you what it has and what it is without any need for further explanation. A sound is just itself, with nothing added on. Music is something to be experienced rather than analyzed, allowing it to remain simply whatever it has always been.
Playing a tune is like crossing a pond on stepping stones. You can play really simply without concern for literal melodic interpretation if you do so by feel and by sound.  Observe, listen and respond with a relaxed body and a calm mind - avoiding cleverness.  Focus on correct posture and alignment of body and instrument. Don't to force things. Reduce tension by softening the muscles in the hand and fingers.
Traditional music goes back to a very deep communal place.  The tunes go round and round like a big circle, connecting to distant pasts, lineage, and the living, breathing river of inspiration. Play in a way that removes the barrier between playing and non-playing. The groove doesn't stop when the tune ends.

Blogger's Update: I'm not sure this post properly conveys the point I intended to make. The general theme is something I've been developing for a while, but was having trouble expressing. If some of the above text doesn't quite sound like my own words it's likely because I relied on a couple external sources to help formulate the content - primarily a May 2005 interview with John Herrmann from Banjo Newsletter and Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor Volume II. 

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