01 June 2010

Here Is My Problem

Here is my problem: I am a guitar player and I would like to become a musician. I have become frustrated my repertoire of rhythms, harmony, melodic shapes, and other musical elements that I can hear, identify, and piece together into improvised music. I must be the Taco Bell of musicians: I’ve got just a very few simple ingredients and I’m trying to present a full menu of varied, interesting flavors. Taco Bell is pretty good, though; that’s encouraging.


I am 38 years old – almost 39 - and I would like to become a decent musician before I hit 40. So yeah, this is probably at least on some level a frantic midlife crisis thing. If it turns out that my motivation is terror over my own mortality, I’m fine with that. On the surface of what I understand about myself, I just want to have more fun doing my favorite job in the world: playing music.

I am already considered a good guitar player. I play professionally anywhere from twice to five times pretty much every week of my life. I have toured around the country [for pay with my own hotel room and good food – no van tours]. I have been so uncommonly lucky that I get invited onstage with Grammy-nominated artists – people who have sold a lot of records/downloads/ringtones/whatever. And I have always felt like I could have been getting a lot more out of the experience, musically.

I can get by just fine – I play right notes and I’m always on cue, but the moments in each song where I am just vibing out and playing are too few, and the moments where I am handicapped by my underdeveloped ears and training are too many.

Sometimes I can tell that everyone else in the band is really hearing every little thing that’s going on and playing conversationally, while I am struggling just to identify what I’m hearing – trying to play something that simply isn’t wrong. Once in a while another player will even look at me onstage, play something accented and arch his eyebrows, as if to say, “Here’s what you’re looking for,” so it must be obvious to the better musicians that I’m not hearing things as deeply as they are.

God, I must have been getting by on my personality all these years. The worst part is I think that my musicianship level only just started to bother me because I only recently got good enough that I could hear how far behind I am. I am going to fix that. Right now.

I have a pretty good understanding of how I got to where I am, musically. I still give private guitar lessons, and I can teach pretty much anyone who is interested to play as well as I can right now. I am going to blog my practice journal until my 40th birthday in August of 2011. I plan to reach my goal of developing a much deeper repertoire of musical elements and become a better improviser/musician [they are the same in my mind]. Hopefully my experience will be helpful to others.

Maybe a word about what music is would be helpful to anyone interested in following along. In fact, I’ll try to figure out a way to organize a glossary so that we’re all dealing with the same definitions. Ironically, my biggest goal in this whole project is to get away from cognitive processes and into the musical mind while I am playing, but the way to do that is with a clear-headed, organized approach. Precise definition of words helps.

Music is a para-cognitive perceptive phenomenon by which the human mind organizes sound into pitches and rhytyhms. Damn – that sounds impressive, doesn’t it?! I think the thing I most want to point out here is that while the relationship between music and language is rife with metaphor and other levels of correlation, music is not itself a language; it happens with different apparatus going in and coming out. If you approach music exactly like a language, learning with some combination of imitation and theoretical study, you end up where I am – just stringing together a bunch of musical elements that make sense, but don’t really flow from your soul out through your musical mind and into a fulfilling interaction with other musicians. If you are sincere, sometimes you will be on and you can get through a chorus of song playing apt, creative music, but sometimes you will be stuck in the limits of your developed abilities – sort of musically tongue-tied.

Of course, most people only master language to the level at which they can recognize topics and spit out whatever clich├ęs they have in a meager repertoire. The metaphor runs deep. Fine – let’s ride the metaphor until it runs out. I’m pretty decent with language – I wrote a couple books that were translated into oodles of languages and distributed over the whole earth (which I know is hardly the best metric – it would put Daniel Patterson far ahead of Dickens – but I think it shows that I’m at least proficient). I was born with some natural ability for language, plus I grew up in a home that placed a high value on education, and I was a natural bookworm when I was a kid. I was simply in a language-heavy environment from birth and I caught on. But what makes you good at language is the pleasant conveyance of meaning, e.g. things come to mind like, “That guy is the troll under the fun bridge,” – where you transmit some information in a way that is both clear and charmingly novel. To me the best language is a fun little string of puzzles in which the involved parties have to figure out what the other means.

And that’s where music departs from language – there is no intrinsic meaning. Music simply is. My belief based on orthodox Christian theology is that music exists to glorify God – and probably not much else. The marriage of words and music is not necessary for music to exist – it is a clever invention. Music may lend additional meaning to its accompanying words, but that happens through a process that is itself linguistic in nature, and not intrinsic to music.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve played a lot professionally. Someone please comment and let me know if it starts to sound like I’m bragging about that – I know it’s annoying to hear someone drop names and act big, especially for someone like me who’s never been within a country mile of the big time. Anyway, I’ve played in a lot of different styles in a lot of locales, and every little community of musicians has its own culture and its own literal dialect – things like “lead guitar” - meaning electric guitar (old timey Missouri “country gospel” music), or the surprising number of different understandings of the word “head” in different circles. One of the most apt words I’ve picked up is “Flow”, which seems to exist in the R&B and hip hop lexicon across a lot of territory. The idea is that you’re improvising from your heart and everyone just knows what to do.

This is what music is when it is music. It flows out of you. You may have gone to hell and back between elementary school and university/conservatory, learning your instrument, notation, theory, formal ear training, and a lifetime of adding to your repertoire, but those things were all just tools to build your connection to the ethereal mystery that is music. When you play music, you draw on all that stuff, but ultimately it just flows out of you. Charlie Parker famously quipped, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that crap and just play.” That point – when you have invested enough time wisely enough to load lots of music into your mind that you can forget it all and just play – that’s when music is alive and real. That is what a musician does.

Hmmm… seems like it’s time to state a quantifiable goal and get to work. I wrote at the top of the page that I want to be a good musician by the time I hit 40 a little over a year from now. Okay – what is “good musician.”? I guess that means that whatever I’m playing, I recognize pretty much everything I hear, know where it is on my instrument, and have a whole range of learned musical elements with which I can answer what I just heard with something relevant, novel, and musically appealing.

I want to do the same thing with music that I can already do with conversation: wherever I am, whatever the context, I can understand what I hear and answer creatively and cleverly. In language it is a matter of being a witty, charming conversationalist; with music, it is a matter of reforming relevant musical elements and spitting them out in a way that interacts very specifically with the rhythm at hand.

I can already do that on a blues gig. Maybe that’s why I don’t have as much fun playing straight blues – there are few surprises. If I go to a jazz jam, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to hear a lot of unfamiliar stuff – lots of stuff that I can’t figure out on the fly, that I would have to record, take home, and learn to be able to do anything with it next time. To get a serious jazz bag together in a year might be too tall an order – though Charlie Parker said he learned everything he knew in a very short space of time (woodshedding eighteen hours per day). Let’s put jazz in the maybe pile. Or let’s say that jazz is my next pursuit, and I’m going to get a head start on it in this segment of my quest.

I’m playing a lot of R&B gigs right now. Actually that probably has more to do with my state of mind than anything else. I’m playing with really good players. Ironically, I am probably the least advanced R&B player on the stage at any time, but I end up carrying the ball a lot because I play the only melody instrument. So I am constantly confronted with my frustrating limitations as an R&B player. I could say that my goal is to load up my mind with a much deeper reserve of musical elements from the R&B genre and to vastly sharpen my aural acuity in recognizing all those elements (“vocabulary” and eartraining).

Also I know from general life experience that the best way to get something done is to simply start doing it. I might be better off to just say I’m going to develop my musicianship in mostly diatonic and predictably-modulating [R&B and traditional jazz] tunes, starting with

It’s not just being able to improvise – a machine can literally be programmed to do that. It’s being able to recognize everything going on around you – rhythms, harmony, melodic contours – and jump into the stream of music pretty much unselfconsciously, interacting with the other musicians and contributing deliberately, intentionally, to the music. That’s what I’m after – improvising with recognition and intent. Ideally I will hear music, recognize all the little parts individually and as their rhythmic-harmonic-melodic whole, and then react to it with my musical mind acting through my instrument. I hear with my ears and react with my guitar, all the while not really thinking about any technical stuff, just reacting and acting from the musical part of my heart, soul, and mind.

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