Remembering to Breathe

My name is Michael Hewett and I am a long time guitar player and enthusiast. I currently live in Manhattan and have a trio consisting of acoustic guitar (me!), cello, and a percussionist. We tour all around New England selling CDs and performing the instrumental music that I compose in my front room. I also make my living by teaching various forms of yoga and meditation. I'm writing this article because I believe you and I share a few fundamental things, (such as inhabiting human bodies while enduring the suffering of their peculiar habits) and this gives me the confidence that I could perhaps offer some insight that may help you to understand why your music comes out the way it does.

What do I mean by "comes out the way it does"? I'm probing the process behind the regularity (or lack thereof) with which you are able to come up with coherent improvisations, compositions fit for public hearing, and especially the general state of being in which you walk over to your instrument and pick it up. For instance, do you notice that after you begin improvising, your mind wanders and your hands take over? Do you have mountains of scrap compositions that you lost interest in 1/3 the way through their formation? What makes you walk across the room to the guitar and pick it up in the first place...and how do you feel about yourself when you get up? These are all very basic questions that a lot of us haven't thought about asking ourselves or weren't willing to...and for a very long time I wasn't either.

In my experiences as an inspired/frustrated guitarist, I've always had other things going on in my life during my relationship to the instrument: various states of physical, mental, emotional health, day jobs, girlfriends (lets not talk about that), planetary alignments, time constraints, etc. I believe that all of this life stuff has deep implications to our responsiveness when the creative spirits come to whisper in our ears. When I began practicing and teaching people self-observation and breath awareness, I was continually knocked out by the changes I observed in the quality and duration of attention that was given to an action, as well as the spontaneity that came with the action. If you've ever spent any time near a yoga class, you've heard the teacher remind the class to "Breathe!" about a gazillion times. Why all this fuss about something that your body does automatically? Well, when people (and guitarists) brush up against stress, their "perceived" edge, or self-doubt, the universal tendency is to stop breathing. As a result of this "freezing up" the defined parameters of the person overpower their ability to remain responsive in the face of challenge, and they are then blessed with the opportunity of facing the unknown parts of themselves. For me, this raises a very important question. What kinds of feelings am I projecting when I play for people? If one is manifesting disinterest or insecurity in where the lines are going as you play a solo, you'd better believe that feeling is coming out of your speakers with the notes. Begin to notice the emotional intention for what you're projecting and you'll understand why your music sounds and feels the way it does. At first, this can be upsetting if the feelings are negative, but noticing is the essential step to shifting, and we all know how high we can get when we are "all there" with the music.

By the very nature of our chosen instrument, we don't really have to stop to take a breath. So, until our hands tire out, we can just keep churning out the notes. I have a theory that this is the reason why so many of the musicians who are world-renowned for their phrasing are the horn players. Why? Because they have to stop to take a breath! So, lets assume my theory intrigues you, and you agree to keep 25% of your attention on your breathing when you play (If you're anything like me, you'll try this for like five minutes, realize it's too much, and continue to take little mouse breaths for the rest of your musical life). But if you discover that you are consistently holding your breath when you play, first remember to be nice to yourself, and then start small. Dedicate 10 minutes a day of practice time (with or without the band) to aligning your respiration to your phrases. For the rest of the time do what you like, but I will share that in the near future, you will purposely use this bit of self-discovery the next time you're on stage and you feel distracted or just plain uninspired!

I'd like you to consider what you've learned about your breath and weigh the question, "Why does your music come out the way it does?" against another inquiry: Has your practice routine become stagnant? Confronting this question can be enough to make one clean the whole house, organize the quarterly receipts, and finally change the litter in that stank-ass litter box! But I have faith that you really do want to feel energized during the time you have to spend in your creative processes. I've found that warming up in a creatively engaging way can make or break the quality of attention I have for the duration of my practice time. First, as a yogi, I rub myself down with my own urine and invert for eight hours, but for you I'd recommend diagnosing where you feel you could improve (rhythm, ear training, phrasing, etc...) and then work on that one thing during your warm up in a very simple way. For example, for your rhythm, go buy an egg shaker and a Maceo Parker album and really lock with the groove for at least 4 tracks. I believe it's important to be able to be musical using minimal tools. For your relative pitch, blindfold yourself and establish a tonal center, (if you have a delay, set it to an infinite delay and set up a drone using the root, fifth, and octave) then sing the note you'd like to play over the root and then match it on the guitar. Gradually, after 3 nailed tones in a row, add a second note, then a third... But whatever you choose to work on, keep it simple! The less chance you give yourself to become mechanical the more you'll maximize the effectiveness of your efforts.

Your guitar is a tool. It is vitally important to keep that tool in top form so that it is responsive to your touch. Likewise, you the player are a tool to be kept in top form for when you are visited by that which is above you. Creativity and inspiration are always available to an open mind. Learn how to recognize when you are in the way. In closing, I'd like to offer my best wishes to you in your exploration of an amazing art. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments. Be well...

Michael Hewett is a acoustic guitarist living in Manhattan and working the New England area with his trio.

Michael teaches yoga for a living in Manhattan, while working as a musician at night.

His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Hidden In Plain Sight".

Michael Hewett