I resumed concerted guitar practice recently, after I had been considering the phenomena of presence and absence. I began thinking how my guitar playing related to this. As a performer I have examined the different qualities of presence and absence when participating in a solo or group performance, realising these compliments or opposites arise as modes of relation to the prevailing inner/outer performative conditions.
For example (at a music gig), whilst I am attentive to my own condition of fragility, present to a performative influence, prior to a performance, I am also aware of the club owner’s and co-performers anxieties or functional problems. Functionally, it is in my interest here to minimise my empathetic tendency, to be absent to these presented anxieties, in order to serve my purpose as an effective performing artist.
Another example; I am so presently aware of all the constituent details pertaining to the performance event that I find myself stilted, an Information overload has engendered a preoccupation or self-consciousness and inhibiting performative flow. It would seem I am now absent to my co-performers and audience.
Yet another; I turn up to a performance event debilitated from the activities of a difficult day. As the performance begins I discover I am absent to the conditions of this moment, unable to find a connection point I am further distracted by my glaring performative inadequacies. Having apparently ‘nothing to offer’ myself, in listening to my co-performers I am brought into the present.
There is another component of presence/absence in respect to the performer ‘losing themselves’ in order to access some ‘transcendent’ energy, space or indeed ‘entity’.
My concern here though is with the practical, technical focus on the mechanics of instrumental performance. I wanted to review all the basic assumptions of, in particular, playing electric guitar. My question is where is my mind, where is my attention as I play? I resurrected a capriccio by Paganini I used to work on. The goal was to use it as an exercise in presence.
Before continuing however I should describe the events leading up to this. Some time ago, triggered by a enquiring student, I realised I had lost the immediate ability to play everything in strict alternate picking. I was well-drilled in this technique early on, but as my interests expanded apparently I developed a hybrid approach (in all sorts of ways) and lost that particular attribute. Upon returning to technical practice I was curious to revisit this technique taking some perverse delight in the experience of feeling where my habits wanted to take my hand movements as opposed to where my mind was directing them! I used a moto perpetuo from ‘Fracture’ (Robert Fripp), I was never able to play this at its tempo marking but found it a good ‘exercise’. I played it at a very slow tempo to examine the consistency of my alternate picking. It has taken me some time but I am now (April, 2015) getting more consistent with it although there are lapses when I find myself on an upstroke when it should have been a downstroke. Sometimes I will not stop to correct this, but continue on as it is just as beneficial beginning a sequence on an upstroke instead of the intended downstroke.
Through this process I was also paying attention to note durations, searching for consistency, and as well, control of ‘tone’. The left hand sometimes did not fret accurately creating a muted or buzzing sound and the right hand mis-picked. I was subjecting both hands to scrutiny, not to berate myself because of my inconsistencies (as I used to do) but just to exercise awareness, make the slight adjustment and carry on. I was looking for a consistency of sound and technique. By slowing everything right down all unintended sounds and movements were revealed.
The key though, was – the mind. What was also laid bare was how my mind was either skipping ahead to what was coming next (which is how we are taught in sight-reading and charts etc.), or drifting away from the task at hand. As simple as this sounds, it has been a valuable experience for me. The reason I chose a piece I knew well was so I did not need to think to hard about what was coming next, I could allow myself to be attentive to the detail of listening and making THIS sound in THIS moment. In attending to each moment I found that the following music, in turn, would be attended to accordingly and the piece would be played. I have begun to realise that the quality of my experience during (in this case) my technical practice, is commensurate with the fullness of ‘presence’/ attentiveness I am able bring to the moment of making the sound. So my current practice is about exercising presence to the actuality of playing the guitar. This is the reason for employing the Paganini piece as well.
What began as a focus on picking then became a practice of attentiveness to the actions of my hands, then to the workings of my mind. Of course the body as a whole, the posture naturally comes into focus.