Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Guitar and Relaxation

Winter is quickly descending on we New Yorkers- bringing both smells of spices and falling leaves, but also shorter days and fewer hours spent in the sun. After less time spent outside, and with end of the year deadlines impending, I'm not surprised to see more students come to their lessons with greater stress loads. Stress and tension, however, are the archenemies of the guitarist, cramping our hands, furrowing our brows, and making guitar less enjoyable and less rewarding to play. Fortunately- with a little care, we can come back to our natural state of easy and relaxed guitar playing!

But how do we relax in New York City?! (aren’t we even famous for stress?)

I’d like to humbly offer a few suggestions:

1. One way to reduce excessive tension in your body is to simply be mindful of it. Ask yourself before you begin playing:

How does my body feel right now? Am I tense in my neck? back? between my shoulder blades? What would happen if I released that tension?

2. Listen to yourself breathing for ten full breaths before picking up the guitar. (aaaahhhhhhhh)

3. Begin practice by playing through familiar exercises slowly- let your guitar playing muscles warm up gradually. Observe your body and mental state. Be compassionate with yourself.

4. Focus on just one achievable goal at a time. Don’t multitask.

5. Set a timer for intervals between 5 to 15 minutes. Every time the timer rings, ask yourself if you feel relaxed or tense. Is there any tension while playing? If so, where do you feel it? The wrist? Palm of the hand? Very tip joint of the index finger of the right hand? Inhale, and on your exale, release that excess tension. You don't need it to play well- a relaxed mind and body will be much more helpful.

Most of all- enjoy your music to the fullest!

Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. -Chinese Proverb

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Importance of Empathy

I just finished watching Bono's acceptance speech for an award he received in 2005, honoring his work in Africa. In the video, he describes how his organization, One, saves lives and improves the quality of life for many Africans. It's not that he's the only celebrity with a cause, or the only activist bringing light and aid to an unfathomable suffering that constitutes the daily lives of many Africans, but I think it's relevant that he is also a celebrated musician.

Being a musician inherently means that I have to know that other people experience the same things I do. Empathy, in many ways, is what we do as musicians. We trust that like we experience joy, others also experience joy, pain, humiliation, gratitude, despair, redemption... That is why I can write a song about my love, and it is somehow relevant to your life too- because we have the shared experience of love, and also of loosing love. Music is just one way that we communicate these shared experiences to each other. We don't necessarily experience life in the same way, but we experience the same fundamental things- birth, death, hunger, thirst love, pain... and these experiences form a common language between us.

Whether you're writing music, performing music, listening to music- what is, and often in the background, the fundamental truth of music, is that we, as human beings, are all connected. We can think, or believe that we're all connected, but music makes us know it. Being aware of this connection, and having empathy, also keeps our music relevant. It makes what we feel, and the way we communicate it, useful for other people too. It's because we want to find answers to our own questions that we find solutions we all share. It's because we want to ease another person's suffering that we ease our own. It's also that because we can imagine how another person feel that music exists. That if the tempo is faster, someone else's pulse quickens. That if I rest, you experience my silence. Music is only a ship that sails on the vast expanse of what we all have in common. Our empathy is the harbor.

Knowing that we are all connected, that we are all deeply important to each other, shines the light on the core of our music, our humanity. Expanding our empathy (in Bono's case to Africa) not only makes us better musicians, but also better people- to each other, but mostly to ourselves.

Best in your music,

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

16 Tips for Performing at Open Mics

Here are some open mic tips that I've compiled from hosting a year's worth of open mics with the NYC Guitar Group, and attending hundreds open mics over the past ten years. I hope you enjoy!

1. Have fun! Tip number one is to have fun. Even if you’re nervous, enjoy yourself on stage! Savor the experience- it doesn't happen every day. Make an effort to really enjoy your open mic, and not only for yourself. When you’re on stage, you transmit what you're feeling to your audience. If you want your audience to have fun, have some fun yourself.

2. Stick to songs you really love- These are the songs that you’ll be excited to practice. These are the songs that are rewarding to share. Your love for what you’re playing will come out when you perform. Let that guide you.

3. Prepare- When do you start practicing your songs for an open mike? The night before? A month before? Take a look at the songs that you’ll play. Write them down on a note card and tape it to your fridge. How much time do you have to prepare them? What can reasonably be achieved in that amount of time? Not comfortable with a song the night before? Save it for later.

4. Make the most of your resources- What can you bring with you that would make your experience more enjoyable? Extra strings, picks, a tuner, duct tape, lucky rabbit’s foot... do you rely on a tuner to tune? Does it require batteries? While the resources you need might be in the room, don't assume it. Prepare in advance.

5. Tune off stage- Don't squander your precious time, and your audience's attention by taking time to tune on stage! Most venues have somewhere where you can tune off stage. Scan the room when you enter to see where you can tune up. Even in the short trip from the audience to the stage, you may become out of tune again. Briefly check your tuning on stage just before you play.

6. If you drink, drink after playing- With every drink, we not only become increasingly drunk, but also increasingly tone deaf. Give your performance before drinking- your audience will thank you.

7. Take time before you play- Check that the height and levels of the mics are right for you. Check in with your body- are you comfortable? Check your tuning to make sure you’re still in tune. Taking a little time to get situated does two things. Firstly, it puts you in a better position to play well, and secondly it allows you to acclimate to the stage and calm your nerves.

8. Introduce yourself and the piece that you are about to play- We want to know who you are! Clearly say your name and what you’re going to play. Who wrote this song? Does it have any special significance to you? Your introduction also helps you hear the volume of the mics, and signals to the audience that you're done setting up, and you're about to play. Don’t expect everyone to shut up for you though. While rude, it’s fairly common to still have some room buzz while you’re playing. Give your audience the benefit of the doubt. You may find yourself saying an offending word or two during someone else's set at one point- forgive and move on.

9. Don't apologize- and especially not before you even play! (ie- “I’m sorry, I just started learning this piece, blah blah blah…”). Give yourself a fair chance. Apologies also tend to turn people off rather than on. (A point for reflection: would you really listen to someone who didn't consider themself worth listening to? Maybe not entirely.) If you really take a dive- have a good laugh about it and resolve to let it put a flame under your practice when you get home.

10. Play your simplest song first- Most of us, no matter how many times we’ve played, feel somewhat differently on stage. Play that song that you’ve had under your fingers for ages first. Don’t try to wow the crowd with your technical ability just yet. Wow them with your control and understanding of what you’re playing. You’ll feel more comfortable for the rest of your set if you set yourself up to succeed!

11. Read the audience- We feel, as members of the audience, when a performer goes up to give something to the audience, or take something from the audience. What I mean is this- there is occasionally a performer who will play on autopilot, because they like the feeling of being on stage, because they have something to prove, because performing makes them feel important... who knows. When they do this, the audience feels like a prop to entertain their ego. It’s not a way to win friends. It’s selfish. These kinds of performers play without giving any regard for what the people in the audience feel. Don’t be this person! Open mics are a way to share music; to connect with people, and to learn. Check in with your audience- making a small effort to communicate can go a long way.

12. Play with enthusiasm!!!- The audience doesn’t necessarily support the most talented performers, but rather the most enthusiastic ones. Extra points if you’re both! Even if you’re going to go up and play miserably, if you play miserably with great enthusiasm you may be surprised to get a nice round of applause afterward. Enthusiasm doesn't have to be loud and gaudy-sincere love of what you're playing is enough. Enthusiasm is contagious, and truly enthusiastic performances are generally rare and appreciated. Be one of these performers!

13. Record your performance- The most important evaluation of your own performance should be done by you. While it's helpful to ask a friend, make the most of listening to yourself. Give yourself fair criticism. Imagine you're listening to the radio instead. Would you tune in again? Why or why not?

14. Make friends- Open mics can be a great place to meet other people. It's funny that we think about our own performance as being the highlight of the night, when it takes up only about 5% of the time we spend there- maybe a handful of minutes. The other 95% is time spent in the company of other people. Enjoy the experience! Bring business cards. Stay in touch with the people you resonate with.

15. Learn from other performances- What did you like? what didn't you like? all of these inform your own playing. For instance "I just loved the way she did that thing with her voice at the end of the last song. I wish the songs she chose were a little shorter though." Write them down somewhere when you get home.

16. Attend the same open mic again- It’s easy to have a kind of experience your first time through, and feel that “this open mic is ALWAYS… great/boring/exhilarating/exhausting…” try it again for yourself. It’s easy when we try something new to dismiss the whole of it based on our first impressions. Even if it’s truly terrible, maybe especially if it's truly terrible, try to attend once more, even just to listen. You may be happy you did.

Thank you for reading these tips! I hope at least one was useful for you. If you have any to add/subtract please feel free to add your thoughts below.

Keep playing,