Every searching artist wants to get there. It's that magical place where something takes over, you know, when something bigger than you whispers in your ear and says "Relax - I'll take it from here!"
I like to call it the 'soul zone', others simply call it the 'zone', I'm sure there are many other names for it.
For those of you who don't know what the heck I'm talking about, it is the ultimate state to be in as an improviser. You might have played a gig and gone through the motions and nothing particularly interesting sprung from you. You might have played a solo at a different time and place and thought you said some pretty interesting things. But then you'll probably remember those times when you played a solo and something absolutely magical happened. Maybe you closed your eyes and you went off into this magical mysterious place where nothing else mattered. While you were playing you felt like you were in the middle of a 'happening'. Your tone was just right, your phrasing was great and it seemed like you were truly improvising for the first time in a long while. And strangely enough, at the end of your solo, you look up and you can't remember a thing you just played. Then the band members look at you with a big smile of approval. You were in a completely altered state, or so it seemed.
Does this situation sound familiar to you? If so, you have experienced the soul zone. One of those trance like states that every searching musician is trying to get back to. It's the spiritual realm. And we would like it to happen more often than it does.
There's no question about it, this experience may well be one of the factors determining why so many musicians have turned to drugs and alcohol in the past. That Zen like state seems to be one of the reasons musicians play music at all. Of course the good news is that you can get there without the substance abuse!
The question I have always asked is this: "Why does this zone only come about from time to time?" I think there are a number of reasons.
First and most important I think is the fact that there are so many distractions when we play. I have found that as my career got busier as an artist, I was sometimes taking on the role of artist, manager and agent. By the time I got on stage I was finally having to think about entertaining, whilst asking myself all sorts of things like "Am I losing the audience? Do they like this song and if not should I cut it from the set? - have I brought enough people to this show? Is the promoter seething with anger - will she book me ever again? How many CDs am I selling over there? Should I be promoting my CD more during the show? Am I funny witty and charming on stage - dammit do they like me at all??" Yiiiikkes heeeeeellllllppp!!
As you can imagine, this scenario doesn't exactly make for a Zen like transcendental state now does it? Of course I am exaggerating somewhat but my point is that all too often, there are too many distractions in order to get there.
The other big big reason is that sonically things might not be right. How many times have you done a show where the monitors sound terrible or you're playing through a rented amp that isn't sounding any good to you? What if the drummer sucks?
I have always thought that if the band is 'on' you simply don't notice any of them. The music just feels great and everyone is in sync - just like they should be. When this is the case everyone is in that zone and the music is magical. So it's definitely a matter of external factors being right as much as it is internal relaxation and the ability to let it flow.
One thing that I have always found particularly difficult and is a continual learning curve for me, is the art of recording. And here I don't simply mean recording guitar parts, that is a craft that can be learned. I'm talking about recording an improvised solo that is truly inspired. The question is "How do you get to that zone in a cold sterile environment?"
What amazes me is that there have been many many truly inspired solos recorded on albums, so those artists figured out a way to get to the zone. I have always found it easier to reach my optimum playing peak in a live setting. When I'm recording I want it to be just great, it's going to be immortal after all, you know, on a CD forever. And this is where the problem lies. Too much thought. To get to the zone one needs to totally let go.
So what can we do to help us get to that magical place? First, understand that it might not happen and that it's perfectly fine if it doesn't. It might be out of our control. Before you step out to play, take a deep breath and center yourself. Nervous energy can take over and it's important to get as much external crap out of our heads as we can and give the music our full and undivided attention. Take your time as you play, think about playing behind the beat instead of playing on top to drive energy. Relaxation is the key and the right energy will come as a result. Have your internal antenna up for musical ideas. They might come from the band and you should be ready to grab some inspiration from them. Close your eyes. This can help, even just to get you on the right foot. Let it flow. Try to ignore any reasons for you to not be present.
And that last part I think is the most important of all. Be Present. Not always an easy place to get to but if we can strive for it, I believe will make us better musicians, and we'll enjoy the music that much more.
Chris Standring is a contemporary jazz recording artist who performs throughout the USA and Europe regularly. He has enjoyed much radio airplay with several albums, opening up a busy touring schedule. His music appears on many compilation CDs also. For more info on Chris' popular home study jazz guitar course go to http://www.PlayJazzGuitar.com Visit him on the web at http://www.chrisstandring.com