Commercial airplanes are mostly flown by computers. There’s just a tiny fraction of time during the flight that a pilot actually has to fly the plane. Pilots spend years learning to fly, and spend the majority of their air time sitting at high altitudes doing essentially not much.
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Last night was a rough show for me. I ate some bad BBQ right before going onstage, and felt awful the whole night.
Mid way through the set I was on empty. I wasn’t feeling the music at all, and drifted into autopilot.
As as we walked offstage, the show’s MD told me I’d played amazing. At first I thought he was just trying to make me feel better. Listening back to audio recordings of the show I realized he was right. I had played pretty well.
Musicians are paid to show up and pour everything we can into a performance. That’s impossible to do every single time, because we’re human.
Pro musicians have developed the ability to let an autopilot step in when we’re not capable of making a great performance. We need the help of our internal automatic defaults to create the best performance we can when we’re running on empty.
Our autopilot mode is only as good as we’ve built it. It comes from hundreds of hours of caring about the music we play, and establishing routines that we default to instead of strive for.
P.S. Be careful how much you rely on autopilot mode. Automatic responses don’t handle changes, emotions, and unexpected problems well. But in a pinch, it’s invaluable for delivering consistent performances night after night.