I wonder whether this is the most important question for a musician to ask. Finding the answer could be the difference between a lifetime of middling, stilted playing and one of real, consistent virtuosity.
What do I even mean here? Let me attempt to add context by first quoting a recent blog post of mine in which I discussed the thoughts that went through my head when I first tried to play jazz.
“Here comes a D minor chord. Okay, gotta find that D Dorian pattern. Or I could use the fourth mode of the harmonic minor scale for a more exotic sound. Wait… crap, now we’re on a G7 b5 chord! What do I use? Um, I think the Lydian dominant scale works. But the only shape I know for that pattern is down on the neck, far away from where I’m currently playing. Argh. Now we’re on a C maj 7th. The books says sophisticated players use the Lydian scale here. Ahh! Why does this suck so much?!”
As you might presume, that is not what you should be thinking while playing music.
As time progressed, I got much better. These days, it’s not unusual for me to play almost subconsciously… I’m picking notes and strumming chords, but I’m thinking about a book I’m reading, or money troubles, or what groceries to buy. (I browsed the web on this topic before posting this and found that many musicians report thinking about groceries.)
If you really try to pay attention to the thoughts that go through your head while playing you’ll find that it’s difficult. You are quite literally thinking about what you are thinking about and it’s very hard for the brain to maintain these two separate streams of thought. It may even be impossible. It may be more correct to say that you first think about playing and then remember what you thought about it a second or two later. To use computer terminology, It’s serial not parallel processing.
That said, I feel like I can sometimes get a glimmer of my thoughts while playing. Some thoughts might be technical issues, like what version of a chord to play at a certain point. Other thoughts may be panicked attempts to recollect what the chord even is. Or I might be thinking about some hip idea I want to try. (Usually it fails.) If I’m singing, I may try to jump ahead and recall what lyrics are coming up. If I’m playing live I might wonder why an audience member is looking at me funny.
There is a sense that I’m not really steering the ship. At times, it’s almost as if I’m listening to myself play and then commenting on it. “Ah, he did that little whole tone scale run.” “Well, he certainly screwed up that chord.” The thoughts come after the actions.
But I’m avoiding the master question here—what should one be thinking about while they play. To ask it another way, “What was I thinking about during my best playing?” Or, “What do the greats think about?”
As I mentioned, I nosed around a bit on the web and didn’t come up with really useful answers*. I do recall an interview with guitarist John Scofield in which he implied that his thinking is rather jumbled. He might think something like, “I’ll aim for the flat nine interval of this chord,” or he might think in a more audio way, like he’s actually thinking with music (as opposed to language. Of course, we seldom really talk out our thoughts in complete sentences—we just sort of know what we are thinking with only some of the language.)
* You might enjoy this quora question: What is going on in the mind of a musician when playing a piece of music?
What I gathered from the web is that many classical musicians use their thoughts to emulate the emotive flow they want for the music. They think of a babbling brook or a sunrise or a story and use that visualization to affect their playing. I have to say that I never do this; maybe I should. I suspect it’s easier with classical music because what you are playing (the notes, chords, etc.) has all been mapped out in advance. With any kind of improvised music, which is often what I’m playing, you have to first decide what you are going to play (the chord shapes, scale patterns etc.) and then how (what dynamics to use, “feel”, etc.) Usually I’m lucky if I don’t screw up the first part.
My suspicion is that the best way to play is to first learn the piece well enough so that you can play it automatically (e.g. thinking about your groceries the whole time.) However, when you are playing live, you should make some effort to attend to your thinking so that you can be conscious if some screw-up occurs (or your subconscious gets distracted by a cute waitress.) This is the sense I get while watching great players; they are running on automatic but there’s still someone steering the ship.
I don’t have any real answers here. I’m curious what works for you.