Sacred Performance: Lessons in Musical Improvisation

As an improvisational vocalist, I don’t consider myself a musician in the way most musicians do. I am not the one who plays the music. Rather, I let the music play me…at least on a good night. So really, Life is the musician. I’m simply the instrument.

I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life immersed in the Toltec tradition of shamanism. The Toltecs distinguish between what is called the Nagual and Tonal. The Tonal is like everything that happens upon the stage of life. It is matter, what we know and can understand. The Nagual is everything that goes on behind the scenes. It is the mysterious, the energetic. It is yin and yang. It is dark and light. It is manifest and unmanifest, seen and unseen. The Tonal is the paradigm we’ve known. The Nagual is beyond paradigm.

As artists, when we become aware of both the Tonal and the Nagual, we begin to better understand the consciousness or life that exists within our performances. In musical improvisation, I am constantly learning what it means to dance between these worlds. The Nagual is what informs a sacred performance. The tonal is the manifestation of that. The challenge of course is representing the Nagual as clearly as possible. Not always an easy task.

In a recent performance with a group of musicians I had never played with (though I’d played with two of the four separately), some of the things that can get in the way of a pure reflection were revealed.

For example, I had to step into the role of time-keeper making sure each section of our presentation went long enough but not too long. I resisted this task, but rather than listening to that resistance, I ignored it, doing what I told myself had to be done. So every few minutes, my attention was drawn to “are we on time…is this piece going too long”…etc.  At our break, a women expressed to me her feeling that the energy was just building when we took the break; she wished we had kept going. While I didn’t agree, I did take on her opinion in the back of my mind, and it later reappeared and influenced my actions toward the end of our second set: I meant to build the energy again.

In my effort, my “push”, I invited one of the musicians to start some “trouble”. I assumed he would keep that trouble within the energetic framework we had already built. He was taken aback, in part by my poor choice of words (what was I thinking?), and dove headlong into a blues riff slamming the oven door on the ethereal souffle we had baking, caving in it’s light, airy middle. The disconnect with the audience was immediately apparent and, for me at least, incredibly painful.

I tried to ride with it. After all, I know what it is like to go out on an improvisational ledge completely alone just waiting for one of my cohorts to feel it. But my heart just wasn’t in it. And that was perhaps my second mistake. I should have just let it play out, not added to it…hope he would quickly realize he was out there…all by himself. Instead, I forced myself to comply and the result was half-hearted and awkward.

My third mistake came after the vibrational contrast came to an end. I knew recovery was impossible, but I tried to do it just the same, and I found myself out there…alone…overly loud…and taking people where they simply didn’t want to go. They’d had enough. So had I. Ouch. I know not everyone had the exact same experience as a result of the slip. Some people may have enjoyed it for all I know. The point is, I knew something had been ignored; I knew the potential that hadn’t been reached even if no one else did. Although, on the subconscious level, aware of it or not, everyone knew.

Music entrusts itself to me. An audience puts its faith in me to lead it with care. In a moment, I had failed music and the crowd and my fellow musicians. But that’s just one hand of a two-handed story. On the other hand, Life moves in mysterious ways. While it may seem paradoxical, ultimately, our performance that night was perfect; it made me a better sacred performer. I’m grateful it played out just as it did, even if I wouldn’t care to repeat it.

The point of all painful lessons is to learn from them. So, what were my lessons that night?

1) Clocks do not belong in what I do as a sacred performer. A piece lasts as long as it lasts. An offering (show) goes as long as it goes. Breaks come  when they come, not when they are scheduled. This is a challenge in a world run by time and expectations of time.

2) I of all people know how important a word is! But just because I wrote a book about it doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. If I’m clumsy enough to use the word “trouble” instead of the words “take us someplace beautiful”, then I’d better expect trouble! As our manifestations become more and more spontaneous, it is more and more critical to choose our words with care.

3) Never go where the heart of the Nagual isn’t leading. Silence is better than a cover-up,  an attempt to fix, and co-dependent thinking.

4) Don’t try to please anyone but the Nagual. Release opinions and feedback and stay in the moment.

What lessons have you learned in improvisation?