Pruning

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Good gardening is not growing–it’s pruning.

Good writing is not writing–it’s editing.

Good drawing is not drawing–it’s erasing.

Revision is what separates good art from bad.

Gardening, writing, and drawing are creative processes that transfigure materials that exist in space, not in time.

Music, on the other hand, exists in time, not space. (While a score or a CD exists in space, neither one is really the artwork. Or if they are art, they are examples of calligraphy and industrial design respectively.)

In composed music, there is a time period between the idea and the realization. This is the time of revision: pruning, editing, and erasing.

In improvised music, there is no time period between the idea and the realization: the composing and performing are one and the same.

So, how does an improviser prune, edit, or erase? Is it possible to revise? When?

I Suck

I suck. Or maybe it is more appropriate to say I sucked. I don’t always suck, which is why it is painful when I do.

All musicians of all levels no doubt have crappy gigs. Of course, we’re not talking about the sort of crappy gig where your amp blows up, you get heckled by the audience, or the club owner cheats your band out of money. We’re talking about that experience when you have had a crappy gig and you just know it, even if no one else does.

Of course, at this stage in my career, when I suck, I’m still probably better than a lot of people. This is not bragging, really; this is what it means to be a professional. If you pay money to see me play, I’ve performed and practiced enough that you’re probably not going to know when I suck, which is as it should be. If you’re going to give up an evening to see me on stage, I owe you a quality performance in return.

So I don’t think that tonight the audience in general was thinking, “Wow, the guitar player sucks.” A couple of musician friends who I really respect seemed to have genuinely enjoyed my playing. So maybe having a really shitty gig is not so much a disease of music so much as a disease of process.

Carl Jung wrote somewhere that jet lag was the condition that arises when the physical body has traveled so quickly that the soul has not had time to catch up with it. That for me is pretty close to what a bad playing experience feels like. It’s like my brain and hands are just a little out of sync. It’s not an overstatement to say that I just don’t feel at home in my body, that all of my movements are just a millimeter or two off. I know what I’m capable of and I’m just not hitting that mark. Imagine if you were wearing an expensive outfit with a pair of dirty underwear. To the world, you would look sharp and put together. To yourself, you’d know you were looking good, yet that dirty, icky feeling would nag at you all day and you’d feel gross.

So tonight I felt out of sync with myself. There are just some nights that the guitar you’ve played forever just doesn’t feel comfortable to you. Lately, also, I’ve been practicing  a lot of electric bass, which means when I play electric guitar, the lighter strings and shorter neck just allow my fingers to fly. The problem is that my fingers are capable of playing way faster than my mind can think, but the fingers seem to want to move at their own pace whether they have input from my brain or not.

So my technique is good, but my ideas aren’t (or perhaps nonexistent). And then I also make plain sloppy mistakes, like forgetting to retune a detuned string, kicking in the wrong effect box for the wrong song, or knocking my music off of my stand. On a good night, when I am in the zone, I can likely turn any of these mistakes into something that seems intentional or, at least, I can use the humor of the situation to propel me and add a spirit of fun for the audience. On a bad night, these mistakes just sting and that’s where it ends.

Also, the longer you play, your playing starts to suck in different ways. At this point in my career, I’m frequently pushing against the limits of what I can and can’t do and I am more frequently taking chances I couldn’t have taken when I was younger. So the higher you get, the further and more painful the fall.

Generally when I’ve played badly, I want to get off stage and pack up my stuff and leave as soon as possible. Sometimes this means I don’t say goodbye to everyone, but I just need to get out of there and move on. Usually, I’ll stop on the way home and buy a donut or two–that seems to soften the blow a bit.

So what will I do now? Well, tonight I’m writing, which is often a very good way to understand your mind by slowing down your thinking so you can express yourself coherently. Other times, I’ll want to practice, even when I come home from the gig very late. I’m not sure if I will practice tonight, but if I do, I think I will practice playing very slowly. I’ll practice playing melodies and not scales. Right now, I need to work on being deliberate, to not let my fingers drive the show.

There’s a very good exercise that helps me focus on playing melodically rather than letting the fingers fly. This comes from one of Joe Pass’s guitar books. Find a set of chord changes and solo over them. But there are two rules: one, you must play only eighth notes with no rests; two, no swinging–it must be straight eighth notes. Since you can’t be fancy and you likely don’t have access to your usual bag of tricks, the only interest can come from playing tunefully. This exercise works for any set of chords (and probably even no chord changes, although I haven’t tried it), and any style. It’s like taking a musical shower.

Joe Pass knows you suck. You can see it in his eyes.

Then again, if we didn’t suck and we didn’t practice, we wouldn’t strive to get better. At least that’s what I tell myself. Right now, I just know I sucked, and it doesn’t feel great.