Here is an interesting story that I came across in my non-musical studies. I am going to paraphrase the hell out of this because the original story is pretty long, and I am not sure about where to find it anymore, but the basic idea will come across. Also, you may ask yourself, “What the hell does this have to do with music?” but hopefully at the end, if I am successful, you will make the connection.
I once listened to an interview with a biologist studying the vocalizations of Diana Monkeys, a species of tree-dwelling primate that lives in Western Africa. The main predators of these monkeys are leopards from the ground, and a species of eagle from the air. The biologist recorded the sounds of a leopard and the sound of an eagle; then he would go out into the jungle, play each of the sounds, and record the alarms that the moneys gave off in response to the sounds of these threats. In the interview, he played the recordings of each of the monkey’s responding alarms. I would like to think with my musician ears, that I could hear a difference, but I shan’t be so bold; they all sounded pretty much the same. But, the biologist said that when these recordings were put through a spectrum analyzer, the differences were very obvious.
He would then go out into the jungle with a recording of the monkey’s alarms and play them loud enough to be broadcast to the monkeys in the area. The reactions consisted of the monkeys going high up in the trees in response to the leopard alarm, and going down to ground level in response to the eagle alarm. So, it was proven that the monkeys could distinguish between the type of alarm- it wasn’t just a “danger” call, but a specific danger.
The study continued on for many months, cataloguing hundreds of vocalizations made by these monkeys. The most interesting part of the story is that, towards the end of the study, the biologist was in the jungle doing some last minute data gathering, when he heard an alarm from the monkeys off in the distance. He realized that he could identify it as a leopard alarm. After all this time listening to the vocalizations, he became able to just barely understand some of the monkey’s language, and this is after only a few months. Then, he heard the alarm again, from a different group of monkeys a bit closer. He started back towards his jeep, and heard it again, closer yet. That’s when he realized that the leopard was stalking him, and not the monkeys. Due to this new-found ability, he was able to navigate away from the leopard and safely to his jeep, much in the same way the monkeys depend on those alarms to avoid predators.
Most original native populations on 4 of our 5 continents have/had this legendary, seemingly magical ability to be in tune with their environment. Native Americans were said to be able to hear white men coming from as far as 15 miles away, hours in advance of them actually appearing. This isn’t magic, but merely a survival technique that was developed out of necessity. They obviously didn’t hear the white man- they heard the various alarms of the animals as the white men crashed through the forest, oblivious to the racket they were making. The awareness of the sounds of the environment was necessary not only to avoid threats, like the example of the Diana monkeys, but also to enable those indigenous people to move through the habitat stealthily, such as on a hunt. If they could avoid causing the smaller animals such as birds and squirrels to alarm to their presence, then the deer would be unaware of the hunter; and it is obvious from spending time watching animals, that the deer are in tune with the various alarms made by all of the other forest animals. When you think of it this way, all of this seems very doable- us modern, “advanced” folk have lost the ability to perform these feats simply because our survival does not depend on those particular abilities- we don’t have to. We don’t spend the necessary time listening to and learning the wide array of animal vocalizations that are constantly happening in the forest. These natural abilities that we depended on and developed over many thousands of years have been replaced in the relative short span of a few hundred years with various technologies.
This awareness that indigenous people had wasn’t limited to just hearing, but includes all 5 of the senses. From smelling, tasting, and touch, they were very in tune with their environment. They could read the weather, understand the cycles of the seasons, live off of edible plants, and know what water was safe to drink. It’s strange to think that we have lost so many of these abilities that humans have depended on for thousands of years, to the point of most of us not being able to survive a few nights lost in the wilderness. These abilities weren’t chosen by those people, but were required to survive.
For most of us, survival isn’t that much of an issue. We can go through life without always having to look over our shoulder, hopefully avoiding becoming food for a cougar or grizzly. Instead of listening to bird and squirrel alarms, our listening is usually occupied with cell phones, ipods, and televisions, etc. But, the next time you take a walk in the woods, listen to the reactions of the birds, squirrels, and other animals, and see the uproar that you create that you probably haven’t noticed before. Just be aware.
Whew! So… how does this relate to music, you ask?
This is basically describing awareness (also called mindfulness) that has been refined to a high level. It is a great concept to incorporate into your life, which, because you are reading this, probably includes music. To be aware is to notice the little (and big) things, to live in the moment, to stop being on auto-pilot and lost in your thoughts as you do your everyday routines.
To be aware in music, the most important thing you can do is open your ears. This involves hearing everything going on in the music. Just like people that needed to be totally aware of their environment, the musician must be aware of everything that is happening in the music (although the consequences of not being aware aren’t quite as dramatic). Music can be narrowed down to include 3 of the 5 senses- sight, touch, and most importantly hearing. We don’t use taste (unless you are Rudy Sarzo), at least in the literal way; nor do we use smell- except when our playing stinks, or when we smell our amp frying. Sight is involved in the playing of our instrument, reading, and also visual communication amongst the musicians and/or the audience. Touch is used in finger and hand placement. Most obviously listening is the sense that we need to utilize most exclusively when playing music. Even when we use our eyes and touch, the ears are the final judge. Always trust them. If your mind says your fingers are doing everything right, but your ears tell you that it sounds wrong, which one should you believe? Of the 30+ years that I have been playing, the first 10 or so were spent using mostly my eyes to make music. I learned how to read music early on (rare for most guitarists), and I thought that that was more important than using my ears. At one point I realized (duh!!) the importance of my ears, and since then they have become one of the main tools I use and what I now tend to focus my practicing on. Old habits are hard to break, though, and at moments of stress, my panic induced reaction has sometimes been to revert to my eyes. I played a jazz gig not too long ago in which I was using a new guitar which I thought had the magical ability to always be in tune. I didn’t end up keeping it for very long because I couldn’t get a tone I liked and the controls were a bit awkward. This was one of the few gigs I actually used it on, and at one point I was doing a solo rendition of a song that had all of these thick jazz chords in it. It was sounding awful, but ignoring my ears, I attributed it to the frustrations I had been having with its tone. After playing the tune for about 45 grueling seconds, the piano player said “Man, you are having some tuning issues, huh?” That’s when I realized that I had been bumping the headstock of the guitar on the piano all night. My ears said it sounded wrong; my eyes said that my hands were doing everything correct, and this guitar is always in tune; and my brain listened to my eyes. Lesson learned: always trust your ears!
Even though when we listen to music, we are drawn to the spotlight instrument, try to hear what the supporting players are doing. When you listen to a solo or improvisation (recorded or live), instead of focusing on only the soloist, listen to the chords beneath the soloist as well as the solo and how their notes blend or clash with the harmony. Listen to what the whole band is doing: hear the groove of the bass, the drums, and the other instruments. Hear not only the underlying foundation, but also any interaction that is occurring- did the drummer react to something the soloist did? Or, did the pianist do something that caused the soloist to respond.
Understanding the function the other instruments involved is very valuable in your awareness of music. One way to develop an understanding of other instruments is to learn their parts- not necessarily to the level of performing them, but simply to get an idea of what they are doing. You might try to learn a bass part on your guitar. I have spent a lot of time trying to recreate drum parts from my favorite songs with a drum machine. Many times it can be difficult to hear certain parts, especially low frequency instruments such basses or kick drums. For me, it is like those 3D stereogram pictures, where you have to cross your eyes and move the image back and forth until all of a sudden the picture jumps out at you. The thing is, once you see it, you are always able to see it, if not immediately, much quicker than the initial try. Kick drums were always like that for me- I would put on headphones and it was as if I was searching my head trying to find it in the soundscape, sometimes listening to the whole song a dozen times. All of a sudden bam- there it is. After that I could always hear it in that song. Doing these things really helped my awareness and understanding of what those other instruments were doing, and in effect, helped me play better with them.
When you are one of the players, awareness is extremely important. When playing with others, the whole package is what is important- not just your role. Though it may take a little getting used to, listening to 2 or more other players along with yourself, that is what good and great musicians do. It actually becomes easier quicker than you would expect. In an improvisational context, it is all about communication; even if the music isn’t of an improvisatory nature, you still need to be aware of every other player. Orchestral players have the ability to hear their tuning, while listening to their whole section in an attempt at mixing as well as possible. It really is a whole organism, and that goes for a duo or a whole orchestra.
When you are soloing, the others are laying down a solid foundation for you to play on top of, and either reacting to you or pushing and prodding you in new directions. It’s a conversation, but you have the spotlight. You say something, and they respond with a musical “yeah!”, or “what do you mean?” or something like that. Your awareness is placed upon what you are playing, but also those people laying the foundation that supports you. Their input can be very inspiring. You need to be aware of all of these things that happen in an instant and react accordingly- even if the proper response is silence.
When you are the supporting accompanists, you are focused- on what the soloist is doing, and at the same time, what the others in the rhythm section are doing. Especially when you have played for a while with the same people, you develop a sort of ESP-like ability to predict the next move of your bandmates, and a type of unspoken communication.
To achieve this awareness, it is important to keep a clear head- no thinking. Thinking is what you do when you practice. When you are playing music, it is beyond thinking. The various musical choices that are available to you are made in a split second. Thinking takes too long. Thinking gets in the way of music making. Thinking is what made me trust my eyes instead of my ears.
I have always found it necessary to close my eyes when playing, so that I can focus on only hearing. It seems to me that our brains have the equivalent of an amount of RAM, and each sense uses up a certain amount. For me to grant my ears more RAM, I need to turn off my eyes. It has always been amazing to me how much better I play with my eyes closed. Open eyes make me think about fretboard patterns, what I look like, what those people in the audience are doing (in some of the bars I used to play in, it was always wanted to keep my eyes closed anyways!), and other non-musical things like that. Very distracting. The moment I close my eyes, everything disappears except for the music, and all of my musical ideas are more a product of my ears instead of my eyes (visual fretboard shapes). A good experiment is to close your eyes when you are eating: you will notice a drastic improvement in how your food tastes. Our eyes are our main sense; therefore, they tend to hog most of the RAM. By turning them off, our ears can more effectively utilize that RAM. Even though our eyes are helpful for playing the instrument, we don’t want to depend on them. If playing without looking at your hands sounds difficult, give it a try- you will most likely be amazed at how well you can do it. And, like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it. You can always sneak a peek when you need to.
One other sense that warrants mention is often called our sixth sense; some call it intuition, or simply a feeling. We all get feelings that influence our decisions, much like those stories of people who were supposed to get on a flight, but didn’t because it just didn’t feel right. They chose to listen to that feeling, and the plane crashed. Intuition also plays an important role in music. Many times we just know the right lick to play, or what the soloist is going to do and we are ready for them. And, most importantly, for music to be good, it has to feel good. As a matter of fact, intuition might be equally as important as our ears when it comes to playing music. You might think of our ears as the input of our brain, and the intuition as our processor. Many people believe that the decisions that we make based on our intuition is a result of processing all the information it receives through our various sense channels. Thinking is our attempt at consciously making sense of the info, instead of allowing our brain to do it by itself. Our brain probably knows better than we do. Most music I love can be analyzed and proven to be “good”, but most important is that is has that mysterious thing that makes it feel good. That cannot be explained. That feeling that we love about music is our intuition telling us that it is good- and too complicated for our conscious brain to understand; we just know that it’s good. So in the end, just get out of the brain’s way!
Awareness in music involves listening to the whole band, including your music, with a clear head. Don’t let thinking get in the way- there isn’t enough time. That’s reserved for practicing.