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  1. #1

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    Fellow guitar improvisers,

    A mental phenomenon often interrupts me when improvising: it is the self-critical voice that runs an uninvited monolog in my head giving me unwanted advice such as “you just played a cliche,” or “do something more modern” or “that’s not as good as _any player’s name goes here_” or any other random self-critique in the midst of performance. It’s not that I’m not proficient: I’m pro level, but I would like to learn techniques for “getting out of my own way” mentally —- quieting the internal monolog that comments on my performance as I play it.

    Lately, due to covid, I’ve been working at home on recording solo and I believe I would achieve better, more relaxed results by quieting this internal critic. If you have techniques for improving focus and quieting the internal demon, I’d love to hear about them.

    Thanks

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  3. #2

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    Great question. One of the most important questions long term, perhaps the most important. I think it's something you have to practice.

    It definitely happens to me, but less so now.

    One thing I find that helps is making a really clear division between practicing and playing, and treat the playing side with childishness, playfulness; almost disrespect. The practicing side OTOH is super serious, incredibly exacting and scientific. In a perfect world if you get the practicing done right, the playfulness can happen on the gig; in practice the real world doesn't always pan out this way.

    Why do you think so many musicians sought out ways of changing their brain chemistry, often with tragic results? In the end many settled on Zen, Yoga and stuff like that. Seems good to me.

    (Peter Bernstein advocates sleep deprivation. I think he was only half joking.)

  4. #3

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    The recording thing is also interesting. I find I get best results by having a deadline and then I record something and I think it's shit, but I come back to it and I think it's fine. After a week or so, I can get quite proud of it.

    My deadline is usually childcare related, but you could set an alarm and go for a run and THEN listen to what you recorded. Make a routine of it.

    I honestly think I'd never finish anything if my time wasn't limited.

  5. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rsilver
    Fellow guitar improvisers,

    A mental phenomenon often interrupts me when improvising: it is the self-critical voice that runs an uninvited monolog in my head giving me unwanted advice such as “you just played a cliche,” or “do something more modern” or “that’s not as good as _any player’s name goes here_” or any other random self-critique in the midst of performance. It’s not that I’m not proficient: I’m pro level, but I would like to learn techniques for “getting out of my own way” mentally —- quieting the internal monolog that comments on my performance as I play it.

    Lately, due to covid, I’ve been working at home on recording solo and I believe I would achieve better, more relaxed results by quieting this internal critic. If you have techniques for improving focus and quieting the internal demon, I’d love to hear about them.

    Thanks
    Psychologists sometimes recommend a technique which has been called "thought stoppage" - to reduce intrusive thoughts. You imagine yourself screaming at the unwanted thought, "GO AWAY". You don't actually scream. Just imagine it. It may take several repetitions. You keep doing it every time it happens.

    Another technique is to negotiate with it. Maybe you tell the voice "I'll record everything and criticize it mercilessly later, if you'll only give me a break and STFU now".

    Not psychology, but another idea is to decide that you're going to scat sing in your head and play those lines. Then, focus on doing that. It's consuming. The intrusive voice may find it difficult to elbow its way in.

    Good luck!

  6. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by rpjazzguitar
    Not psychology, but another idea is to decide that you're going to scat sing in your head and play those lines. Then, focus on doing that. It's consuming. The intrusive voice may find it difficult to elbow its way in.
    I do find that singing along helps (and also forces you to play by ear). It’s hard to nag yourself internally when you are also singing to yourself internally!

  7. #6

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    In my experience the harder you fight the inner critic the stronger he gets. Note that he's not just a music critic.

    Best is just to hear that and remind yourself that you're thinking now, and not playing. Just get back to playing and don't concern yourself with the interruption too much. Give yourself a break for being human. It's pretty normal. Eventually your inner critic will get bored with having less and less effect and begin to interrupt less. Or maybe you get somewhat bored with him and the effect of the interruption is lessened.

    Note that this is pretty much the same instruction that is used in breath-awareness (Vipassana) meditation. Insert breathing for playing. Might take a few years of practice.

    Having said all that, I've done some of my best playing while nervous and distracted.

  8. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by ccroft

    Having said all that, I've done some of my best playing while nervous and distracted.
    +1 to also what Christian said earlier about delaying for days before actually judging own performance.

    Those two points are the key of sanity in that.. performing artist's lifestyle.

    But for OP's "getting out of the way" - you know, it's just a personal preference. Whatever works.
    I love when I can make it work while fully conscious and in control. But letting go - it feels great also, sometimes. There's no clear winner between those two ways to do it.

  9. #8

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    I think that you first decide whether or not you’re ready to express yourself the way that you want to, for a given tune.

    Once you do that you just go for it and dont look back or self critique until it’s over. When it’s done you think about “take n”, or tomorrow night.

    It’s somewhat like standup comedy, or a speech, or athletics, you just have to press on. Self criticism is potentially crippling during performance. Just watch high level tennis when a player gets into a self critical mental funk. They self destruct and lose, or come close to losing.
    Last edited by GTRMan; 08-07-2020 at 10:16 PM.

  10. #9

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    There are three kinds of singing along:

    - singing out loud what your fingers play (not playing by ear)
    - playing what you sing out loud (playing by ear, kind of)
    - playing what you "sing not out loud" in your mind's ear (playing by ear proper)

    The distinction between the first two is about which originates the musical idea, the fingers or the voice? The more you think about this the more subtle it gets... the first might more properly be called playing by fingers (they do develop a certain mechanical grasp of music and one gets familiar with their well worn patterns and pathways). The second tends to break those patterns and pathways so as to invoke a new requirement of the fingers to recognize or discover what the voice is requesting. The third takes it a step back* to the request from the mind's ear to the voice, and then skips the voice so the finger's play what the mind's ear requests, which may now include polyphonic requests.

    The first may help suppressing inner verbalization, the second much more so, the third completely (in my experience as an exclusive ear player).

    *Same idea as not patting your foot to keep time. The foot is getting it's time message from your mind, so you find your internal time source for the foot, skip the foot patting "middle man", and use the source directly. If this is hard to understand, think about how a drummer keeps time when his feet are occupied with parts of the kit that are not just thumping out straight time.

  11. #10

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    I think being self critical and having all these thoughts is very important and beneficial when practicing. When playing freely though, i try to follow the music and not think of anything else. The better our ego and desire to play something great or impressive are suppressed, the better the playing will be.

    Often when playing live, i tend to try to play in the most minimal and melodic way i can. Usually it comes out more musically this way. My solution has been to work with myself and the ego, and always focus intensively on the music and what 's currently happening around. A lot of the jazz i like is simple enough and old fashioned anyway, especially anything related to the rhythm section..

  12. #11

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    I agree with Alter. I did a lot of performing for twenty years, and the best thing to keep me going was a laser-like focus on the music of the moment, and when the performance is over I'm looking to the next performance, not looking back. But I was completely in the zone back then, and couldn't do it now.

  13. #12

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    Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery is an entire book on this topic.

  14. #13

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    self criticism can be debilitating in many areas of life..the pressure to do more/be better..may be offset by many factors..that can be part of early childhood development
    authority figures demanding more of us than we can provide at the time..and then reinforcing that criticism with "you will never be able to (blank) ..or.. your just not able to (blank) "
    and those statements may really hurt self image for a long time and get in the way of many goals we set for ourselves..and even stop us from even trying to avoid any kind of shortcomings..

    I overcame alot of that with positive reinforcement and realizing I can obtain short term goals that are realistic and not to overwhelm myself with tasks that are not possible in an instant
    but will require constant work and a fair amount of time to achieve...

    and I also subscribe to some zen philosophy ..which has a very subtle flavor of humor toward the human condition.."..you can walk through a wall..if you first build a door .."

    with music my study with Ted Greene was the most positive reinforcement of "..you CAN do it,,and "see..you did it.."

    I have had recordings of myself ..that when time has passed and hearing them I was pleased and sometime very impressed with my own playing..

    what I have learned is not to compare my playing against others..no matter how they play..but just listen and learn from their playing..and if possible learn how they played
    a song or even just a few bars of something they played..and build from there...realizing this has been my method of learning music and many other things in life

  15. #14

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    Quote Originally Posted by Rsilver
    Lately, due to covid, I’ve been working at home on recording solo and I believe I would achieve better, more relaxed results by quieting this internal critic. If you have techniques for improving focus and quieting the internal demon, I’d love to hear about them.

    Thanks
    I never record improvisations. But I found developing lines while recording removes the pressure, now I do 40 takes because I’m working towards something instead of doing 20 takes because no take is good enough. The Rolling Stones took two weeks of near continuous playing of each song for Exile on Main Street. And have you heard the bass in one of the last “She don’t like she don’t like she don’t like”s in Cocaïne by JJ Cale? Bass steps down half a note instead of whole note and it’s a mini train wreck.


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  16. #15

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    For me, as far as improvisation goes, thinking about what I'm doing as I'm doing it always makes things worse. My improv is always better when I close my eyes, don't look at the fretboard, and listen intently to the sound without thinking about it.

    I always see the pattern of the notes in my head as I'm playing anyway, but somehow actually looking at the fretboard as I'm playing puts me into this mindset where I'm thinking about what I'm doing as I'm doing it, and this is where all the mental nonsense including the self criticism that the OP was talking about comes in. I'm not in the moment anymore, but somehow sort of 'one step removed' and spontaneity and actual creative flow gets replaced with judgement and criticism and suddenly I'm playing what I think I should do rather than letting the music flow.

    I guess it's debatable, but for me improv has to be spontaneous and in-the-moment. If it's calculated and crafted, to me that isn't actually improvisation, it's...more like assembly and craftwork. Not that that isn't a valid way of approaching music, it just isn't what I think of as improvisation.

  17. #16

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    unfortunately now regarded a cliche...but the answer is to be here now...in the moment...no past no future...only now...and with a guitar in hand, it becomes very apparent when after whatever time you've approached that space, you suddenly awaken back to thought

    if you've watched mark kleinhauts vids (as long as i have) in showcase, you can see an almost startled awakening when he's finished his guitar improvs...he was in the zone!!..the best place to be...

    try to make your life that! everything you do...it can't help but drip down to your guitar playing! hah

    cheers

  18. #17

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    I don't want to get too deep and overthink about it too much.
    Just that, when thinking about attitudes, then I guess the best one would be sincere and honestly caring.
    So when doing some communicating with the notes, then those could be thought as a "person" we're talking with.
    So, whatever would annoy a normal human person and make them not giving a crap about what you want from them, the similar things would screw up a solo.

  19. #18

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    “what I have learned is not to compare my playing against others..no matter how they play..”

    yes , I got the same idea from one of Emily
    Remler’s instruction vids

    something like
    “dont cp yourself to other players ....
    there will always be people better and worse players than you ....
    that kinda thinking is bs ...don’t go there”

    Emily was wise

    i agree , it’s part of the whole winning / losing mirage ....