Having ASMR

When I was in kindergarten they still had chalk boards, never thought that would go out of style. But something weird would happen every time my teacher would write on it. I'd get this tingling feeling around my ears and a warm blanketing feeling on my head whenever she wrote on the board. I went into a trancelike state where I'd just stare at the board and just was in awe of the sensation or what I thought was the beauty of that sound, mechanical but with different lengths and speeds of sound and attack. This continued to happen in school but soon was triggered in other places like church, my dad's car or hearing something in the distance. These sensations would get stronger and more potent as I got older and went from just my ears and head to my whole body. I thought it was just me, but apparently other people experience different levels of this phenomenon (I'm probably one of the extreme cases). It wasn't until two weeks ago that I found out what it was called, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR).

I noticed that it happened or could be triggered with certain types of music, legato type with very chordal dissonances (like going to a dominant seven before you get to the tonic with a really low "one" on the bottom, for all the music theory nerds). I'd often seek out music that had this and listen to it as often as possible. It eventually expanded to other types of music but once that happened, sounds in generally started to trigger it as well like wind, water, walking on wooden floors, typing, almost everything if I focus on it. Up until I went to college, except for one case which we'll get to soon, the only things that made it flare were auditory, but after a year studying with my instructor Marc, I found two new ways of triggering it.

When I was in the Percussion Scholarship Group, the main focus was on wrist use and I was pretty obsessed with that, so much so that I'd often only do snare drum in my lesson because it was the crux of that teaching for us. So, when I'd really get into what I was playing, I would feel a very warm sensation in my hands that made me feel the sticks and drum even better and I could articulate mostly anything I wanted, with the technique I had. Fast forward to Marc, he helped me to think beyond just using the wrist alone and showed me how to access the entire body in performance. Not only could I now sense that connection and sensation in my hands but my entire body; it would also be stronger in certain places that I put my attention on, like my lower back or forearms. I now had a tactile trigger, but that wasn't the end of it. The way Marc explained himself, and his encouragements to seek other disciplines that would help me use my body efficiently, I could eventually see when I or someone else was not using an efficient motion or holding tension in certain places. Whenever I saw a shift in the body that went from inefficient to efficient I would get a sharp sensation in that spot specifically. Weird. So I had an audio, tactile and visual trigger. I'm sure chefs have a taste and smell version, which would be cool!

Now, here's the thing. We all have a trigger for one specific flare up of ASMR. This is my opinion and it may be different for others with this ability, but emotional content does trigger very similar responses as my full body experiences, most commonly anxiety, embarrassment or bashfulness. Picture that feeling you get where you kind of freeze up and you feel a warm rush to your cheeks, chest or shoulders, but without the "feeling" of anxiety or bashfulness. That's probably pretty close to what people with ASMR feel on a daily basis, like a rush of energy or warmth without an emotional reason behind it. But, because there is an emotion attached to it, for me, it inherently influences the other triggers. Right now, for instance, I'm dealing with a break up and it obviously makes me sad, but the feeling of giving love and playing music is the same for me, so when I go to practice, it hurts because that part of my life, love, is in pain. Obviously, you can fake it till you make it, but you can see how that connection can leave you very vulnerable in certain situations. At the very least, you know you're still a "feeling" human.

This is probably one of the weirdest blog posts, but I thought it was worth talking about. Personally, I've been able to use these triggers to enhance my playing. The downside now, especially with my studies in philosophy, is that I've become and am becoming more emotionally available so that everything I do is connected to them. I can fake it when I'm having a bad day, but obviously I won't be as engaged like when I "have myself together". The good news is that being this available allows more growth of character and in essence strengthens the music inevitably. Basically, no matter the feeling, I let it happen and embrace it when I can, in the most appropriate and mindful way possible. In the music, if the emotion comes out, I try to navigate it and direct it so that the character and details of the piece remain in tact, but also that myself is in the music. This also triggers certain ASMR's that react with the emotion and the motions or sounds of the piece, making a more complete performance for me.

It is extremely exhausting though. When I took the Cleveland audition, I was basically in a full ASMR mode, physical, audio, visual and emotional states for a half hour straight, and I came out completely spent. I even fell asleep on the couch waiting for the results. Still, this is my personal experience with ASMR and there are a lot of different cases, mild and extreme like me, probably more too. I dare say everyone has some sort of experience with it. If you've ever felt that tingly rush when you get under a warm blanket, or that feeling when smelling your grandma's cooking, then you might have it too. Welcome to the club! If not, well, I probably seem even weirder now, but that's totally fine. I at least hope you found it interesting. ASMR, it's strange, makes me super crazy, hyper, happy, and also helps me make my music.

A Snail's Pace

One of the themes in my overall development has been slow practice. It wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I really understood what it actually meant. I had begun to not only practice notes and rhythms at slow tempos, but I also started slowing the motions themselves down. This could be compared to Tai Chi as far as the idea of slow movements giving you a chance to pin point and fix any unnecessary tension or hesitation. I literally think about every aspect of my strokes and movements towards and away from notes or positions that my body finds itself in. As I speed things along, I try to maintain, as closely as possible, the feeling of ease and care that each stroke had when it was slow. This has done wonders for my overall playing and my awareness during performance. 

My best friend, Sara Neilson, is a bassist and she once decided that she would try to play her long tone exercises as slow as 30bpms. Of course this is difficult because there has to be a certain amount of impulse to get the note going, and there has to be a certain amount of pressure and speed to the stroke to sustain it. I think she eventually was able to play a 56 second long tone....WIth 1 down bow! She of course saw great improvement in her playing overall. This attention to her basic stroke helped her fix more things in less time and that's exactly why I continue to do the same. We now play long tones together whenever we are in the same city. My favorite dance duo, Les Twins, also practice slowly and even perform in slow motion at times (which literally looks unreal). It's amazing to see their bodies, not emulating the perception of slow motion, but actually doing the movements slow! It was incredible.

So please, don't count out the importance of practicing slow. It gives you a chance to locate any mistakes you are prone to making, or even notice bad tendencies and habits during your performance. Take the time now so you don't have to relearn or unlearn anything. Literally, slow and steady will get you to where you want to go. 

Never Prepare.....Respond

Something that I became obsessed with in college was instinct and reflexes within playing. While we work to develop our technique, become more "in control" of our bodies to produce sounds and music, we must also work to develop our instinctual technique. When you hear a sudden drop in sound, what is the instinct? Similar questions can be "answered," or discovered through constantly experimenting, and listening to different versions of pieces, or just any type of music in general. Of course, you have to prepare your music, you have to know the notes, the tempo changes, etc., but the mistake comes in when you are with the group or on the stage and you go on autopilot. Maybe the conductor decides to completely ignore the ritardando, and you are the only one doing it. Maybe you play a solo in an audition at a certain tempo but the hall is too wet, so the tempo you chose makes it sound muddy. If you aren't reacting, through your preparation, then things are more likely to go wrong.

It's probably the scariest, most difficult thing to accept about our development, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important things about performing that we can grasp. It does leave us vulnerable. It is almost counter intuitive to, basically, be willing to ignore your prepared style and method and simply react to what you hear. Maybe your plan works, maybe it doesn't, but you won't know if your closed off from the moment. Be willing to change, or else it might not sound appropriate or clear, etc. Again, prepare as much as you can. You should have control over everything that you can control, but there are always variables that will come up in the moment. The more comfortable you are with reacting within, or without, your prepared method, the better you will feel when change does come. Don't prepare to play, playing should be a reaction, a combination of your prior knowledge, your preparation and the information available to you at that moment. Don't just go on auto pilot, react and respond; that will make the magic happen.