Learning to Let Go: Achieving your optimum performance mindset

When I think about what it means to “let go,” detailed scenes from Hollywood hits come to mind. Scenes like Neo in The Matrix learning that “there is no spoon,” and Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai being taught to think “No mind.”

There’s a good reason these type of scenes take place in so many films: to achieve our potential in activities that occur in the moment (things like combat, public speaking, and improvising), we must surrender to the moment. Film writers know that this message plays an important role in reality and that we relate to it on an intimate level, hence they include it in many movies.

Like Neo in The Matrix and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, we too can learn to control our thoughts and free our mind to make way for our creativity.

Letting go: performance versus practice

Too much conscious thought during performance impedes our ability to perform at our optimum level. For this reason, it’s important to learn how to not think so much while we perform.

Believe it or not, this skill is something that we actually all tend to do quite naturally. How many times have you gone to the practice room and just played for hours with no specific direction? If you answered “yes”, then you’re human.

The problem is that when you’re alone in the practice room, for the bulk of your practice session, it’s the wrong time to play with the let-go-mindset. At the end of your practice session, after you’ve accomplished everything you set out to do, then you can spend twenty minutes or so free-playing, observing how what you just practiced affects your improvising.

If you don’t learn to manage this free-play time, it can easily consume your entire practice and you’ll improve much more slowly than you desire.

The let-go-mindset is your optimum performance mindset. Now, this doesn’t mean you’re not aware of the chords, or conscious about what you’re playing. In fact, quite the contrary. It’s more of a hyper-aware state, where you’re focused on everything yet no one particular thing at the same time.

In his excellent book, Developing a Jazz Language, Jerry Bergonzi calls this the difference between spotlight-consciousness and floodlight-consciousness. Spotlight-consciousness highlights one specific concept or idea, whereas floodlight-consciousness illuminates all of them equally.

He suggests that you use spotlight-consciousness during practice and floodlight-consciousness during performance. In this way, you deeply explore concepts you wish to integrate into your playing, and when you go to perform, they spontaneously arise.

Why most people fail when they “let go”

Most people fall flat on their face when they surrender to the moment and let go because they lack the necessary preparation. It makes perfect sense: to not think during performance, we must think a lot during practice. Spend too much time not thinking during your practice sessions and there will be nothing for your creativity to draw from.

Jazz language and concepts are fuel for your creativity. Without these elements, what will you draw from? Chords? Scales? There’s very little time to think about anything during performance. All this thought must be done in advance.

Spend time thinking about chord changes, jazz language, and concepts during your practice sessions, to the point that they are ingrained in your mind. That’s essentially why you practice: to think about things so much that you don’t have to think about them anymore and they naturally arise in your playing in new creative ways.

Be prepared. Practice what you need to in advance and you’ll feel like you have plenty of options at your disposal.

Learning to let go during performance

We tend not to have too much trouble relaxing and freeing our mind in the practice room, but the second we walk out on stage it’s a different story. We’re nervous and afraid we’ll screw up. We hope we remember all the chord changes and use the language we’ve practiced.

As described before, preparing the necessary elements for performance with spot-light consciousness is the first necessary step toward freeing your mind during performance.

The second step is to know how to keep your mind and body in a relaxed state during stressful situations. Getting up in front of anybody, be it 10 people or 1000, is nerve-racking, even if you’re not playing an instrument in front of them. Add playing music to the equation and you have a recipe for one stressful situation.

Learning to achieve a calm mind and body state during performance is a skill you can practice just like practicing your instrument, or daily ear training. It starts by learning to pay attention to your breath. Just noticing it and becoming aware that it’s there.

A simple technique that Thich Nhat Hanh suggests in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness: when you breath in, say in your mind, “I’m aware I’m breathing in,” and when you breathe out, say in your mind, “I’m aware I’m breathing out.”

As you become more mindful of your breath, you’ll become more mindful of each moment and consequently, be able to keep your mind and body more calm. Thich Nhat Hanh as well as many other Buddhist writers teach many excellent techniques and approaches to calm the mind, which you may wish to explore further.

By understanding how much Buddhism emphasizes learning to live calmly in the moment, it makes sense that both Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock specify a Buddhist affiliation.

In the last decade, more and more musicians have adopted these techniques to help free their mind during performance. Two resources that I continue to use even today are Kenny Warner’s Effortless Mastery and Harry Picken’s Guided Imagery for Jazz Mastery. Both are excellent.

Even with all the great resources available, you don’t need anything to get started down this path of mind-control. Each day, try sitting or lying down silently for 10 minutes, close your eyes, and relax.

Focus on your breath and be aware of each inhale and exhale. Anytime a thought pops up, observe it with no judgment, and return to your breath. That’s it. It’s super simple in theory, very difficult in practice. You could spend your whole life trying to tame your mind, and it will never stop producing thoughts.

The mind’s constantly looking for stimuli even when we sleep! It never stops because that’s its job. But doing something as simple as sitting silently for ten minutes a day and observing your thoughts while returning to your breath, a change occurs. Your mind becomes more still. You don’t dwell on negative thoughts. You just observe each thought, good or bad, and let it go.

Learning to relax your mind and body in this way, coupled with diligent prep-work in the practice room, will result in your ability to truly let go during performance: your optimum state of performance.

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