The Essence of Flow: A Holistic Approach to Music
By Chris Cherney
What is a holistic and integrative approach to music and how does it make you a better listener in life?
“You can’t think and hit at the same time” –Yogi Berra
Flow, that state of perfectly relaxed concentration and performance, is something that all athletes and musicians crave. Indeed, everybody craves flow as it relates to their lives. Flow at work, in relationships, with one’s personal practices.
So, what does studying musicianship have to do with being “in the zone”? Music is unique among human activities in that it involves more parts of the brain than any other activity, and it does so within the constraint of a beat, within a fixed amount of time. A painter, playwright, poet or author can ponder and ruminate over their work, put it away and return to it. A performing musician or sound practitioner does not have this luxury. There is one chance. That moment. There is no time to think, only time to listen and react. This is why many neurologists feel that jazz musicians have the most developed brains on the planet.
How did jazz musicians get to do what they do? The same way a tai chi master gets to do what they do. Years and years of correct, mindful practice. It is the practice that builds the confidence so that one can let go of thinking and just “hit.” But it is very important to remember that every tai chi or jazz master had to begin somewhere. One of his first times out Charlie Parker was laughed off the stage. Then he got to work and became great. What all of the great ones share, in any field of human endeavor, is that their love of what they are doing is greater than the frustration of learning how to do it. They walk the walk.
It is often said that music is a universal language. There is no doubt this is true. The purpose of studying musicianship is to learn the organizational structures of this language, so one can be perceptive in listening, expressive and articulate in performance, and clear in communication. The study of musicianship gives a nascent musician the tools to build the foundation of their music. It teaches how to be oriented in the two great areas of music, rhythm and pitch.
Rhythmic fluency is the cornerstone of one’s musical ability and personality. Rhythm and movement are two sides of the same coin, you can’t have one without the other. We take advantage of this by using movement to keep track of pulse and meter. Once there is this physical, somatic foundation, ‘rhythm talk’ is tremendously useful in illustrating rhythmic patterns and the subdivisions of the beat. If you can say the rhythm, you’re on the road to singing or playing the music credibly. My method shows how to be oriented and comfortable in rhythmic flow, what musicians call “in the pocket.” It’s what sound practitioners call entrainment. With rhythmic fluency all is possible.
In the western tradition of music everything tonal evolves from the major scale. Much as we use movement to understand rhythm, we use numbers to understand pitch. Instead of do re mi we use 1, 2, 3. Each note/number in the scale always has the same personality, the same tendencies, and the same level of consonance or dissonance (agreeability or disagreeability). Five always sounds like five, three always sounds like three,..… We get to know each note of the scale and figure out how we relate to it, to recognize it. Some are incredibly demanding while some are perfectly chill. This number-oriented approach to pitch creates the ability to go from key to key without thinking about letter names.
Together these two approaches yield a unity of knowledge, that is, an understanding on several different levels. The student can identify, sing, write down, play, and improvise on the material studied. Most importantly, this lives in the body, not just the mind. One acquires the ability to go back and forth between the mind oriented analytical and body oriented instinctual approaches to music. Eventually these understandings become simultaneous. This is the goal of integrative, holistic musical training.
Needless to say, this is a lifetime process. Those who put in the work are the ones who become exceptional. Buddha was once asked” How did you attain enlightenment?”
“I chopped wood and carried water” he answered.
“And what do you do now that you have attained enlightenment?”.
“I chop wood and carry water”.
Correct musical practice is a profoundly mindful experience. One can only be involved with the musical puzzle in front of them. Much like meditation, consistent musical practice creates a tremendous sense of calm. And in this calmer, more relaxed state we can breathe deeper, listen more clearly and be more present.
If you can walk, you can dance.
If you can talk, you can sing.
A saying from Zimbabwe
Like a smile needing no translation, music is central to the human experience everywhere. I give my students the language of this wonder.
Chris Cherney has been active in New York as a teacher, performer, composer, and musical director for 45 years. With each passing year his appreciation of the transformative power of studying music grows. His command of different styles has allowed him to perform with a wide range of musical legends from Chuck Berry to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The New York Times has called his work “powerful, rhythmic and kaleidoscopic.” In addition to his private practice Chris has taught at City College of New York, the Brooklyn Conservatory, and in the New York public school system. He is also a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient.
Rhythm & Flow: Musicianship for Sound Practitioners
A Weekly Class with Chris Cherney
(4 Sessions) Mondays, March 16 – April 6, 2020, 6:00 – 7:45 pm
To learn more and register, click here.