Inner Game of Irish Music

On practicing and playing without judgment

Shannon’s August 2009 article on learning to practice and play without judgment… originally posted at Blayne Chastain’s Whistle and Drum web-site, which is now called Irish Flute Store (an excellent place to find an instrument). 


I love Irish traditional music. I like the scope of it—the fact that there are thousands of tunes out there and a myriad of regional and individual styles that often come together in unexpected ways.

The essence of the solid trad player is a musician who knows a wide variety of tunes and can play them with exquisite skill and style. To pull this off, all players (seasoned and new) need to do lots of listening and practicing at home, playing in sessions (maybe even onstage), and then more practicing.

While there is no shortcut to mastery—everybody needs to practice—it has become clear to me that while good quality practice can lead to excellent playing, distracted practice is a decidedly inefficient path to improvement and often reinforces unsteady habits. For example, if while practicing we are thinking “I always screw up the B part of this tune” or “I hope so and so will think I am a good player,” we are choosing to focus on musical and personal insecurities.

Mountain bikers know that when approaching an obstacle it’s helpful to pick and follow a line around the obstacle. The alternative—staring at the rock in path ahead and muttering “I sure hope I don’t hit that rock” often leads to, well, hitting the rock.

In his groundbreaking book Inner Game of Tennis (1976) and the subsequent Inner Game books that followed, author Tim Gallwey posits a “Self One” (the inner critic, the voice that says “I shouldn’t have started this tune so fast”) and “Self Two” (the player who is in the flow, absorbing things naturally). Kids are walking Self Twos. They are sponges. They naturally call on stuff they have assimilated without even knowing it. They don’t care what they “should” look like, so they are free to just go for it without even knowing they could fail. They DO instead of TRYING to do (as Master Yoda coaches).

Sometimes I really enjoy playing music when I am sick, probably because I care less whether I “sound good.” I’m just feeling fuzzy and playing tunes, and there’s something easy and appealing about that.

Rather than getting sick, here are a few less drastic ways to tap into that alert, relaxed Self Two potential while playing Irish music:

Choose the focus.
When we heighten our awareness of what’s going on internally, sometimes we discover a great deal of noisy dialog. How do we manage to have conversations with ourselves while we are playing tunes? We are complex and amazing that way. Why not give over to it, just for a moment? Eavesdrop, let the chatter be there. Accept it. And then shift focus to something, anything else: notice the lyrical quality of a tune, a spot on the wall, the feeling of a tapping foot or of a foot rooted to the ground. When we choose to observe and then move away from background chatter we offer ourselves an opportunity to dwell in a natural state of receptivity.

Make the difficult easy.
When we notice that a particular phrase in a tune is especially challenging we have precious information to work smarter, not harder. If only two bars of the 32-bar tune are tough, we shave lots of time off our practicing when we zero in on just the tough bits. And when we slow those sticky technical passages way down to… a… crawl, it becomes easy to play them effortlessly. To transform your playing, isolate what is difficult, and find a way to make it easy (by slowing down).

Make the easy difficult.
Once we master something (by slowing it down or reducing the length of the passage), we can then make it deeply challenging. But instead of speeding it up right away, try keeping it slow while paying rapt attention to other aspects of playing: tone, posture, rhythmic lift, easy and clean ornaments. Notice any arm or hand tension. Tune in.

Make the easy weird.
After slow careful practice, it can be cool to throw everything out and just play. How does it feel to play the whole tune quickly? What about playing a tune while kneeling, lying down, standing on the sofa? Playing in an unusual manner may help to disrupt usual habits.

Engage the ears and the heart will follow.
For some people it is very difficult to learn tunes by ear. Some people have a difficult time making conversation. For some people, simple cooking tasks seem daunting. But with time, practice, and patience we can often face challenges with terrific results! Does using sheet music lead to actually learning and knowing tunes faster? Usually reading music is just a handy way to play along with tunes. Playing along with tunes is not the same as playing and learning them. And even if it does speed the learning process, is it actually important to learn tunes quickly? When we learn tunes carefully by ear, we know them by heart. And we join the family of traditional musicians who have all painstakingly taught each other tunes in living rooms and festival hallways, and who have worn down their rewind buttons from intensive work with favorite recordings. Learning tunes from friends and recordings is the way. So is the Tao: “He who rushes ahead doesn’t go far.”

Redirect concerns.
Many of us are concerned about how others will perceive us. My own consoling realization is that in a session not many people are actually paying all that much attention to my playing (since everyone else is way too concerned about his own playing). This is comforting, because it takes the pressure off. And when I think about the people who are really listening to me, I realize it’s either people who support me and want me to succeed or people who just don’t care for my style/approach (nothing personal), so they will soon stop paying attention to me. So I am free to decide for myself how I am playing and to trust my own perceptions of what is working and what alterations I need to make. I’m in charge.

Reject negativity.
In general, we want one another to succeed. But there do seem to be a few unhappy people out there intent on interfering with the success and happiness of everybody around them. Fortunately these walking wounded are few and far between. People who act like jerks and show great concern for the doings of others neatly illustrate the opposite of the masterful inner game. When we pay attention to them, we can sometimes feed our Self One chatter “Why doesn’t he like me? Maybe the tune I chose was dumb.. my F# roll is sloppy.. this is hard…” When we, instead, seek to be awake to what is going on within while we are playing in a session or in our kitchens, we nurture ourselves. By tuning into our own natural abilities and joy for what we are doing, we practice presence and awareness. We realize that we are all masters. We focus on the great tunes we get to play, leaving little room for distractions.

We improve deeply when we listen attentively to ourselves, to skilled players (live or recorded), and to rhythms and melodies we’ve always known (on some level anyway). When we trust ourselves to hear and feel what is working and what needs to be adjusted, we enjoy playing and we enjoy the improvement process. Taking time to learn tunes by ear or to practice tricky phrases slowly is a worthwhile game—and is also a remarkably efficient way to practice, resulting in a quality of playing which trumps a quantity of sloppy tunes.

It takes time to forge new connections. Notice how it feels to turn the game inward. Notice how it feels to work with care and then be done with it. We have all the time we need to build our own foundations. And from empowered bases can come transcendent jigs and reels.

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