There are two fundamental aspects regarding the experience of freedom in musical performance that deserve more attention: practicing in a state of ease, and mastering skills. These same ideas apply to all of life, and musicians give us a window into how we can experience freedom in our every day lives and practice as well.
State of Mind Matters
The feeling of freedom is closer than we all think. It can be felt – right here and now – because it is a state, or a mindset. A sense of more freedom can be achieved by sitting down and taking a deep breath, or thinking of something lovely, or hearing a joke. Even a mild sense of relief in the moment can bring a feeling of more “freedom.”
That being said, in what state of mind do you practice your instrument or voice? Is it filled with anxiety, tension, and fear? Is it fun? Does it make you feel better? Does it make you feel sick to your stomach?
The emotional state in which you practice an instrument matters. That emotional state becomes entangled with your physical movements, and cannot be unfettered from the experience of your music making. This happens for both vocalists and instrumentalists, although it might be even more difficult for singers because the instrument is the body! Quite literally the emotional state with which you approach learning to play music becomes one with your experience of music making. If you practice in a state of fear, you will also perform in a state of fear. Always.
The experience of practicing in freedom and achieving true mastery is the subject of Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery. If you haven’t read it, put it on your short list. He says, “The apex of impressive artistry is the ability to perform technically advanced music with the same ease and inspiration as a simple folk song” (100).
Let’s highlight that little word ease for a moment, shall we? Kenny is saying several things in that sentence, but practice has to start with a sense of ease or FREEDOM. He reminds us throughout the book that without the foundation of ease in execution, and joy or freedom of emotion, we will not discover true mastery. Each skill we build in learning to play music must be predicated on a sense of ease. Without that feeling we will create a number of dysfunctional patterns in our playing and in ourselves that block us from the experience of freedom in mastery.
Freedom is part of everyday practice, just as it is the product of immeasurable repetitions. True freedom in playing music happens at both ends of the spectrum: as a daily occurrence (“in the moment” experiences) and after years and years of playing. True freedom happens in both the small and big.
Freedom Through Technical Mastery
Yesterday one of my students and I happened across Kurt Elling singing My Foolish Heart live. I’m posting it below just in case you want to experience a few minutes of ecstasy.
This performance turned me inside out for a number of reasons, but mostly because these guys have reached such a level of mastery on their instruments that they play in true freedom. They float through the arrangement with stunning ease and precision. No doubt the combined number of hours of practice among these guys would stagger the imagination. There is not a single hiccup or hesitation or moment of doubt in the entire clip. They exemplify freedom, both in emotional and technical ease. Total liberation.
But again, technical mastery comes from playing. A lot. In his book The Music Lesson, Victor Wooten talks about learning music the same way we learn a language. As kids we just start trying out sounds (and eventually words) without a care in the world.
Learning to speak is easy and fun because we just give it a go. But, says Wooten, “jamming is the missing element. When you were a baby, you were allowed to jam with the English language. From day one, not only were you allowed to jam, you were encouraged to. And better yet, you didn’t just jam; you jammed with professionals” (25).
Each musical skill, practiced in an emotional state of ease/freedom and in the daily presence of other professionals, gives rise to the next mastered musical skill, and the next. Victor Wooten also contends that learning music can be mastered in the same amount of time as language if approached in these ways. Soon enough, the advanced technical abilities that give rise to performing in true freedom are set in stone in the body and mind, fused indelibly with a sense of joy. Total liberation. True freedom. True mastery.
The Reading List
The two books referenced in this post are a must for everyone, not just musicians. Both Kenny Werner and Victor Wooten offer solutions for overcoming the limited thinking and ego-bound experience we all face in our practice and emotional lives. There is freedom to be had, y’all. Thank goodness we have guys like these to lead us toward it.