I received my most memorable lesson in distraction during my first year of playing the cello. My teacher sat me down one day, instructed me to play the Gavotte from Suzuki Book 2, and then proceeded to demonstrate the most amusing display of histrionics I’d ever seen, even going as far as to caterwaul loudly and spill her coffee down the front of her dress. My teacher thought she could train me to focus on the music if she presented me with an array of possible distractions.
At the Perlman Music Program, Toby Perlman would tell us the story of how Mr. P played a concert through an earthquake and continued performing, completely unaware that the earth was trembling below the concert hall. We all laughed incredulously, though I couldn’t say at the time how many of us truly understood what that could have been like. I know I didn’t.
I have always been hyper-aware of my surroundings and operate purely on a sensory level throughout most of the day. If somebody walks outside my bedroom in the middle of the night while I am asleep, I will wake up. If my name is mentioned in the midst of a conversation ten feet away, I will pick it out. I will notice moods, new hairdos, or changes to a room or setting immediately. Being unaware and unperturbed by one’s surroundings is impossible. Because of this, to me, getting into the “performance zone” was seen as an unattainable goal. In performance, I had slipped into something like the Zone a few times—never fully, however, and I had never really understood it until this past spring.
It was during the Perlman Music Program’s 2010 residency in Jerusalem, and I was playing the first movement of Haydn D. I was not happy with my run-through earlier that evening, and the prospect of premiering my own written cadenza, while exciting, was daunting.
The performance went surprisingly well, and while I was bowing I found that the audience looked a bit hazy. When I realized that the fogginess wasn’t attributed to dried-out contact lenses but to the fact that the auditorium was mostly filled with smoke, I was slightly confused. When had that happened?
The backstage doors leading to the outside had been open for the concert. Apparently, during the latter half of the movement, smoke from somewhere outside had started to drift in through these doors and onto the stage. The custodians had then run down the aisles to close the doors, and a photographer had started taking pictures. Our Dean even had to come up front to dissuade him from doing so. I had not noticed any of this; I had finally, fully, experienced the Zone.
Curious, I decided to read up on this phenomenon later that summer at the Banff Centre. I was nursing a rather virulent cold at the time and lacked the energy to do much more than browse through the library. So, here’s what I found:
Bassist and writer Barry Green talks about the incredible powers of the Zone in his book The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry, and describes the Zone as a state of concentration in which the musician has an intense focus on the task at hand with a “relaxed and seemingly effortless ability to do it.” The musician is free of fear and nonmusical or technical concerns, achieving a level of sensitivity and precision that goes “beyond normalcy.” The experience is one of complete absorption in the music.
In the Zone, the right side of the brain takes over and there is a freedom from over-analyzing or self-consciousness. In addition, the musician tunes out the audience while in this state of consciousness and is virtually undistractable.
The Zone. How does one achieve this complete immersion in the music? How does one tune out fear, bodily functions, or outside conditions? How does one not notice crinkling Ricola wrappers, uncovered coughs, or the blinding flash of a camera? Is it the level of preparation? The connection to the music itself?
Perhaps we will never know the secret of this amazing state of mind. Perhaps those of you who are like me, overly-attuned to the world around them, will truly marvel at the wonders of the Zone and how it can melt away all distractions. Perhaps, like me, you will seek that Zone, which is the silence that offers only one miraculous thing to embrace: the music.