Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The 3-2-1 of Musical Performance

08 April 2009

The 3-2-1 of Musical Performance

For whatever reasons, our culture has decided that we are not all musicians. Instead, a few trained (or not-so trained) specialists are expected to get up on stage so we can live vicariously through them. There are musicians, and there are spectators. But I don't think the distinction is so clear cut; we're all participants in something larger called a "concert" that requires both artist and audience in the same way that fertilization requires both male and female.

Engaging An Audience - 2nd Person Engagement
To designate the female as the only creative member of that dyad is just as insane as saying that only the dudes on stage are creative...and yet this is exactly what we do. Beneath it all is a significant cultural pathology, an issue of misunderstood self-other boundaries writ large. In order to explain this, let me take a detour through a bit of my history in personal development...
In the fall of 2005, I attended a seminar on Integral Life Practice – a sort of practice-of-combining-practices that regards everything from weightlifting and Tai Chi to Gestalt therapy and Vipassana meditation as tools in a kit for people to exercise every dimension of their being. After all, there are a lot of ways to grow in "self, culture, and nature," innumerable different lines of development, and should one care to cultivate them, each has its appropriate program of possible activities, both ancient and postmodern.

Needless to say, I learned a lot that weekend about the various ways to be more intentional about my life, about how to organize my self-development activities so that they support each other, and of course how the ultimate end of all of this isn't bragging rights but a greater capacity to usher forth more truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.

But out of all of the practices and meta-practices I learned that weekend, only a few really stuck with me, percolated through my mind and become fundamental aspects of how I understand and relate to the world. One of these was the so-called "3-2-1 Process," a way to uncover and deal with troublesome material in one's psychological shadow (the part of yourself you aren't willing to admit and so can only see in "the world out there," in other people and things). The 3-2-1 Process is almost a theatre exercise:

- First, you notice an intense emotional reaction to something;
- Then, you describe it in as much detail as you can (the "3" of third-person analysis);
- Then, you imagine yourself in conversation with that thing, asking it what it might have to teach you, and whatever other questions you have for it (the "2" of second-person relationship);
- Then, you speak AS that thing, recognizing it as a facet of who you are and not some absolute other (the "1" of first-person identity).
This can be done with pleasant or unpleasant emotional reactions; you might unwind your fear of some monster in a recurring nightmare, or find within yourself the beauty of someone you envy and admire. It takes practice – and vigilance – but is one of the quickest ways I know to turn anger or fear or hatred into understanding and love.

What more, as it became clear to me in the years since, this same structure is recapitulated not just in moments of intentional shadow work but also in the entire saga of human development. We begin identifying with nothing at all, not even aware of a self. Slowly we become more aware of the world, and begin to engage it relationally. It is through these relationships that we eventually learn how the world is us and we are the world.

And here's where the music comes in.

As a performing singer-songwriter, I can identify this trajectory in the way I understand what is going on while I'm on stage. The 3, 2, and 1 of the process are three different kinds of relationships I have with the audience, three different states of being.

When I first started playing music at open mics, I would be looking out at the audience and noticing things about them ("That is obviously a wig," "Holy shit, look at that hottie," "What a bunch of drunks"), but not really doing anything useful with that information. More than helping me, it was often a distraction from what I was TRYING to do, which is "just play" – but of course, I wasn't just playing, I was PLAYING AT, trying to FORGET about the audience and pretend I'm alone in the room, playing to an insentient empty space. Even today, this sometimes happens when I'm especially nervous.
At some point, after getting used to being the center of attention (and that this is not always by their choice – especially with bar crowds, where it's pretty unlikely anyone is actually there specifically to hear me), I realized that there's a certain amount of trust and reciprocity involved in the musician-audience dynamic and I have to meet the crowd halfway in order to really entertain them. It's a relationship, and relationships require mutuality. That means if I want them to listen to me, I have to listen to them. I have to be able to read the crowd like the face of a single person – sometimes the crowd is sleepy and belligerent and trying to watch TV, and sometimes she's totally rapt and playing with her hair and trying to get you ask her to come home with you. Each person in the crowd is like a little voice in the head of that one person, and so in conversation, I can PLAY TO certain voices and draw the attention of the entire crowd by sparking something in only a few of them. (People, after all, are social-mirroring animals. If you see someone else enjoying themselves, you're more likely to join suit. And in that way it really is almost like playing to one person, like trying to persuade someone by finding out what matters to them and planting hooks in it.)
This is a more engaged, more personal, warmer way of playing. If I'm talking on the mic in "3 mode," I'm usually talking to myself. If I'm on the mic in "2 mode," I'm asking questions, looking people in the eyes, cracking jokes, keeping the energy between me and the audience lively and dynamic.

From time to time, however, even this melts away into something much deeper, something in which "2 mode" seems like the desperate manipulative bid that it often is. Because sometimes, I BECOME the audience – or, more accurately, I stop playing the music and the music just happens, and in the flow of things (if I were to stop and try to describe what is happening) the concert is revealed for what it really is: artist and audience as two facets of one event, one creative moment happening all together, one thing in its wholeness. NOT playing AT a crowd, and not playing TO a crowd, but just PLAYING.

This kind of thing, this "1 mode," doesn't happen when I am playing a song for the first time, when it's still awkward and unfamiliar in my hands and throat. And it doesn't happen when I'm trying to impress somebody in the audience – that's me not owning up to something, projecting it "out there," and trying to work some kind of voodoo to control it at a distance. (Try cutting off your hand, throwing it across the room, and willing it to pick up the phone. Good luck.) It happened first in front of friends, with old songs I knew...well, "like the back of my hand." And with practice, learning more about myself as a performer, learning more about the technical minutia that can so easily distract (microphones, monitors, tuning), learning the patterns of crowds in different venues, it happens more frequently these days.

I've found that keeping my eyes open while playing makes a big difference; otherwise I might never be able to engage and relate to the audience, much less transcend that relationship. Certainly, thinking about it helps. I enjoy making it explicit in my own mind that this is a moment of mutuality and co-creation, that I'm shaping their experience while they're shaping mine, so we exist within each other like the dots on a yin yang. Just sitting there listening (or not listening), the audience is in this sense as much a part of the music as I am, because they are the content of my experience – and what better definition of self do we really have? ("You are what you eat.")

Talking about it helps if I'm in the right crowd, one willing to be drawn into deeper awareness of themselves and their environments. Otherwise, it's more likely to alienate the audience than entrain them. I typically keep it to myself at bars.

Perhaps the most useful practice is to exercise simple, general mindfulness both on- and off-stage. The more aware we are, the more likely we are to notice that there isn't really anyone BEING aware, so much as there is an awareNESS that frequently gets lazy and divides into "self" and "other"...or artist and audience.
(continued in part two)
Stillness
(Written for Colorado Music Board.)