I've been thinking a lot about the power and challenge of focus these days and figured it might be fun to share some of those thoughts here. I know some of you are artists and probably most of you are music/art lovers. And all of you are creative in your own important ways in your lives, careers, etc. So, I hope it resonates or prompts some interesting thought.
There's a quote from Allen Ginsberg that has stuck with me for years. In "No Direction Home", Ginsberg describes Bob Dylan by saying:
“What struck me was that he had become one – or had become identical with his breath. Dylan had become a column of air, so to speak, at certain moments, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman, with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.”
When I heard this way back when I saw the movie, it resonated with me somehow, but I'm not sure I was 100% clear on what it meant. It felt true somehow, but I didn't really know why or exactly how it related to music per se.
Then, just recently, I read Rick Rubin's incredibly fabulous book, "The Creative Act: A Way of Being", which, if you haven't read, I highly recommend. He writes in it about the importance and power of intention:
"Our thoughts, feelings, processes, and unconscious beliefs have an energy that is hidden in the work. This unseen, unmeasurable force gives each piece its magnetism. A completed project is only made up of our intention and our experiments around it. Remove intention and all that’s left is the ornamental shell."
I think this is what Ginsberg meant. He meant that the clarity and intensity of Dylan's intentionality was near absolute. When he sings a song, he's all-in. He's putting every ounce of himself both physically and mentally into the performance with nothing else intruding. And THIS is where the art lies; not in the "ornamental shell" of whatever song he happens to be strumming and singing.
Ok...but, can I give more evidence to support this idea? Well, let's look at another quote, this time about Barbara Streisand from a NY Times article I read:
“She wants to know every single word, and if a word doesn’t make sense to her, she’ll stop and go, ‘I don’t understand. Why this word?’” the composer, conductor and arranger Bill Ross said in a video call. He’s been collaborating with Streisand on live shows since the early 1990s, and said one thing that makes Streisand Streisand is that she’ll spend so much time, “just on the lyrics trying to make sure they make sense to her.” Once she’s got that down, only then can she ask what the melody is. “I’ve never seen any other artist like that,” he said."
Have you ever tried meditating? Think about how hard it is to make your brain stay focused on just a single thing - your breath, perhaps - for even a few minutes. It's damn near impossible!
And that's why I'm talking about this. I've been doing a lot of solo acoustic performing and practicing this year, and I'm increasingly finding that the difference between a song feeling magical vs. feeling completely pedestrian has both very little and a whole lot to do with technique. What I mean by that is that, if I'm trying to play a classic country song, for instance, it definitely helps to understand the unique and nuanced way that country music grooves or to really nail the unique contours of the vocal melody. But it means NOTHING if I don't first manage to get my whole head into the song and into to what it means to me in that moment. I need to FEEL it and use the technical tools of the genre and my own style to somehow communicate what I'm feeling. To communicate some sort of INTENTION, partly conscious and partly unconscious, that feels true.
Solo acoustic performing isn't my natural comfort zone. Hell, country and folk, which I've learned to love dearly, isn't my comfort zone. Rock and roll in a band setting feels way more comfortable.
But the thing about a solo acoustic performance is that there's nowhere to hide. Nobody's gonna play a killer solo or cool drumbeat to spice things up. You're alone with a plinky little box of wood, your voice, and whatever power of Intention you can muster up through the beautiful paucity of your own soul.
In other words, it's fucking hard. There's no technical commonality between Bob Dylan and Barbara Streisand; yet they are each considered legendary masters in their own way. And I think it's that intense power of Intention and the mental discipline to do it. Imagine meditating in front of a crowd by way of singing and strumming and remembering lyrics...it's something like that, I think.
At the end of the day, isn't that what we respond to in the performers we love? That little flame they somehow summon in the performance? Isn't that the difference between a performer who makes you cry and a technically proficient performer who fades into the background of your consciousness without leaving any impression whatsoever - even when they both play the same song?
I don't profess to have mastered it...far from it. But I've touched it! The last time I played my little background music covers gig at SideYard, a cool little bar, I sang a Waylon Jennings tune with such conviction and power that the whole place, which had previously been more or less ignoring me, erupted into applause when I finished. And I don't think they were all just huge Waylon fans. I knew it was happening while it was happening. I could feel it.
And let me tell you...it's the best feeling ever. I was in the zone, in the flow state, at one with the music, a channel for the spirit...however you want to say it. The thing was bigger than me and yet I was an indispensable part of it.
So yeah...that's why I'm chasing this acoustic thing. I want to learn that meditative and powerful discipline both so I can do it solo and so I can provide a powerful center for the band. Yeah, I want better guitar chops and better singing skills and better songwriting skills. But I mainly just want to COMMUNICATE. And I think this is the center of that goal somehow.
Are there places in your life or your practice where this kind of relentlessness of Intention and focus has transformed things for you? I'd love to hear about it!