The Discovery Approach to Music Practice (part 3): Simple meditations

Part 1 of this series is available here and part 2 is available here. Please make sure to read those first if you haven’t yet. To recap, this approach is essentially a “hidden in plain sight” simple way of practicing music slowly, that allows for both enjoyment and results in music practice. In part 1 and 2, we covered what the Discovery Approach is, why we might want to use it and how it might be effective and helpful.

This approach assumes you have something somewhat specific that you want to practice, like a line or piece of music, raga, chord progression etc. as a music student or practitioner. If you want to utilize music to realize your real nature itself (Enlightenment, Self Realization etc), please see Naada Yoga for Total Liberation (multi-post series in progress.) It’s all the same in the end, but the focus is a bit different.

Now let’s dive into some simple meditations or visualizations to help enter or access this natural approach for practicing music.

1. Turn off the lights, turn off the mind, awaken natural attention

Relax. Breathe. Visualize sitting in a classroom or lecture hall or perhaps a large sports stadium at your favorite match. Or maybe a concert with your favorite artist. Choose whatever appeals to you. You are engaged in whatever is taking place and there appears to be quite a bit of activity.

Now, suddenly, all the lights are switched off at once. Notice and watch carefully what happens. Immediately, pure wakeful attention comes forward and distractedness and thoughts fade into the background. If fear arises, simply notice it and allow it to subside as it is not necessary right now.

Rest in silence briefly or as long as you like. Begin to feel the sensations of holding your instrument again or, if you are a vocalist, just notice the body itself and its sensations. Slowly begin your warmup for your practice session. You will notice the intensity of your awareness and attention will be many times more than what it was before this. With practice, dropping into this space will be quicker, easier and deeper.

2. When this step is all there is, you go beyond time and enjoy vivid awareness

Relax. Breathe. Visualize that you are standing alone on top of a very tall tower. It is dark and you cannot see anything. However, you can sense that there are no protective rails or anything to prevent you from falling. From the tower is a walkway leading back down. You begin try to move in that direction but you have no idea which way it is. How will you walk?  First, relax again. Set aside any fear, knowing that there is no external factor that could interrupt you. You would move extremely slowly, feeling with the sensations of your feet touching the floor and perhaps reaching around you to see what is in front of you. Move too quickly and you may fall. Relax. The moment you notice your feet touching the edge, you would naturally pull back and proceed in a different direction, unhurriedly. Simply go as SLOW as needed. This recognition is liberating as you know that with this kind of undisturbed attention and plenty of time, there will be no “fatal” mistakes.

Relaxing into this state of natural focus and vivid awareness, come back to your instrument (or body itself for vocals) and begin playing. This works especially well for working on a piece or phrase line by line. You move through the line the same way you would feel with your feet and senses in this example… Unhurried, going way slower than you normally would, and thus noticing and digesting more than you ever normally would about the music and about what you are doing. Even a few minutes of practice this way is very beneficial.

Just enjoy…

Once you slide into the natural attention through either of these two techniques, simply enjoy the music here and now. Enjoy the sound, the entire experience of playing music. Your awareness is now ALIVE and simply noticing all that happens. Playing is easier and more fun this way. This is the flow and this is the natural way. Mistakes are both less in number and less frustrating. “Mistakes” become a friend that points the way. Simply keep returning to whatever you are doing again and again.

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The Discovery Approach to Music Practice (part 1)

I’m glad to share a simple approach to practicing music with you that arose while working with some of my Carnatic saxophone students. It is nothing new, but rather a subtle shift in the perspective of the approach that allows for a fresh, relaxed and clear way of practicing whatever it might be that you are working on in your  musical journey. It also may incidentally lead to spiritual insights and/or deeper peace.

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The Discovery Approach to practice essentially comes from the realization that what IS is inherently complete and perfect. That perfection can grow and change, but it is inherently full as it is. The practice is then to discover that. This can be successfully utilized in music…or anything.

The most common approach most people take is the “try, try again” approach. There is nothing wrong with it, and can be quite useful. You will basically have a line or phrase you want to play and you continuously do it over and over. Each time there are various mistakes that need to be ironed out. With a grunt or worse, you try again and again. Sometimes there will be more mistakes with each repeat. With much hard work, eventually the line is played as desired. However, there is the danger that without rigorous review and weeding out of the undesired aspects, these mistake can show up as a surprise later during another practice or a performance. Sometimes, the mistakes will go unnoticed and actually multiply, leaving you baffled.

With much practice, eventually everything is ironed out and you are happy. It is something like putting rough stones in a tumbler where they are turned around, crashing into each other until they finally come out as precious gems. Or punching repeatedly through a wall until you break through. It works eventually, but it may be frustrating and tiring.

The main missing ingredient in the previous method is usually awareness. In the Discovery method, we focus on cultivating the necessary awareness to listen and really FEEL what is happening. When awareness is turned on at full power, practice is really a completely different ball game. It feels more like you are simply discovering the fully perfect line or phrase with the practice rather then forcefully executing it.

The next ingredient, though it may seem obvious, is to go through the music very very SLOWLY. Many are familiar with the slow aspect. But usually slow playing is used on its own with the side effect that eventually the person playing becomes more aware. Here, we start with vivid awareness and attention and then begin the practice at slower tempos.

How do we get “into” this vivid awareness? Well, your natural state that you are in already  has it. It has the characteristics of both wakefulness and deep rest. But most of us are heavily distracted constantly and find it difficult to see it. What arose to assist here is a set of simple visualizations or extremely brief (just about 10 seconds to a minute or two) meditations with some simple instructions. You can walk yourself through them to awaken the clarity and set the right atmosphere for the practice.

Many of my students have found this approach illuminating and felt their practice was much easier, more relaxing. They felt more absorbed in the music and where able to taste the enjoyment of music itself. This is fundamentally important to playing or practicing music in a time when there are a million different ways to spend your time just on your phone.

In sharing this approach, I am not saying that one approach is better than another. All are useful and good. I see the Discovery Approach and the “try, try again” approach as two ends of a spectrum. But I did feel that this approach I am describing has not been explored enough and could greatly help balance things out. If awareness is cultivated enough through practicing Discovery method, then the “keep trying” method will automatically become the discovery method. They no longer will appear separate.

I will share the pointers and simple visualizations for the Discovery Approach in the coming posts in this series. Feel free to try them with your own practice or with your own students.

For an approach to spiritual liberation (enlightenment, Self Realization etc.) through music, please see the series: Naada Yoga For Total Liberation.