Finding your zone… without fisticuffs

Chris JonesMany people ask me (though I should say that I use a very broad definition of the word “many”) what performers do before a show to get mentally and perhaps spiritually prepared. How do they get in what is often referred to as “the zone”?

I never have a very good answer, because there could be hundreds of answers to that question, and who has time for that? Performers are all very different from each other, and so what works for one may be useless for another.

For some it may simply be prayer, or some form of meditation. For others, it may involve eating a bag of Oreos with a shot of Jack Daniels (followed by prayer).

Artists are a highly individual and temperamental lot, so it’s hard for anyone to come up with a one-size-fits-all system for preparing to perform. Artists are often great experimenters too, so they may tinker with whatever their old method of preparation was.

I can say what I do personally to get into the right mindset to perform (I won’t go into it now, but it involves reruns of Get Smart and a big ol’ rhubarb pie), but I’d much rather hear what others have to say. So, in the past week, I set out to get some answers from various well-known bluegrass musicians (and here I also use a very broad definition of “well-known”) about how they get in their performance “zone.”

I specifically avoided asking them what they recommend; I only wanted to know what they do. What follows is some of the answers I got. Note: some of my respondents were self-conscious about their methods and asked that I not use their names. Others had no names, so I’ve simply assigned them random ones and said what instrument they play:

  • “Bob” – mandolin: “I usually try to sit by myself for a while and stare at the ceiling until my neck gets sore, then I stop. I never check messages on my phone unless I get an alert that I have a message. Then I check it. That’s pretty much it. What was your question again?”
  • “Donna” – fiddle: “My contract rider calls for a pound of tough steak to be waiting for me in the dressing room, preferably Angus (I have no idea why), though I would accept Hereford. Then I spend about 15 minutes pounding it with a meat tenderizer. Sometimes I pretend the meat is my former manager (and current husband). It really helps relax me. Then I do a few bow arm wrist stretches and I’m pretty much good to go.”
  • “Bob” (a different “Bob” from the first “Bob”) – guitar player/lead singer: “I do some vocal warm-ups that usually involve making an ‘ooh’ shape with my mouth, then singing Little Glass of Wine or sometimes Little Old Lady From Pasadena. Then I close my eyes and go to my ‘happy place,’ which is the Dixie Trucker’s Home on interstate 55 in Illinois.”
  • “Barry” – banjo: “I usually hold my banjo and do an imitation of Ralph Stanley imitating Regis Philbin. I’m pretty bad at imitations, so it doesn’t sound like much anyway, but it seems to put my mind at ease. Then I gnaw on some beef jerky for a few minutes. That’s about it.”
  • “Linda” – bass: “I can get pretty nervous before performances, but I’m a health-conscious person, so I don’t like polluting my body with depressants or artificial substances. I make myself a pre-show smoothie (I carry my own juicer and blender) consisting of arugula, kale, papaya, Greek non-fat yogurt, alfalfa honey, and just a touch of organic, gluten-free Oxycontin. I find this puts me in just the right state of mind to take the stage with confidence and ease.”
  • “Pete” – dobro: “How do I get in the zone? I usually like to kick somebody’s a** right before the show. Sometimes it’s the sound man, sometimes it’s our mandolin player. Then just a few minutes of meditation while I repeat the words ‘Foggy Mountain Rock’ over and over as a mantra. Works every time.”

If there is a common theme among these musicians’ methods, I certainly couldn’t find it, so there you go. You might try some of these techniques yourself (though I wouldn’t recommend it), or you may experiment with some of your own.

As for myself, all kidding about Get Smart and rhubarb aside, I don’t actually want to get in “the zone.” “The zone” is a cold and uninhabitable place, sort of like the moon.

Next week I’ll share some bluegrass artists’ tips for getting to the moon right before a performance.