What would you do if you knew the answer to your problem was in a particular room, and yet when you opened the door to that room you found it was completely dark? Of course you would reach for a light switch! Turning on the light is an obvious first step, which is the equivalent of turning on your awareness…of paying attention before you begin to solve any problem. The brighter the “light,” the more you can see…and if it is an answer you seek, you are much more likely to find it with the light of your awareness turned fully on.
But what if you cannot find the light switch? Oftentimes when I tell a student what they need to do to solve a problem, they tell me that they tried, but that they can’t do it…that the room is too dark. No matter how many times they open the door and stick their head in the room, it is just too dark for them to see anything. But instead of approaching the problem with several brief attempts, what happens if you walk into the room and stay there until the eyes have a chance to become adjusted to the dark? Science tells us that the pupils of the eye will dilate in order to take in more light (which is the body’s way of increasing awareness), but you have to give the eyes enough time to become adjusted to the dark. Problem solving is no different…we need to give our awareness time to grow.
This is hard to do when there is a lot of noise and other distractions around us….and in fact our senses tend to shut down when they are overloaded with outside stimuli. So conversely, if we can eliminate the distractions our ability to concentrate will increase…the body can relax, the breathing slows, and the mind begins to quiet. What better place to accomplish that than in a “dark” room? Having too many things to practice can actually be a great distraction, yet choosing to work on one problem at a time brings all of your powers of concentration to a single point. This is powerful stuff.
A quiet, focused mind is like magnifying glass gathering the power of sunlight. Did you ever burn leaves or ants with a magnifying glass when you were young? Allowing the glass to move even with the smallest of motions produces no results, but holding it perfectly still awhile resting the beam over the unlucky leaf or ant for a long enough time can produce spectacular results. Having a problem or sticking point can actually be a great blessing, for a particular challenge gives us a very specific subject to concentrate on. It can be our mantra…a vehicle that takes away the distractions, while at the same time focusing the mind. If this sounds like a form of meditation it really is, with the same benefits…and the same initial challenges in learning the technique.
Impatience can be the greatest hurdle to overcome, yet it is one of the cornerstones of successful practice. And the mind is an impatient, restless creature…like a small child always wanting to have its way. It can also be filled with doubt, self criticism, sudden reminders of what things are “more important” to be doing (including something else to practice), or seemingly great insights into unrelated matters, etc. Whenever those conflicting thoughts arise, learn to gently let go of them and return to the business at hand…increasing your awareness by immersing yourself in your chosen goal. The longer you stay focused on a singular challenge the greater the likelihood is that you will overcome it.
It is a solitary journey, with inevitable and constant course corrections, so there is no reason to berate yourself if there is not immediate success…that will come as you go deeper…just continue to stay in “the room.” Remain calm and always check your heading before making any adjustments. Are you clear as to the course of action you will be taking next? If not, then don’t blindly take a swing at the ball and hope for the best. Instead, stand at the threshold of that misstep and wait…wait for the sense of hearing, sight and/or feeling to become more acute. Review all the necessary preliminaries to make sure you are truly ready for the next step. Even if you take another misstep, your heightened awareness is then more likely to catch yourself in the act of erring…and you can then discover where the problem originated. Something has to change, and that change takes place within you first…with your awareness. Think of this process as learning how to learn. Your body is subservient to your mind, but the mind answers to the observer of your thoughts…the Awareness within you.
Here are some interesting observations I’ve made since learning how to practice this way, in no particular order:
- Most problems have a fundamental solution….the mistake was usually made earlier than you thought (e.g., cracked or missed notes for trumpet players usually are due to carelessly setting the embouchure and mouthpiece, or an unsupportive air column). Find the root cause of the problem and focus on that…not the symptoms.
- You’ll discover and learn more than you had planned for. Years ago, when transcribing a Cannonball Adderly solo I set the turntable to half speed, but even then I had to play some passages over and over. Although I was concentrating on the pitches and rhythms, during the process Cannonball’s phrasing, articulation and vibrato became a revelation to me.
- Soon after you fix a problem, your heightened awareness will point out other areas in need of attention. While arranging a large ensemble piece there was a section that was giving me a lot of trouble, yet after I had finished it to my satisfaction I discovered that the rest of the arrangement paled in comparison, and that I had to rewrite it. However, that process of rewriting was easier than the arrangement’s first version, and I ended up with something much better. Never settle for the mediocre.
- When in doubt, simplify…work on a smaller passage of music, or a smaller aspect of your fundamentals. Practice slower.
- Awareness is a great teacher, but a mentor will save you time and help to put you in the right dark room.
“To him that watches, everything is revealed.” Italian Proverb
“It’s not that I’m that smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Albert Einstein
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