Playing In The Zone

You’ll know when you’re playing in the zone.

Some things can’t be exactly taught. Playing in the zone is one of them, but I’ll try anyway.

I can verbalize what a concept is but until the student experiences it first hand, only then will he understand. For example:

Early on, in your performing career, did you ever find yourself hoping that you would play your parts correctly in the up coming concert even though you practiced and prepared over and over for hours at home? It was like a roller coaster ride of anxiety when you came to those two or three phrases you knew you couldn’t play correctly at that tempo. The audience probably heard your wrong notes, but take heart, no one knew which student out of 75 kids played those wrong notes and you most likely weren’t the only one playing them. Besides, your parents weren’t listening for the bad notes, just the good ones….You were not “in the zone”!

What IS “in the zone” you may ask? It’s the feeling you have when you don’t say “I hope I play it right!” Instead you say: “Of course I”ll play it right and I”ll be ticked off if I don’t.” Now don’t get me wrong, just saying it won’t make it happen, and it won’t be needed all the time. Dozens of aesthetically beautiful songs don’t really require a lot of drama, they are just easy to play.

Remember the first time you played “Hot Cross Buns”? Then how tenuous you were the first time you performed it in front of your family and friends?……Not really “in the zone”. A year later you were almost embarrassed to play the same song because it was so easy. That may have been your first “zone” moment, as basic as it was. As months and even years went by and only rarely did you come across something that made you pause and think “this is too awkward to play.”

After playing for over 50 years, I ran into one of these situations. I had just transcribed the horn parts for “Mujer Latina,” a Cuban Mambo. Next was to play the lines up to speed. After a few attempts with the back up music, I decided to go back to the drawing board, and learn it more slowly. It took me about a week to learn the toughest two measures that repeated over and over. Even then it didn’t feel comfortable. Finally it kicked in and I found myself focusing on each measure effortlessly. “MAN, DID THAT FEEL GOOD!”…… I was “In the zone.”

I experienced the same confidence in the interlude of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and the alto sax solo in Dirty Dancing’s “Time of My Life.”

Anyway, take the feeling of “Hot Cross Buns” played a year after day one and multiply that by a thousand, and that’s the feeling of playing IN THE ZONE!