The Three C’s Of Zen Guitar: Centered, Committed, & Controlled

First a big shout out to Philip Toshio Sudo; author of Zen Guitar. I read that book before I went into the recording studio to record Homecoming & WinterNight over two weeks in September of ’97.  Philip plays electric guitar and the book has almost nothing about actually playing the guitar in it. But it was still one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read on music.  If you play guitar you owe it to yourself to read this book. You can get it at Amazon!

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The book deals with the mental attitude we bring to our practice, rehearsals and performances. It had a huge impact on me-as you can tell I write more about the mental aspect of playing the guitar than the actual playing. Ultimately I think mental attitude is more important than any of the physical skills that we have or don’t have. And physical skills diminish over time, but think of how many great older musicians there are playing right now. It’s because even though they can’t fit quite as many notes into a two bar phrase, they are capable of putting more emotion, more intent, more feel into every note they play. Their music has more depth. Those musical stories are more vibrant than ever.

In last week’s blog I wrote about the Holy Triad of Tone, Rhythm & Dynamics and the core importance they have in any musical performance.  Over the weekend as I was rehearsing on harp guitar I realized that unless one had the right mental attitude it would be hard to achieve what one must in regards to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. And I found that there was another ‘Holy’ triad. This time it was being centered, committed, and controlled.

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I find the key foundation to a great rehearsal or performance is being centered. From a dictionary I get this: well-balanced and confident or serene. That’s perfect.  But to paraphrase my wife; “What’s that mean?”

It means you can’t bring worry, anger or fear into the rehearsal with you.  It means that you don’t just pick up the guitar to pick up the guitar.  It means you have intent, you know what you’re about and you’re ready to do it when you pick up the instrument.  This is not about being focused per se, though some people may feel focused when they’re centered.  To me what it means is that I’m balanced. I’m not easily knocked off my goal when I run into some difficulties which I inevitably will.  If one is centered they won’t be overly critical and bring a lot of negative self-talk into their analysis of their rehearsal. When you are centered you bring a calm certainty to the proceedings.

If you are stressed or agitated, angry or upset, it might be smart to reschedule your rehearsal. Otherwise you’ll bring those feelings and patterns of thinking into your playing. And it probably won’t end the way you’d like.

 

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Before we talk about commitment it might be good to discuss the two sides of that coin.  There is big C Commitment which is about long-term aspects. For example this describes an approach to learn a new song, tuning, key, or new technique like two-hand tapping or slide. And then there’s little C commitment; which is how we decide to play an individual note, phrase or composition.  In this blog I’ll be focusing on little C commitment.

You can’t play music timidly if you want to convey emotions.  And there’s really no other reason to play music. IMHO.

When one is calm and confident it is easier to achieve the next mental state. Commitment. This to me might be the key ingredient in musicianship. If you don’t commit to the note and how you’re going to play it you’ll never achieve what you want as it relates to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. It cannot happen.

And yet, that is what confounds most intermediate musicians as they attempt to master their instrument. And at the core of not committing is fear. Fear of a mistake which will shame or embarrass us. FACT. Great musicians make HUGE mistakes.

Michael Manring is considered by many to be the finest fretless bass player in the world. I’ve gotten to tour and play dozens of gigs with him and I know he’s the best musician I’ve ever been around. He’s also among the most kind. I call him Skinny Buddha, and  I think he’s gone whole years where he hasn’t made a single mistake.  But when he does? It’s a doozy! HUGE with a Trumpian Y YUGE. Because that was the note he meant to play!

I learned everything about committing to a note/phrase through a performance with Michael in Southern Utah in 1998. We were playing my arrangement of Duane Allman’s Little Martha and he thought the chord change was to the IV chord when it was to the I. Meaning he played a big fat G against my big fat D and it brought everyone out of their reverie; momentarily. We’re pros, we played on, and incredibly never skipped a bit-no easy task given that I play the A section in 17/8.  No words were spoken, and the rest of that evening was like all of our shows-fun for all. Me most of all.

But we talked about it after the show. Because I was amazed that he shrugged it off so easily. At that point in my career, if I’d made that kind of mistake I would have crawled into a hole and played scared the whole night. He told me something that as an ex-jock I understood.  It was a simple mistake. It was not a big deal. He meant to play it that way. There was no fear carried forward.  Athletes, great athletes shrug off failure and mistakes as long as they commit. So do great musicians. Great performers FORGET their mistakes. They leave them in the past, where they belong. So should you.

Playing committed is often a way to discover just how well you know a particular piece of music. Is your knowledge formative, or nuanced?  How you commit is the acid-test to your depth of understanding of that piece of music.

If you make a stunning amount of committed mistakes, it probably means you don’t know the song well enough to perform it. But that is still better than playing a timid version with fewer mistakes.  Play with passion or don’t play at all. Take that song back to practice and get to work. That’s all that needs to happen.

I feel it’s important to say that playing committed doesn’t mean always playing loudly. It’s committing to how we’re going to apply tone, rhythm and dynamics to a note, phrase, or composition. You commit to playing softly and tenderly every bit as much as you commit to playing something loudly and brashly.

I also think that it’s important to say that for a guitarist, the idea of commitment is mostly about the plucking hand.  As I’ve read recently on Facebook. Your left hand (fretting hand) shows us what you know. Your right hand (plucking hand) shows us who you are.  Are you confident and committed, or timid and indifferent?

In other words; mean what you play!

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Control. Merriam-Webster says this: restrained.  Other synonyms are disciplined and contained. Those last two are closer to my meaning for controlled.  But I’m going to use another jock reference: staying within yourself as my definition.  What do you have to offer the music today? Right now? This minute? This is about how I feel emotionally and physically.

The sports I played most were baseball, tennis, and golf. All are basically individual sports; baseball is a game mostly played between the pitcher and hitter (especially as it relates to this topic).  All are sports that can be and are played daily by professionals.  But you can’t bring your A game to every occasion. In fact even the very best only bring their A game about 40-50% of the time.  The rest of the time you’ve got to do the best with what you have.

I was trying to get this idea across to a student the other day. Luckily they’re way into sports so I used a baseball pitching reference. There are days I know I can throw an easy 94 with late movement, and some days I’ve only got 89.  As long as I don’t try to play a song as if I can throw 95 I’m fine. For me, control is knowing my limits. Knowing what I have in my hands that day. Focusing on control doesn’t stop me from doing, focusing on control allows me to choose appropriate repertoire, tempo (rhythm) and dynamics. Focusing on control allows me to do well.

If you are lucky enough to perform your music you must understand that every day is a new day.  This is especially true for aging musicians. Respond accordingly.

But sometimes control can be about restraint. This is especially true as it relates to tone and dynamics. I’ve seen guitarists who hit the thing so dang hard that nothing stays in tune let alone sounds musical. Strings rattle against frets, strings are bent out of tune, and there’s no nuance. EVERYTHING IS PLAYED FULL VOLUME ALL THE TIME. If this is you, knock it off.  No one wants to hear musical screaming all the time.  Control yourself!

And control can also be about speed.  It’s a mistake to play everything at 100% maximum speed or effort. Golf pros and MLB pitchers will tell you that it’s best to maintain about 75-85% of maximum effort. That’s repeatable over the years.  And this is when staying in control keeps you from becoming tense.  Playing too fast always leads to tension and that effs up everything. And if you’re always hovering around max effort you have no way to go when more is required.

So the next time you pick up your guitar ask yourself if you’re calm cool and collected. Are you ready to play each note with intent? And are you playing within your capabilities at that moment?

If you can answer yes to these you’re going to have a rewarding time on the guitar.  And so will those who get to listen.

 

Cheers, kb

 

 

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5 thoughts on “The Three C’s Of Zen Guitar: Centered, Committed, & Controlled

  1. Timely article for me! I was just discussing some of these topics today with a fellow guitar player. I was telling him that recording videos and posting them online for anyone to see/listen to, is a rough road for me. I cannot play a song without making a mistake, it seems. So to avoid embarrassment for me and the listener, I won’t bother. Same for playing solo at coffeehouses and such, I’ll avoid that, too. I’m okay with that but at the same time, I’d like to get out there and perform! Bloody Catch-22! Thanks for the post, Ken!

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    • Hi Loren, would it help if I said I make a mistake in almost every piece I perform? Part of what’s going on is that your ego has become more important than the music. This allows fear to creep in, and that will destroy a performance. Performing a musical piece is about getting your ego out of the way. Playing music is a service and our egos have no room in that equation. It’s not about you it’s about the music-the story-the emotions.

      If you think about a musical performance as telling a story it might help. Think about when a story teller stumbles over a word in their story. Does it ruin the story? Probably not. In fact after the story is done, most folks forget the stumble but not the story.

      Instead of video taping, which will save your mistake forever, or until you delete it, try some open-mics. And pay attention. NO ONE gets through a song seamlessly.

      And if you start playing out you’ll learn a great skill: covering your mistakes. Like I said, I make a mistake in damn near every tune I perform; the key is in hiding it well. And part of that is not giving in emotionally to the mistake.

      You know Mariano Rivera was the greatest closer in baseball right? He had almost 700 saves. And he had over 70 blown saves. Those are games he lost, games that hurt the Yankees (and help the Red Sox). If Rivera had gotten gun shy after blowing a save he’d not be a lock into the Hall of Fame. Turn your forgetter on-it’s a great skill for a performer.

      And just so you know, I fight this too. Especially as it relates to individual songs I may have butchered over the years.

      But I believe that if you make the music more important than how you feel about mistakes, you’ll make some great music. And I for one would love to hear it.

      Cheers, kb

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      • Thank you for the insight into this plight, Ken! Appreciate that a lot! You made my day and beyond! I will definitely put this advice into my daily endeavours. Loren

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  2. Hi Ken, great blog. I just read Zen Guitar myself, and it had an enormous impact on me. In case you didn’t know, Philip Toshio Sudo suddenly died of cancer in 2002 at just 42 years old, leaving behind a wife and three young children. He documented his last year of life on his website: http://www.zengtr.maui.net/cancer1.html.

    He was a true master until the very end, and his music lives on in each of us.

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