Thinking is normally a good thing. Practicing, in general, is an analytical activity. You're trying to figure out how to do things better, so you have to examine everything you do, pull it apart, adjust things here and there, put it back together and re-examine everything again, over and over. It's all thinking.
Performing is the opposite. It's not at analytical activity. It's not about the pieces of a song; it's about the whole song. Ideally you've already thought about everything you need to think about before you start to perform. The task now it to play, listen and respond. You want to do as little thinking as possible.
For the last month I've been exploring the territory between here to there – the practicing, all-thinking mindset on one side, and the performing, no-thinking mindset on the other. It turns out there are some steps in between.
First, it's good to point out that songs are longer and more complex than exercises or scales. They have a lot of pieces, but you can still break them down into those pieces, practice the pieces by themselves, and put them back together when you've mastered them. We're still in thinking mode here.
Once you've mastered the pieces you can reassemble them into a song, and see how they fit together. There may be some adjusting necessary; for example, you might find that a fingering that works for measure 8 works by itself, but becomes awkward when you have to get to it from the fingering you've chosen for measure 7. We're paying attention to some different things, but we're still thinking.
Once all the kinks are smoothed out and the joints have been tested, it's time for a run-through – playing the song correctly from beginning to end. From there it's a short step to multiple run-throughs – playing the song correctly, from beginning to end, five times in a row. Or ten times, or twenty. Now we have to stop thinking, despite the length and complexity of the song. This is where I messed up consistently all month.
Just about every mistake I made in a run-through was caused by thinking. I had already done a lot of preparation. I could play the pieces of a song correctly over and over on their own. Why should I suddenly be unable to play them, just because I had connected them?
The Fourth Big Idea from First, Learn to Practice is this: You know it when your hands know it. Practicing had moved the knowledge of those pieces out of my head and into my hands. But thinking yanks the process out of the hands and back into the head. Even if you're thinking about exactly what you're playing, you're still in your head instead of your hands. All the strength, ease, flexibility, speed, grace, timing, smoothness and continuity in your playing – all the music – is in your hands. You use your head to put it in, and your hands to get it out. So when you think while you play, you're using the wrong tool.
Also: your mind is easily distracted. Even if you start off thinking about the song, you're soon thinking about something else. It's just the way our minds work. I'd think about the song for a second; then about the hard part coming up; then about mistakes I had made, and how I'd correct them next time; then about whether someone listening to me would like what I was playing, or would think I stink; then about what I was going to have for lunch. And all of that was interfering with my actual task – playing the song. And that was happening on every run-through of every song.
So: what to do? Here's what I've learned this month.
Decisions. Before I start working on multiple run-throughs, I make sure I have made all the decisions I can make. Fingering, phrasing, repeats, details of the arrangement – those all involve thinking. I want to get them decided first. If, after 10 or 15 run-throughs I'm not happy with something I can revisit a decision. But for as long as I'm doing run-throughs, I'm not changing my mind while I'm playing – that requires thinking. And I'm not making mental notes, either. Anything I want to change during run-through #3 will probably still be there on run-through #10.
Preparation. Before I start a run-though I review the big events of the first minute or so of the song – the introduction and the first verse, for example. The idea here is to make that first minute as thoughtless as possible. Thinking farther ahead than a minute doesn't seem to help.
Witnessing. While I'm playing I try to be aware mostly of the physical nature of what's happening – in particular, how my hands feel. This information is mostly in the realm of the unconscious, and focusing here seems to hold my thoughts at bay. Noticing the sound of the instrument – not the notes and chords, but the physical sound – seems to work the same way. I use the ideas “be aware” and “noticing” instead of “pay attention” or “focusing,” both of which seem like thinking to me. The word that sums it up best for me is “witnessing” - seeing and hearing what's going on but not participating in it.
Reminders. It sounds good to aim for witnessing instead of thinking, but in fact I go back and forth. Much as I would like it, there have been no thought-free run-throughs. My concession to the real world is to have reminders. My reminders are short phrases or ideas that remind be of a large section. For example, here's a verse from the folk song “Darlin' Corey:”
The first time I seen Darlin' Corey, she was sitting by the banks of the sea.
She had a .45 strapped around her body, and a banjo on her knee.
There's also a verse about the last time, and it's easy to get them confused, especially at this stage. But if you can remember the phrase “first banks body,” that will probably be enough to let you remember the right verse and sing the whole thing. Or instead, if your mind works more easily this way, you can form a mental picture that is vivid and a little ridiculous (easy to do in this case.) Either way, you don't have to bring the whole verse to mind. You bring a tiny thing to mind and then let it go; habit and your unconscious take over. Those are reminders.
There is more to the performing state of mind – dealing with adrenalin, for example. But most of the other things that come up when you're performing are out of your control. In fact, all you really control is your practicing. That's where your power is. And the effect of developing a performing state of mind is to maximize your ability to use that power.