Richard Middleton
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"The Heart of the Matter"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, June 2000.

At the heart of music and song is a power so immediate, so old, so personal, and so universal that it transcends all our concerns about being original, packing a room, making a living, making an impression. It's el Duende, "..the wind," as Clarissa Pinkola Estes put it, "that blows soul into the face of listeners."

We all know it when we hear music that speaks this Truth. We all feel it, that presence in the room, that chill up the spine, that laughter that catches us by surprise, that irresistible physical urge to dance, that lump in the throat, that opening of the heart. And, as Estes points out, "When el Duende is not present, you know that, too."

As performers, we know when we're experiencing that flow, that presence. Those times when the room expands, time seems to stop, and it feels like the music is making US rather than the other way around. Those moments may be few and fleeting, but if anything, that transience only strengthens their power to penetrate the mundane. Keith Jarrett once said that experiencing even just one or two such moments during a concert can make it all worthwhile.

Of course, those moments can be a bit too few and too fleeting, leaving us feeling competent at best yet somehow spiritually disengaged. Things might feel a little "off," or we're having trouble concentrating. Maybe we're thinking about that couple in the corner that won't stop talking, or whether we'll be able to hit that high note coming up in the bridge, or wondering, "How am I doing?" That deeper, grounded state of mind we seek can sometimes seem as slippery as a watermelon seed.

On a more subtle level, our very identities as performers (and as people) can block the flow, too. It's easier to understand this notion from the perspective of the audience. We've all seen musicians who use the audience as a mirror, reflecting back their own pride or shame. We've all seen musicians who put more energy into their persona than they do the music, and have experienced how unsatisfying that can be. Of course, a stage persona isn't always distracting or phony; sometimes the most stylized performance can be the most compelling, while the most earnest attempt to be "real" can be least convincing. Some masks hide and some masks reveal.

At other times, we're so caught up with the technical demands of our craft that we are, essentially, rehearsing even when we're onstage. We're still coaching and critiquing and monitoring ourselves as we perform. All the work of rehearsal and preparation is necessary, but not during a performance. Onstage, it's best to leave all that behind. Trust in your skills and get out of your own way, out of the way of the music. Let it happen. There will be times when we have to buckle down during a show to sharpen our execution, but too much self-talk and focus on chops keeps something deeper from happening, blocking the flow of emotion and Spirit.

So how can we keep the channel open? Sometimes it's a matter of simply listening to the music, to the beauty of the song, of your instrument, of your voice, of the musicians playing with you. Open to the beauty and become absorbed in it, let it cast its spell. Another fertile field of attention is your body. "Listen" to the physical sensations of playing and singing, of the rhythm in your gut and butt and limbs, of the feelings and energy that rise up in sympathy with the music. Feel that energy fill your body and flow outward to fill the room, to fill the whole world. Everyone else will feel it, too.

When you perform, notice whether you're "trying." What are you trying to do or not do, be or not be? Consider the possibility that there's nothing to try, that what you seek is already there, in the music, in the moment. All the trying is done — the song is written and rehearsed, the audience is assembled, the guitar is tuned — and now something else can happen. Don't try, just allow. Yes, it takes effort to put on a good show and there are decisions to be made onstage, but there is also something more.

What's most satisfying, for performer and listener alike, is feeling that deeper presence, that Duende, that resonance that stirs the soul. No matter what the style of music or the setting, that potential for transcendence is always there.

Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).