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The Difference Between Playing and Emoting: Thoughts From Mike Pope

As musicians, we’ve all been listening to music we love for a long time. I used to sit and listen to Weather Report, or Pat Metheny, or Chick Corea for hours on end, all the while painting a sort of subjective picture of the music. In my mind I’d formulate images of what the players looked like when they were playing these amazing solos or bass lines, or the ambience of the room or hall they were playing in (often a function of Mr. Lex I Conreverb, of course). I remember being knocked out the first time I heard that Cmaj pentatonic lick in the seventh bar of the 1st chorus of Birdland. I envisioned some grandiose physical rigmarole involved in playing it. The one time I got to see Jaco it became clear that I was deadly wrong. He played so much while not really moving a whole lot. I completely revamped my approach to the instrument at a time when I had tons of time for discipline and practice (I think I was 15). I progressed more in the ensuing 3 or 4 months than I had the previous few years I’d been playing. At least in terms of my command of the instrument.

For many of us, it was the emotions and images this music conjured up that drove us to play an instrument. For me, there was very little video available to see at the time, so these mental images had a lot to do with my approach to the bass. Unfortunately, many of them were less than conducive to good bass playing.

Playing and emoting are not the same thing. Mainly because emoting is feeling and playing is doing. This isn’t to say that they aren’t related and intertwined with one another. I don’t think that anyone would argue that an unemotional performance is generally not a good one. But I think understanding how the emotion of the performance, the emotion felt by the listener, and your original emotional impetus for playing the music differ.

The emotions you feel when you play will not necessarily lead you to do the things you need to do to in order to make your audience feel the emotion you want them to feel. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be feeling emotion when you play. It’s simply to say that you need to deal with the reality of how you play something in order ensure the desired result. In fact for many, simply focusing on the emotion behind the music gets them doing what they need to do. This is probably most often because those people already know what to do on some level, and are simply wrapped up in the mechanics of doing it. Ironically for others, when the emotion is spurious, it can impede your ability to understand how what you’re playing is being received. When that happens, as it often does, you need to question what’s driving the emotion. The goal being to separate the non-pertinent emotion you’re feeling from the task you’re trying to perform so that you can focus on learning to DO what you’re not DOING in order get the FEELING you want. Time to practice!

If you’ve ever walked away from a gig with memories of brilliant moments and deep emotional catharsis you can understand how powerful the images and sensations of those moments can be. But the reality is that you felt that way because of what you did. You did not do what you did because of how you felt. And so, in order to feel that way again, you need to do what you did again. It’s as simple as that. Let’s break it down to a single musical passage. Upon playing it you, and your audience, said, “that was GORGEOUS!” Your memory of this is reflective emotion. If you reflect on this the next time you go to play the passage, you won’t be paying any attention to doing what you need to do in order to play the passage and get that result again. You almost certainly WON’T get the same result. But if your focus is on what you need to do in the here and now, you have every chance at not only feeling what you felt again, but also having the audience feel it right along with you.

Taking the time to record yourself and listen to it objectively is a great way to establish where you really are. But listening to yourself objectively is difficult when you’re searching for a subjective response from someone else. But a good place to start is where you purge your mind of preconceptions and imagined responses of others. Make sure there’s not an image of a person, or a memory of an experience floating around in the back of your mind, posing as some sort of self-imposed benchmark. Listen to what you played and decide if represents your feelings. You are the maker of your music, and you know what you want to say. There’s no need to stress yourself out over imagined challenges. I think the real ones are enough for most of us.

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