Penetrate the Message (or, Becoming One with a Piece of Music)


Yesterday I was playing John Lennon’s Imagine on the piano, and the weirdest thing happened.

The chorus of that song, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” etc. is the most complicated part of the song to play on the piano. Especially for a newbie like myself.

I played that section hundreds of times while I was learning it, and hundreds of times I made a mistake. Not always in the same place, I made mistakes everywhere.

But in the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling like I have it. Like I know the part (and the song). Technically, anyway. I know where my fingers should be at any given time. I can play it through without a lot of mistakes.

But yesterday I was playing it, and I felt it. The chorus part just flowed straight from my heart through my fingers to the keys, and I played the part smoothly, just feeling it there playing out in front of me.

You might think, sure, isn’t that what musicians are supposed to do? And you’re right, it is. But when you’re new to an instrument, you are, understandably, mostly dealing with the mechanics of playing the instrument. Where are your fingers supposed to be, and what are they supposed to be doing?

When I felt that I was really flowing with Imagine and just playing it, rather than thinking it, it reminded me of a time I had the same feeling.

I was on stage with Boom Shaka at The Palace Theater in Hollywood. We were playing a song called Check You Still, and suddenly, I was flowing. It felt like I lifted a few inches off the stage. I’m not kidding. It was kind of an out-of-body experience.

I credit the founder and driving force of Boom Shaka, Trevy Felix, for leading me to that experience. He let me know that he was unhappy with the way I was playing. Or rather, with the feel of my playing.

I’d heard Boom Shaka’s songs hundreds of times when I was the sound engineer for the band before I started playing guitar in the group. And I’d played many of them myself a hundred times since becoming a guitarist in the band. I knew them, and I knew I was playing them “right.”

But Trevy wasn’t satisfied. “It doesn’t feel right, man,” he said to me one day when we were alone in our rehearsal studio.  At that point, I’d only been playing reggae guitar for about five years. Before that, I’d played rock for a decade. But I’d been playing reggae guitar every day for years, and here he was telling me the feel wasn’t right.

I kept asking him what he meant because, honestly, I didn’t know. Finally, he said, “You have to penetrate the music, man.” When he said that, I understood. In Caribbean patois, “penetrate” means to get deeply into something, to fully understand it (or I should say, overstand it 🙂).

So I knew what Trevy was asking of me. I just wasn’t sure how to achieve it. A couple of days later, I was eating dinner with Binghi I, the band’s keyboard player. I mentioned that I thought I was penetrating the music just fine, but apparently, Trevy disagreed.

“He’s right,” Binghi said.
“What do you mean?”
“You think too much.”
“I have to think about the music to play it right, though,” I said.
He took a bite of food, chewed it, looked out the window, then put down his fork. “Yeah, but you can’t think about it, man. You have to let it go. You have the knowledge,” he pointed to his temple, “now you have to let it go,” and he flittered his fingers away from his temple like butterfly wings flying away from the table. “Let it go. That’s all.” Then he picked up his fork and started eating again.

That may have been vague advice, but it landed with me, because a few days later, in the middle of the set at The Palace, what Trevy and Binghi had said came to me, and I don’t know how to describe what happened next other than saying I let go. I stopped thinking about the notes, and the music just came. it didn’t even feel like I was playing it. I was just watching it.

Trevy turned around and looked at me and smiled and shouted my name, something he did whenever he was happy with what he was hearing. I looked over to Binghi, and he just mouthed, “See?”

I’d like to say that from that moment on, music just flowed through me like a river, but it didn’t go like that. I would get the feeling from time to time, but it wasn’t lightning I could trap in a bottle and summon up whenever I wanted to feel it.

I look at it as a kind of meditative state that you can access when you really know something inside out (you’ve penetrated it), and you can do the thing without thinking about it. I don’t have enough skill as a musician to live in that place, so I’m just glad to take little glimpses of it when I get them.

I also think it may have been easier for the other musicians in the group to get into that meditative state because they smoked herb, which I didn’t. When I was mixing for the group, a previous keyboard player asked me why I never smoked herb. “I have a job to do. I have to mix,” I said. “Maybe you’d do it better with herb,” he said. Which, at the time, I thought was a little insulting (I was a great mixer, if I do say so myself, and I do). But now, in retrospect, I think he may have been on to something.

When I am lucky enough to feel the music I’m playing in that transcendent way, my heart pounds, and it takes my breath away. I think about how fortunate I am to be here, still standing, still breathing, and making a little music when I can. Music is a direct connection to a world outside of this one where we pass our time.

It’s right out there. You can’t see it, but you can feel it.


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