Finding “The Zone” in basketball and music

Along with many other New Yorkers, I’ll be watching tonight’s NBA All-Star game to see NY Knick’s star Carmelo Anthony play, despite his injured knee. This will be the last time he plays basketball this season and even if he’s only on the court for a few minutes, it’ll be nice to see him play.

This all brings to mind his astonishing 62-point game on January 24, 2014, which set a Knicks record. The next day, I combed the numerous press reports for interviews with Anthony himself. I wanted to hear his perspective about why he may have done so well in that game. What was different about that night? What was HIS experience?

I soon found what I was looking for. Anthony tweeted, “It was just one of those zones you go into. Only a certain group of people know what that zone feels like.”  And then I found, buried in a longer article, a more detailed description of what the evening was like for him.  He described how different he felt before the game. Not just more calm and focused, but completely different than usual.  So different, in fact, that in the locker room, his teammates asked him if he was “OK.” He wasn’t buoyant. He wasn’t smiling. But he already knew that the game that night would be different. No question about it. All he had to do was go along for the ride, and watch the ball go through basket after basket, effortlessly.

We’ve all heard the term “zone” used to describe situations like this. But what exactly is “the zone?” From Anthony’s description, it’s not the next step, so to speak. It’s an entirely different state of mind (for lack of a better term), in which one is capable of doing amazing things with complete calm and assurance. (Blessed assurance?) You can’t summon it at will, but on the other hand, it won’t come unless you put in the effort. So you work as hard as you can, and harder.  Then maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have experiences like this at some point.

It’s exactly the same in music. The jazz saxophonist Stan Getz spoke about “getting into the alpha state,” that it, a meditative state in which alpha waves predominate. Keith Jarrett has described this too, as has Sonny Rollins.

Here’s today’s “takeaway” from all this as it relates to piano improv: Practice hard. Learn all your scales, chords, and chord progressions until you know them backwards and forwards and can play them in your sleep. Then when you improvise, stop practicing in that way and just “go for the flow.”

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