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Video by Traven Rice: travenrice.com
...were I in the position to fully explain my music, I should then be inclined to doubt its worth and value.
Not knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe.
I have often considered the parallels between being a practitioner of music and Zen. The issues and questions that arise while sitting on the cushion frequently relate to issues and questions I have had while sitting on the piano bench. Of course this involves questions of deep pondering, of the meaning of life, of a melody, an action, a rhythm. But first and foremost a purely physical parallel can be immediately noticed connecting the two: posture.
You should not be tilted sideways, backwards or forwards. You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head. This is not just form or breathing. It expresses the key point of Buddhism, it is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature. If you want true understanding of Buddhism, you should practice this way. These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind...
—Shunryu Suzuki, "Zen Mind Beginners Mind"
In a sitting position the resistance which makes the delivery of power effective is the chair seat. The torso rests upon a chair seat against the two ischial bones of the pelvis... The activity of the torso as a fulcrum for the articulation of tone is creative rhythmically—because it is absolutely a part of the activity of the top arm. 'Sit in the driver's seat and hold the reins' is good imagery for fulcrum activity. Being well seated in the driver's seat is the only way to implement the holding of the reins. But it does not mean a stodgy sitting—rather, an alive, active part of the whole performance.
—Abby Whiteside from "Indispensable of Piano Playing"
As both of these quotes point out, the basis and foundation of a good practice, whether it be in the production of a musical tone or rhythm, or for maintaining a proper state of mind, being, lay first and foremost in a good posture. The places where these forms of posture are practiced can also be paralleled, namely the zendo and the practice room. The piano bench in a practice room is similar to the zafu in a zendo. It is mandatory that a musician spend time in the practice room "wood shedding" just as it is so for a student of Zen to spend time on the cushion in the zendo. And it is here that those deeper questions begin to show themselves... "What is Zen?" "What makes a group of notes a melody?"
Here we can parallel some pitfalls and, perhaps, misconceptions that might occur in both music and Zen practice. To begin, there is a similar idea that simply the more time spent, on the cushion or on the bench, will bring you closer to your final goal, your final attainment. Certainly not to question whether or not practicing itself is vital, which it of course is, but rather to question how it is approached. Undoubtedly to be a musician or a Zen practitioner means to have a daily practice routine. And this brings up questions of what practicing or being a practitioner means in a deeper sense, and what this final goal is believed to be. Is the final goal to practice so much that you can play a passage as fast as possible, or to be able to quickly crack the most complex koan? Surely we have all been bored to death by a heartless flurry of technique, whether from a musicians instrument, or an educated persons rant. What, then, are we really reaching for?
Like Hakuin's 'Zen sickness', where he broke down his body by sitting nonstop for sometimes a week at a time without moving, I have known musicians who have broken themselves down practicing, practicing, practicing, reaching, reaching, reaching in the solidarity of the practice room. Does practicing strictly mean time spent in the room or on the cushion? Are you doing better if you practice for six hours instead of one?
Being around the jazz scene, I remember that the older, accomplished musicians always stressed to us younger ones the importance of playing. Yes, they would say, it is important to practice, to spend time in the room, but you must get out and play. You must take your practice out into the world, to jam sessions, to gigs, playing before peers, elders, and audiences. And here is where your practice is put to the test. "PLAY!", fellow musicians will frequently shout at one another while they are improvising. This word is often used as a wake up call. Are you reaching afar for what is near? "PLAY!" It is like the crack of a Zen master's stick. You are improvising, you are living your life, and what are you going to do in this moment? What are you going to play now? What will you say to save the cat? Who are you right now? Are you going to think about it for a while? "CRACK!" "PLAY! " There is no time or room for your mind to decide what is right, because the beat of the music needs to be the top of your head. If you are to play, if you are to be the beat of the music, you must be in your body, heart or ears. How will you do that right now? "PLAY!" And in this playing is where all the juice can be found. This playing is where the experience of who you are right now is expressed. It is the twirling of the flower, Gutei's finger, Mu...
Simply, it is important to practice playing. Then is there really a difference between being in a room or in front of an audience? Yes, of course, and no, not at all.
Hear it, feel it, play it...just play it.
And there is a courage involved in just playing, just like the courage that is involved with being just who you are. Perhaps they are the same. Because it is your unique expression, your unique channel, your unique message of what this is. When you let that out, let that flow, there is nothing else that can come out except that which you truly are. There is only one you, and that is unique. And this uniqueness of expression, this flowing of you as you are, is what I believe we're looking for in all those hours spent in the practice room or on the cushion. They are important hours spent, yet they no longer exist when we are just playing. And, yes, without them you cannot truly play.
I think Ravel put it best, when he was talking about two types of consciousness important for an artist; national, and individual.
The manifestation of these two types of consciousness in music may break or satisfy all the academic rules, but such circumstance is of insignificant importance compared with the real aim, namely, fullness and sincerity of expression.
Or...not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas....
The cymbal crashed...
The bass line is moving down...
The melody is rising...