I just recently stepped back into the recording studio, after being away from it for almost two years.

What I noticed is that there is a unique freedom of the first take that I’m challenging myself to recreate on each subsequent take. Here’s how the process goes: I hear the tracks (usually drums, guitar, and perhaps some vocals) once, getting a bodily feel for the groove of the song. I listen for sounds that I want to imitate or converse with. I notice repeating patterns. By the time I’m two and a half minutes into a song, I usually have several ideas of what I might play.

Then I put on headphones, get set up in front of the mikes, and I hear the same tracks played back in my ears as I play my violin. There is such a freedom on that first take, and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s the lack of judgment. I’ve never played it before, so there’s nothing to compare myself to. I’m just PLAYING. Listening and playing. No thinking. Just trying. And so far, there has always been something (surprisingly) beautiful that comes out of the first take.

The problem is with the second, third, or fourth takes. What happens with these? Well I notice that I’m trying to “live up” to the quality of the first take. Or copy some brilliant idea from that first take, only making it “better” or “more clever’. Or I repeat exactly what I did the first time, thinking too much and making it sound canned. Sometimes, though, when I hit that wall and play about two minutes of what I consider “crap”, I’ll suddenly hear something completely different in the music and go in a totally new direction. A brand new rhythm, a countermelody, or something new in the music to converse with. But as soon as I start attaching too much – liking an idea so much I try to copy and repeat it over and over again, or congratulating myself on my own brilliance so that I start trying to “top” what I’ve just done – I lose the magic. The sound is canned. It sounds scripted. Or like it’s trying too hard.

Noticing this, I work to return to the freshness of the first take, no matter how many times I’ve played before. It requires all the discipline of letting go – even if something worked really well the first time, there’s no need to attach to it or avoid it completely. Just empty the mind. And listen. There’s the urge to look “good” by making each take “better” than the last, fancier, more insightful, or more like the “real” thing. But all of that just blocks the flow. It puts a box around what can and can’t be played, and limits my ability to listen.

And when I do let go, I’m having so much fun using my new “open ears” to listen! I can listen to the tracks, I can listen to my violin, I can listen to my inner voice, and I can even listen to my thoughts pass through my mind and affect my own listening. There is a whole world of sounds to listen to.

The freshness of the first take – and the continuous freedom and motion of improvisation – is something that I’ll apply in my real life too. How often do I stifle my own possibilities by trying so hard to look smart, and put together, and better than before? What if I just relaxed, and allowed what I want to say to simply bubble up from inside me? What if I could feel the freedom of the first take in each new moment of my life?

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, compared this kind of aliveness to the freshness of morning:

“All memorable events…transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere….Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. To be awake is to be alive…We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.”

Finding that freshness – that feeling of a new dawn – is the essence of poetry, music, and a life of the spirit. I have a feeling it’s also the essence of a joy-filled, creative life.