Now and then, random aspiring DJs ask me if I can teach them the secret to my DJing techniques. “I just want to see what you do, look at your technique”, is the typical phrase they use. Every time my response is the same. The technique is the easiest part of DJing – and it would be a waste of our time for me to guide them through something they can read in a manual. Where I could be of help though, is to teach them about intuition, and the psychology behind what I do. I believe these “soft skills” of understanding the room and knowing how and when to apply the right selection are crucial to being a superb DJ. Yet when I explain this they back off, they believe that DJing is about physical techniques or “hard skills” (beatmatching, cutting, efx, etc). I will take this opportunity to explain more about the soft skills of intuition and empathy that bring DJing to another level and how I began to understand their importance. More after the break.
The intuitive process of the DJ
The dancefloor was packed with dancing people and the room was vibrant and intense – but within a blink of an eye I just knew that I was about to lose a big part of the floor. I had two choices – I could either accept the fact that something needed to be done or let this hint from my unconsciousness pass and see what would happen. I chose the latter – at that time I was more curious to see if my gut feeling was right, than keeping the floor packed.
What I am describing here is an example of a concept called adaptive unconscious as it relates to inference. It is int he field of cognitive psychology, and is essentially the study of decision-making based on inductive reasoning. Before we jump into the world of snap judgment in the DJ/club arena, let me give you insight from a study in the field.
Scientists in Iowa set up a simple experiment, based around a basic card game. Four decks of cards, 2 red and 2 blue. The player would win and lose money by drawing cards from these 4 decks. The participants didn’t know that the blue cards were better (for winning) than the red cards, but after approximately 50 draws most participants would start to prefer the blue – and after 80 cards most people had figured out the game and could explain why blue cards were better than red. They had developed a theory or conclusion based on observation – that is how learning works. The scientists also did something else. They hooked each participant up to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands below the skin in the palms of their hands. Like most of our sweat glands, those under our palms react to stress as well as temperature. The researchers found that the participants started to show stress symptoms after only 10 cards – 40 cards before they started to change their behavior and 70 before they developed a conscious theory.
Some people call it intuition, or sixth sense, and many of us probably don’t even have a name for it. “I just knew” or “I just felt that…” we would say. Giving it a name can be hard, but the real challenge comes when you try to rationalize upon your decision. Why did you go down that path and what gave you the courage to believe in yourself – and of course – how can you train this subconscious ability to make the right decision every time.
A couple of years ago I began meditating over my experiences in comprehending and reading the floor, in an attempt to become more aware of how and why I had a fairly good ability to understand and react to the situation on the floor. I started digging into my past, all the way back to my early “just starting to go out” years in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was around 16 when I started hitting the clubs (this is perfectly normal in Denmark) and interestingly enough I went alone 9 out of 10 times. I liked going out alone to clubs, bars, discos – not that I didn’t have close friends or friendly acquaintances – but I was a bit of a loner. I was an observer – a fly on the wall kind of guy, always there to watch, listen, and learn. I wasn’t lonely and I felt very comfortable walking into a club alone, and have always had an easy time blending in with very different crowds ranging from the hardcore metal scene to the cosmopolitan jet-set milieu. I had the ability to disarm the most aggressive personalities because I really saw through the layers of anger and into their hurt minds and souls. Without realizing it, I was training my ability to read and understand body language, facial expressions, subtle gestures and the talk people talk when they are actually saying something else. The music was not linked to my observations yet and I had not even started DJing yet (my first gig was in a small RnB club 3 years later). I was an observer – sucking in whatever signs and cues came at me, and I have never stopped. I still spend a lot of time alone in clubs observing, analyzing, recognizing patterns and feeling. Though the purpose is somewhat different now than it used to be – today my main focus is obviously how the floor/crowd reacts to the music.
Maybe I should mention that most of my observation time is spent sober – not that I don’t drink, but I feel that I best absorb the world in a sober state. I realized that the time I spent training my senses, all the way back from my teenage years, is one of my biggest forces as a DJ. And I have since tried to advance it by meticulously focusing my energy on training those abilities and rationalizing over my observations. It’s like learning a language.
Becoming a better DJ
So, how would I advise the aspiring DJ to grow these skills? Stay sober, keep sharp and train by yourself or with other DJs that you can team up with. Listen to your inner voices – try to predict the future by listening to your inner voices. Combine your subjective awareness with a rational breakdown of your observations. Try to link your rational thinking mind with your subconscious processing of the ambiance in the room and the clues your brain is receiving and processing. Here are some of the obvious things I would look for: Is the music too loud, or too low. Is the tempo right, is the music dark, soulful, cold, light, perhaps aggressive, and how do these attributes affect the room.
Some of the more subtle yet complex things might be: Are those 3 girls on the dancefloor in 2 inch stilettos, swaying almost to the rhythm of the music because they like the music, or are they here because someone told them that this was the hippest club in town, or are they simply waiting for the music to take a more soulful angle. And are the stilettos they are all wearing simply an inherent sign of the corporate party they were forced to attend before entering the club – which are now just inhibiting the 3 used-to-be-ravers from dancing wild?
And how about that guy dancing all animated. Was that look he just sent around the floor a sign of him slowly losing his attention in the music or was he just checking that his friend hadn’t left him. And what if he was actually losing his attention in the music, how would you react? Would a bit of dynamic EQ or maybe some effect alterations draw his attention back to the music, is he waiting for you to pull out the prime-time tracks? The options are many, but the more you practice to recognize these cues, signs and patterns – the better your subconscious will be able to process them next time your are behind the decks. All it takes is a few glimpses or scans of the dance floor and you will know what is going on in the room, and you will free up processing power in your brain so that you can make better selection decisions.
If you want to improve fast then mentor-ship is a powerful way to bolster your intuition. The mentor should be talking through their thought process and explaining their reasoning – why does he/she think that this particular cue or sign is telling him/her something. Hopefully it will tell you something about the situation that you did not already understand. I have had a few good mentors in my life who absolutely have been important in helping me develop these skills by explaining their thought processes. Thinking out loud is a great way to share the intuitive process that is going on in the mind – it works much better than any attempt to write it down.
The mentor should teach the novice how to access situations through the process of asking questions and listening to the answers.
Finding a good mentor is not easy, they should have empathy and good communication skills, and it should be someone who sincerely wants to help. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I have been asked to mentor aspiring DJs quite a few times by now – and I always find it interesting to see how little attention these aspiring DJs pay to the intuitive side of DJing. Their main focus is typically of technical character and how to get jobs. Even when I explain the importance of the intuitive process of DJing, the technical side takes over their focus.
I hope that this post has cast some light on the importance of training your intuition as a DJ. Please share your thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear your ideas on how to enhance intuition.
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