Learning to See

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Friedrich Nietzsche, the most brOOtal of all philosophers.

In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche examines the German higher education system of that day (circa 1888). He argues that educators should teach students how to do three things: see, think, and read/write.

Of the three terms, it was his notion of what it is to see that struck me as having some immediate musical use.

In Nietzsche’s view, seeing is not merely about the sensations caused when light hits our retinas, stimulates an electrical impulse which is sent to the brain, from which the brain gets ideas about things in the world. As anyone who has played the game I Spy knows, just because a signal reaches the eye does not mean you actually notice it. Nothing is really hidden in an I Spy puzzle, but you don’t notice it without a some patience and brain power.

So what does seeing have to do with music, which is about hearing? Well, I think that anything Nietzsche says about seeing can also be said of hearing.  In Nietzsche’s sense, both seeing and hearing, although they certainly have a passive component in which our senses receive raw data, also include a component where we consciously examine sensory inputs and decide how to respond to them. For example, assuming that they have no serious neurological or physiological damage, anyone should be able to hear a sound. However, it would take some more musical sophistication to realize that the sound is called a C-major chord, and yet more sophistication still to figure out how to respond to this information.

Nietzsche thought of seeing as a considered processes. People who can see in this sense have been educated to take the time to “investigate and comprehend” what they have seen before they make any judgments about it. It is taking the time to mindfully consider what the eye perceives rather than act on it impulsively. Or in common parlance, look before you leap. 

Nietzsche argues that the first step in developing any sort of spirituality as a person is this:

Not to react immediately to a stimulus, but to have the restraining, stock-taking instincts in one’s control. Learning to see, as I understand it, is almost what is called in unphilosophical language “strong will-power:” the essence of it is precisely not to “will,” the ability to defer decision. All unspirituality, all vulgarity, is due to the incapacity to resist a stimulus–one has to react, one obeys every impulse.

In other words, if a friend voices an uncomfortable political opinion, it is a spiritual practice to listen quietly and respectfully to whatever he or she has to say before you respond to it. At the same time, it is absolutely not tacitly agreeing to everything someone says. It’s that you take a moment and think first. Similarly, if we hear a difficult piece of music that is not to our taste, we at least take the time to listen to it completely, attentively, and quietly before we pass judgment.

I think there is a pretty clear connection between these ideas about seeing in this sense and hearing in musical improvisation. After all, isn’t improvising ultimately about how a musician reacts to aural stimulus? And maybe bad improvising, while sometimes reflecting a lack of theoretical or historical knowledge, is mostly about an inability to control  impulses? Isn’t the tendency to overplay really just a psychological tendency to overreact?

I suggest that bad improvising is this: playing before listening.

Of course, the speed at which most music occurs doesn’t really give a lot of extra time for contemplation. A big part of learning how to improvise is absolutely learning how to think about and react to aural stimuli very, very quickly. While a painter can take the time to see a canvas for days before he or she decides whether to add a new color, shape, or texture to it, a musician’s opportunity to hear, consider, and react to music is ending in three bars. There is hardly enough time to play, let alone think about playing.

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Slow, deliberate, mindful: Mark Rothko takes time to see his canvas.

But maybe that is the real problem: we see more value in doing something rather than thinking about it. A lot of composers have been critical of musical improvisation for this very reason, and they have a valid point. Jazz musicians, for example, tend to improvise melodies, rhythms, or chords impulsively without listening mindfully. In the above quote, Nietzsche says that “unspirituality, all vulgarity, is due to the incapacity to resist a stimulus.” In musicians’ terms, perhaps insensitive, non-musical improvising is the direct result of the incapacity to resist a stimulus?

It doesn’t help that whenever you improvise music in a live setting, there is no shortage of stimuli, much of it, unfortunately non-musical: the sounds of cash registers, the clinking of glasses, the applause of your fans, or the chatter of people not especially interested in hearing music yet still decided to show up to your gig anyhow.

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Adoring fans at the climax of your 32-chorus solo on Giant Steps.

And it is hard not to respond musically to this non-musical stimulus. Are you playing a lot of notes because you have a lot to say, because the tune needs it, or simply to mask the dreadful silence of a big room populated by a distracted and apathetic audience? Of course, it is still possible to make good music that way (a lot of great was made for the chief purpose of getting the artist laid), but I think it would be by accident. Sometimes it can’t be helped: years of musical study and training are not used to create art but to cover the irritating sound of silverware tapping against china.

I think the lesson is this: play as mindfully as possible with the awareness of the speed at which live music happens. We can always add some more judgment to our playing so that whatever we play is something meaningful and important to us and not just merely reactions to sound.

This, of course, really underscores the importance about mindful practice in order to develop the skills of judgment we can use to be better musicians when we’re on the bandstand. Practicing without listening to or thinking about what you’re playing is certain to make you much better at not listening or thinking on the bandstand. Or in proverbial terms: are you driving the car, or is the car driving you?

Getting into Shape

I have a gig: one that pays money, one in which I know I will be treated with the consideration due a professional with my experience.

It is part of our practice as artists to not take these opportunities for granted. Getting work as a musician where you can expect to be paid reliably (if at all, unless you really find value in beer tickets) and work in a clean and safe environment is not something many of us can rely on anymore. It is also a good practice to remember because YOU landed a gig, OTHERS didn’t. It would not surprise me if there is another guitarist who is much more talented and trained than I am who would gladly give his eye teeth for my job.

One way we can honor our colleagues is to treat work seriously when it comes our way. Although guitarists will always have a tendency to judge each other no matter how skilled, I simply refuse to let my own carelessness, poor craft, or unprofessional attitude to lead someone to rightly conclude that he or she would being doing a much better job than I am doing if only given the chance.

Right now I am working on a production of the musical The Full Monty with the Short North Stage, a professional theater group that I have been associated with in the past. It’s a fun book with a nice R&B/rock feel and a lot of nice horn parts. Theater work can make a lot of demands on your time–it is not unusual to have to sit through a 12-hour rehearsal where you only occasionally may get to play for more than a few bars at a time. But in exchange, the Short North Stage has a contract outlining the terms of payment which is waiting for me on my music stand the first day of rehearsal, and I know they will pay me (not in beer tickets) when they say they will. So while I have an obligation to do well for my guitar-playing colleagues who don’t have a gig, I also have a professional obligation to do the best I can for the people signing the checks. It takes a shit ton of money, time, and risk to produce and market any theatrical production. If someone is taking a big financial risk, then I certainly owe it to them to play in tune, show up on time, and be nice to work with.

Since I don’t do theater work for a living, I know that when I sign a contract, in exchange for my pay I have agreed to have the specific skills necessary to work in a pit band. So in between the time I say “yes” to the gig offer and the time I unpack my gear, I must give serious thought to getting myself in shape. 

Getting in shape doesn’t imply that I never practice guitar unless I have a gig, and now I simply have to now relearn everything I used to know. It means that it there is not enough hours in the day to practice every skill I need for every gig I could be offered. I maintain a level of general technical proficiency, but sometimes I need to focus on certain muscles I haven’t used in a while.

Being a professional anything means this: you have the knowledge and skills to adapt your craft/art to any position within your chosen field. A psychologist once told me a story that illustrates this point rather well. There is a respected pediatric psychologist who is hired to head the department of geriatric psychology at a well-known teaching hospital. One day, one of his students asks him, “Professor, when was it that you became an expert in geriatric psychology?”

“Why, when I accepted this job!” the professor replies.

Is he being facetious? No, I think Doc is onto something very important. Being a professional geriatric psychologist is simply a subset of being a professional psychologist. A professional psychologist has the knowledge, experience, ability to adapt, and determination to be a professional geriatric psychologist, or a pediatric psychologist, or a forensic psychologist. Above all, he or she is a professional; in this case a professional who understands psychology very well.

Likewise, I think any professional musician should possess the goods to be a professional jazz musician, rock musician, church musician, or circus musician. Professional musicians, the good ones at least, possess core musical skills which allow them to reliably play appropriate music for any gig.

Note, however, I did not say that professional musician can produce music of the highest possible quality and technical standard for every possible genre of gig. Being professional does not mean that you are a specialist (although most professional musicians I know can play at a specialist level in at least one or two genres).

For example, even though I have never seriously studied classical guitar, I have been hired (and re-hired, thankfully) for both solo classical and chamber music gigs.Does this mean I’m the best classical guitarist going? Far from it.

What it does mean is that if you hire me to play classical guitar, I am going show up on time with the proper equipment, play in tune, look professional, and play with a smile on my face. I am not going to put any strain on the conductor by forcing him or her to spend an excessive amount of time trying to accommodate “that shitty guitarist.” A large part of being professional is knowing how to make what you do seem effortless, which is not necessarily the same thing as being the most technically accomplished musician in the room.

When I say I am getting in shape for gig, I mean something quite specific. It means that I will make an honest appraisal of my own strengths and weaknesses and, based on this knowledge, practice and study exactly what I MYSELF need to know in order to make everyone–the money folks, the stage director, the sound guy, my fellow musicians–not disappointed to have me on the gig. A musician with an unprofessional attitude can very quickly drain everyone else’s confidence and enthusiasm, from the lighting tech to the chorus line dancers. Being unprofessional is both disrespectful and stressful for your collaborators.

Since, as I said, what I need to practice to play professionally for a musical may is probably not what you would need to practice. So first, I take stock of my strengths.

Larry’s strengths as a guitarist:

  • Fluent in many different musical styles
  • Once I learn music, I don’t quickly forget it
  • I have a good ear
  • I can adjust my playing to work with musicians of all backgrounds and skill levels
  • I’m not a complete asshole to work with
  • If I can’t mail something at rehearsal, I will practice it at home until it is right

And I must look at my weaknesses.

Larry’s weaknesses as a guitarist:

  • I am a mediocre sightreader at best
  • I have a tendency to “zone out” and lose focus during long meetings/rehearsals
  • I don’t always properly maintain my equipment or have the necessary backups
  • I lack the physical stamina to regularly play long gigs
  • Isn’t it odd that I somehow have more strengths than weaknesses?

Those are only some, but with this information, I can start to think about how I can adapt my skills to a theater gig. Based on such a list, I might begin getting into shape in this way.

  • Since I know I don’t read music reliably, I cannot depend on my sightreading skills alone to get me through the gig. However, I am good at learning and remembering music. With this in mind, I spend a lot of time at home listening to a recording of the musical and following along with my score without my instrument. Since I’m not very good at counting multiple-bar rests, I will listen for and make a note of cues that will help reorient me if I lose my place in the music. For example, if I know there’s a four-bar trombone solo right before my guitar solo, I’ll make a note to listen for it. Luckily, in musicals, a lot of the more tough passages tend to come right after very prominent points in the action–this actor says this line, that light comes on, a gun shot goes off, etc. Knowing my cues allows me to preserve my energy for playing a difficult part correctly rather than worrying if I have counted 27 or 31 bars of rest. I know that there is a good chance that I will lose my focus so I have to make sure I have other skills that will allow me to play my parts when they’re supposed to be played.
  • The most complicated music in a musical tends to happen when an arranger is attempting to to notate the peculiar rhythmic nuances of different styles of music. For example, funk guitar parts like the type Jimmy Nolen played with James Brown’s band can look as complicated as some late 20th-century serialist music when written down. In this case like, I realize that this ghastly rhythm is intended for a guitarist whose reading skills surpass his or her ability to play funky. Since I feel comfortable in different musical styles, I feel confident creating a new part rhythm part based on my direct knowledge of that style. As any experienced rhythm section player knows, you can likely come up with a more funky, swinging, or satisfying backing part than what the arranger actually notated. Of course, if you share any unison rhythms with the other instruments, you must need to learn those precisely. Or, if your music director demands faithfulness to the music as notated, then you will have to figure out a way to do it. This is where I can rely on my willingness to practice at home and my ability to retain music once I have learned it.
  • While it’s never good to be out of tune, you will never sound worse than when you’re strumming an out-of-tune chord during a quiet section in the lead actor’s showcase piece. Before starting a musical, I make sure that I have a reliable working tuner which allows me to tune quietly and often throughout the show, especially after a number that has a lot of string bending or aggressive rhythm parts. (I prefer those cheap clip-on headstock tuners for this purpose since when I lose them, it’s not a huge deal). I’ll also take stock of my equipment and make sure that all my cords, knobs, and jacks are in good working order. An out-of-tune chord is bad, but so is a unexpected burst of noisy static from a faulty patch cord during an actor’s death scene. I will think about what effects I may need based on the score and which ones I can leave at home. Often an arranger’s instructions to play with a “heavy metal tone” simply means that you should play a part just a little louder, maybe with just a little extra overdrive and sustain, so you can leave your Big Muff at home. Ultimately, though, you have to listen to your music director at times like these. If he or she insists that, by golly, that these directions mean you must absolutely solo like Kerry King from Slayer, then you may need to bring the extra box and  bigger amp.

Kerry King of Slayer–with a frickin’ puppy! That’s not very metal…

I think you get the point. Ultimately by getting in shape, it means that I will be able to enjoy playing the gig, which will allow me to think more about the musical than fingerings. Struggling through your music for two or three hours for four shows a week is just miserable, and is not worth any amount of money. If anything, being professional means that you will likely have a much better time on the bandstand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The What, or the How?

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I have ADHD, the inattentive type. This is not the kind where you can’t sit still. My issue is that I have a hard time selectively focusing. In a support group I attend, there was a discussion about different disciplines ADHD people can use to help manage their symptoms.

Our moderator, a clinician who has ADHD himself, made an interesting point. In managing ADHD, it’s not so important what discipline you use, but the fact that you use any discipline at all. Adopting the discipline of learning a foreign language or learning how to play tennis–two things that don’t seem to have any  specific connection to ADHD–is just as effective as a discipline that addresses nothing other than ADHD specifically. The point is not what you do, but that you adopt any discipline at all since discipline is something ADHD folks sorely lack. The effectiveness is not in the what what, but the how. 

In applying that logic, maybe what you practice is not nearly important as the fact that you practice anything in a systematic and disciplined way. Maybe what we’re actually practicing is not so much quantifiable skills like scales, chords, or tunes. Maybe what we’re practicing is practice.

The concepts we study are simply weights, treadmills, or chin-up bars, any one of which helps us become musically fit. Whether you run or whether you swim a mile, the ultimate benefit is to the heart, to the muscles, and to the mind. Similarly, whether you spend 30 minutes of focused practice on ear training or on learning a standard in all twelve keys, the benefit to our overall musical fitness is the same.

Which leads me to this document that the guitarist Ben Monder has posted online. This is what Ben gives people who ask him for lessons. I love stuff like this. Something I always found missing when I was learning (heck, I’m still learning) is any information on what good musicians actually practice. For the most part, the most vocal guitarists seemed to distill practice (and the skill of a guitarist) to an ability to play fast. When I think about it, I’ve personally become a decent guitarist having never adopted that approach at all, ever. No judgment is intended. Maybe that works for you.

The Ben Monder stuff is most assuredly not sexy. None of his exercises leads directly to playing face-melting solos on your next gig. But this is the sort of stuff I’ve found that is likely to make you the musician you want to be and the sort of musician other musicians will like to play with. Ben’s stuff is systematic, deliberate, and not terribly exciting. Some people might say boring, but I think that’s all in the attitude. This is the sort of stuff that helps build a discipline and pays great dividends over the long haul.

Ben Monder: What to Practice

Practice as Punishment

If I were to ask both musicians or non-musicians to tell me what musical practice is, I suspect that the description would likely include some or all of the following.

  • It is not fun: If you’re having fun, you can’t possibly be learning anything.
  • It is lonely: Practice must isolate students from social interaction with family or friends.
  • It is repetitive: The calisthenic view of practice: repeating scales so many times at such-and-such a speed, with the implication that more is better.
  • It is not creative: You practice other people’s ideas, not your own.
  • You shouldn’t like it: The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that a person can sometimes tell when he or she is acting morally when the right action is more uncomfortable to us than the wrong one. Ergo, if practice is physically or mentally painful, we must be doing it right. Right?

Most of us believe that practice is and should be awful. To woodshed is a common slang term for practicing an instrument, which gives a pretty good indication of what we think practice must be. Historically, the woodshed was where unacceptable behavior of people with lower social status–children, servants, wives, the mentally ill–was addressed by people with higher social status–parents, teachers, clergy, the wealthy–through ritualized infliction of physical and mental pain.

Punishment in the woodshed has these characteristics:

  • It is not fun: If you’re not scared, humiliated, or hurt, you can’t possibly be learning anything.
  • It is lonely: Punishment must isolate the wrongdoer from social interaction with family or friends.
  • It is repetitive:  The physical component of punishment is quantifiable. Six of the best. Twenty lashes. Although there is usually an acknowledged point where most people feel that this quantity is excessive (The Hebrew Bible limits punishment to 40 strokes, “Lest being flogged further, to excess, your brother is degraded before your eyes.”  Deut. 25:3), there is also a sense that ten swats are more effective than five.
  • It is not creative:  You acted on your own (bad) ideas, not the (good) ideas of the disciplinarian.
  • You shouldn’t like it: The punishment for misdeeds must be physically or mentally painful. So, it if hurts, the parent or teacher is doing it right. Right?

The similarities between our culture’s ideas of practice and punishment are evident. No doubt, you can think of other parallels.

So if the woodshed is a place of pain and humiliation but also the figurative place where we practice our instruments, why on earth would any of us want to go there? Why should anyone in his or her right mind want to practice or even play music at all?

The idea that artists must suffer for their art is not one I subscribe to. Pain, although it is certainly a necessary condition for some art, it is not a necessary condition for all art. It may be true that one has to be a bit battered and bruised by life to sing the blues, but I suspect that if you were that sad, destitute, or depressed, you wouldn’t exactly be motivated or even able to pick up an instrument and make music.

While pain doesn’t necessarily lead to great art, the same is also true for pleasure. But since the connection between our emotional states and the quality of our art is not a given, why not go with the one that hurts a little less? Sorry, but I’m going to sound a little more touchy-feely than usual: maybe it is time to move practice from the the dark, lonely, scary, and dirty woodshed to a bright, sunny greenhouse? A greenhouse is rich with the sights and smells of life: bright sun, rich loam, nourishing compost, cool water. The woodshed by definition is where the strength and vitality of a tree are rendered into a pile of dead firewood.  The gardener is the caretaker of the plants, bringing them to their full potential as thriving things. True, the gardener must sometimes prune woody stems and dead-head wilted blossoms, but this is always done compassionately so that the plant reaches its full potential.

I think that effective practice can and should have the following characteristics:

  • It is fun: If you are so focused on overcoming your perceived shortcomings through the repetition of exercises, scales, or arpeggios, the odds against learning anything that will make you a great musician are significant.
  • It is not lonely: Practice should involve asking questions of teachers and fellow students. And sometimes your mom knows that you are jiving more quickly than your audience. Also, many musicians, myself included, lack many interpersonal skills, which can only be learned by being with other people. Besides, later on, knowing every possible inversion of C7 on the fretboard is not as important as not being an asshole on the bandstand. Musicians like to work with nice, friendly people.
  • It is not repetitive:  If we believe that practice is quantifiable, and if we spend the often-touted requirement of ten-thousand hours on the instrument, that means between all of the Berklees and GITs of the world, we should be up to our armpits with innovative guitarists. We’re clearly not. The sociologist William Bruce Cameron first made the observation that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Does practicing major scales for three hours a day make you better than someone who practices them for two? Does knowing three modes make you a worse musician than someone who knows twelve? Good musicianship simply can’t be broken down into numbers.
  • It is creative:  There is a idea held by many that tasteful soloing or writing beautiful songs is the result of drilling scales, practicing sightreading, or working on picking speed. Although those things are certainly valuable and worth your attention, the only result you can be reasonably certain of is that you will get better at playing scales, sightreading, and picking. If you want to learn to solo tastefully, you must spent a lot of time practicing soloing tastefully. If you want to write beautiful songs, you will need to practice writing lots and lots of songs before any of them can even approach beauty.
  • You should like it: Pain and anxiety are mechanisms the body uses to alert us that something is wrong. Of course, there are certainly cases in which our physical discomfort or fear may be greater than a situation merits (which is a warning to seek the help of a physician or psychologist). But in general, pain teaches us not to touch hot stovetops, while anxiety reminds us to save money for a rainy day. If practicing something is painful or makes you feel bad about yourself, your body is letting you know that something is not right.  Talk to your teacher, an experienced musician, a physician, a psychologist, or a massage therapist about the pain. Pushing through this pain will only make you better at ignoring your body’s warning signals and coping with mental  and physical trauma. If it hurts, be assured that you are not doing it right and something must change before you continue practicing the skill in question.

It is worth noting that many of the factors that can make us a great musician, such as talent, luck, and opportunity, are not reliably in our control. Being a happy, well-adjusted musician is.

A Playing Cat

Whether or not you believe that some periods of music can be superior to others (of course, it often seems like the superior period is usually the one you came of age in!), it is undeniable that American music hit some sort of pinnacle sometime in the mid twentieth century based on the hold it still has on us in 2015.

More parochial jazzers date the end of jazz as they know it to sometime in the mid to late 60s: about the time that Trane went free and Miles went electric. A lot of fans looked on with real frustration when the American folk music revival of the 1940s and 50s was somehow betrayed when Dylan plugged in a Strat at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The experimental music world is still very much defined by Cage’s 4′33″, as well as the groundbreaking compositions of Morton Feldman, Earle Browne, and Christian Wolff–many of which were written in the 1950s. The electric guitars that are still the most popular have not changed much since their releases on the market: the Strat (1954), the Tele (1950), or the Les Paul (1952) still look way cool.

One curious holdover from the mid-century is the reliance of working musicians, in jazz especially (however, I don’t work in country, or reggae, or early music, so maybe these folks do it, too) is the persistence of mid-century slang. You woodshed licks on your axe at your crib so you have the chops to land a gig playing with cats who make serious bread.  Dig?

Did coolness reach its apex in the mid-twentieth century? I’d like to submit this Dale Hawkins album cover as people’s exhibit A. I rest my case.

Lately, I have been devoting most of my time writing arrangements for an exotica project I’ve started called Superfez. Unlike jazz, which relies primarily on improvisation and spontaneous bandstand interaction for most of its interest, exotica (music played by people like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Juan García Esquivel) relies on orchestration–things like dividing up a single melody line among several instruments, employing radical shifts in rhythm or feel in a single tune, and otherwise compositionally creating a unique mix of sounds. This means a lot of thinking and considering beforehand, putting ideas to manuscript paper, editing those ideas, having different instrumentalists give you feedback on what is playable on their instruments or not. It is very different than the thinking-on-your-feet spontaneous composition you do on the bandstand. Writing is not playing.

And after weeks of worrying about instrument transpositions and tessituras, I realized that I was sorely missing the sort of music that comes together primarily in front of audience. I had to admit it. I am a playing cat.

Although this is all pretty familiar slang to working musicians, my reference to it is very specific (I remember odd details about things for whatever reason). It was James Brown’s autobiography The Godfather of Soul where Mr. Dynamite talks about the merits of the excellent session bassist Tim Drummond. Drummond (who passed earlier this year at age 74), I suspect, was most heard by general audiences as the bassist on Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. 

“Tim was a white bass player I had used on some sessions in Cincinnati at King. I’d been asking him to join the band, and when he heard we were going to Vietnam he said yes. He told me he wanted to show the soldiers over there that some white and black people back home were getting along. He was a playing cat–good God a’mighty, I never could get enough of Tim.

In jazz, in rock somewhat, and I suspect some other forms of music as well, being a player has a deeper meaning than simply being able to pluck a string or strike a cymbal in time. It suggests someone with great musicality and sensitivity who can always be counted on to play his or her instrument in a way that places serving the music way above showing off technique.

The playing cat is the musician you can call at the last minute when you need a substitute and is ready to play any form of music in tune, in time, and in the groove. It’s the bass player who knows the difference when you ask for more James Jamerson or Larry Graham. It’s the drummer who is aware of the dynamics of a group and knows how to quickly find his or her niche.

In my world, being a playing cat was my goal when I practiced and listened. I wanted to be the person you could call and rely on to play a guitar part that was personal and creative, yet also always put the needs of the song before anything else. Like Adrian Belew on Genius of Love, or Eddie Van Halen on Beat It, or Jimmy Page (who is the unrecognized master of this form of playing) on Sea of Love. 

In the middle of all my part writing for Superfez, I knew that I needed to spend some time when it was over on my instrument, working on things guitarists work on. Things like tone, chords, learning solos, and so on. I am simply a much better musician with a guitar in my hand than I am typing in Finale or Sibelius.  In a way, if all of the musical activity away from the instrument re-whetted my appetite for it, then I think that is not such a bad thing.

Of course, the problem is, as always, this: what do I practice? Especially someone who aspires to be a playing cat? Recently, I started formulating some real goals for myself based on my relationship with the guitar circa 2015. One of the nice things about getting older is that I’ve realized that really nothing on the guitar is impossible to do because I know a heck of a lot more about how guitar is played now than I did when I was a teenager. At this point, if I wanted to be a metal shred monster, I know I can do it, if I take the 8-10 hours of practice a day to work on it. I know how most things are done, now. This is what experience has taught me.

But experience in and of itself is not playing scales quickly at higher and higher metronome settings. At my stage of life, I’m not particularly interested in practicing 8-10 hours a day. Since I have a day job, I would be giving up the time I spend with my family, not to mention the time I like to spend doing other things I enjoy, such as writing blog posts. I admit, I am a little curious to see what would happen to my playing if I practiced that much. But I like things like daylight, and flowers, and trees, and (most) other people, so I’m not likely to be locking myself in the woodshed any time soon.

So what are the goals now? Well, the most pragmatic goal and one of the most common reasons to practice is to work on music you’re going to be playing in front of people. Along those lines, my electric guitar quartet, Ursonate Quartet, has a bunch of new compositions submitted to us by a lot of very talented young composers, and a concert in early August, so I want to be able to play it right. I’m a pretty lousy sightreader, so don’t expect to put music in front of me and expect me to nail it. I need time with it. I am also tired of having to use my music for my surf band Hypnotide. I’d like to learn our whole book so that I know it by heart. Having a music stand on stage is not particularly rock and roll. In the realm of pure musicianship, I realize I need to spent more time playing guitar with the setup I use on stage, and not just playing on my Tele unamplified in my living room. Now that I am starting to use more effects again, I know I really need to spend some time actually practicing with these tools, and not just kicking in an effect on stage to add a quick jolt of novelty to something I’ve practiced without any processing.

In the world of harmony, like a lot of guitarists, I tend to think of chords more in terms of shape or what is easy to play on the instrument. I’d like to be able to conceptualize chords on the instrument like guitarists (and playing cats!) such as George Van Eps or Ted Greene, namely, playing a collection of notes are the right notes, but not just what is easiest for my fretting hand. For example, a root-position D-minor 7th chord (D-F-A-C), something ridiculously easy to play on piano, is not easily playable on guitar. Dm7_stretch As opposed to the stuff we usually play because it doesn’t strain the fretting hand. Dm7_easierNote: More difficult voicings will definitely require more regular practice, not to mention energy expenditure while playing. Like everything, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Does the cost–more time spent practicing technique at the expense of improvisation, more energy consumption while playing–worth the benefit–being able to access a greater variety of chord voicings? That’s a personal choice.

I’m also thinking a lot more about how to incorporate higher chord tones such as ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths into my soloing. I may practice playing phrases starting on these tones, for example, soloing over C-major seventh starting on the ninth (D), the eleventh (F), or the 13th (A). From there, I might try playing over a whole chord progression starting on the ninth. So, for a ii-V-I like Dm7/G7/C, playing phrases over each chord that begin on the ninth step of their corresponding scale: starting on E for Dm7, A for G7, and D for C-major seventh. This helps get the sounds of these intervals in your head and helps you learn to emphasize notes other than the literal chord tones. So, instead of a solo over G7 emphasizing the G, B, D, and F only, you can emphasize the 9th (A), 11th (C), or (E) as well. It makes things a little more interesting.

In general, you can get a lot of practice material simply through omission of stuff you know already. An example of this is what I just described which is limiting yourself to starting phrases with only particular notes. Similar exercises are easy to dream up no matter what your skill level and force you to be much more mindful when you play, such as:

  • Practice a tune playing all the chords without including any of the chords’ root tones.
  • Play whatever you would on the top four strings on the middle and then the lowest four strings. Not easy.
  • Solo, restricting the types of rhythms (play only half notes with no rests), notes (use any note except the chord tones), or chords (play only two-note chords).

You can learn a lot about something by seeing what happens when you eliminate it. If you solo over an A-major chord using every note except the 5th (E), do you miss it? When do you miss it? Do you want to play it out of habit, or to execute a creative musical idea?

These are the sorts of things I would practice now towards the goal of being a playing cat. Now that I read this, the phrase “to be a playing cat,” stripped of the slang meeting, seems to have an almost martial arts ring to it. I will have to think about this. What is it to be a cat (you know, one of those four-legged fuzzy people) at play? How and why do cats play? How would a cat play guitar?

Can you dig it, daddy-o?

Anyone Can Do This

If there is an argument against democracy, it would no doubt be the comments on music videos on YouTube. I make it a policy not to let my eyes drift down from the performance and see what is written, but every once in a while, my eyes just move that way and I gots to see.

I was watching a video of one of my favorite guitarists, Derek Bailey, giving a solo concert. Here it is.

The usual discussion about Derek’s playing goes something like this.

Angry detractor: Anyone can do that! It sucks!

Adoring fan:, Not everyone can do that. It’s great!

Now, I agree with the adoring fan on both points:

  1. Not everyone has the technique or conception to play Derek’s music.
  2. Derek’s music is great.

What I find problematic is the implied connection between the two: art is good when it is difficult to execute. Also implied is the idea that a technically difficult piece is good because the set of people who are able to execute is so tiny.

There is no necessary connection between great technique and great art. People with average technique can make great art while people with great technique can make bad art. Although seeing someone play an instrument really fast has entertainment value, unless there is some art going on in there, it’s not likely to hold anyone’s interest for very long.  Then again, someone with limited facility with a strong artistic vision can make something that will keep audiences’ attention for years.

So we still listen to the music of John Coltrane, but not many people listen to jazz fusion of the 1970s anymore.  And more people still listen to Johnny Ramone than Stanley Jordan. These are just the facts. I am trying not to pass judgment.

On the other hand, the idea that being a very bad musician somehow makes your music more honest or authentic is bogus. Don’t confuse simplicity or clarity with ineptitude.

So Derek Bailey’s music is great for better reasons than the fact that Derek has amazing technique or tended to play music that few musicians can play (and, truth be told, few audiences want to hear). Although most musicians are glad to point out that just because a band is popular doesn’t mean their music is good, musicians have a much harder time getting behind the idea that just because a band is popular doesn’t mean that their music is bad.

Art, technique, and popularity are sometimes found in the company of each other, so people get confused and think that all three must have some logical and necessary connection. They don’t.

Great art may demonstrate excellent technique or untrained technique.

Great technique can produce good art or bad art.

Popular art may be good art or bad art.

Talent and Luck

The world of art is not a meritocracy. Musicians are happy to tell you about it.

There’s the Berklee-trained drummer who shakes his head in disbelief at Ringo Starr, Moe Tucker, or Meg White while he drags his battered kit through a foot of snow for a gig that will maybe pay $50. There’s the sax player who can play the collected works of John Coltrane in all twelve keys who stands agape at the solos of Albert Ayler, Evan Parker, or Ornette Coleman. Musicians frequently have the habit of comparing their own skills and success against the skills and success of their peers.

Of course, if you don’t realize how cool Moe Tucker is, I might get a little suspicious of YOU.

Their conclusion? Audiences are stupid. Record labels have no ear for real talent. Clubs are more interested in selling beer than in presenting good music.

While much of these can be written off as so many sour grapes, there’s an element of truth as well. Perfect pitch. Flawless technique. Precise intonation. Encyclopedic knowledge. None of these are guaranteed to lead to success. When you get down to it, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even be able to land a twenty-buck gig.

Luck–the accidents of birth of opportunity–always has much more of a role in success than talent.

“The great differences between artists,” writes art historian George Kubler in his highly influential book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, “are not so much of those of talent as of entrance and position in sequence.”  These terms need some unpacking in order to understand Kubler’s thesis. He describes talent as follows.

Talent is a predisposition: a talented pupil begins younger; he masters the tradition more quickly; his inventions come more fluently than those of his untalented fellows.

This view of talent is likely similar to those held by most people. Some people have the proverbial it. While other kids are banging on the piano with their fists, these children are picking out melodies by ear at the keyboard. Since they have a focus beyond their years, they can start their musical training sooner and when they do, they devour it with an intensity that surpasses anything most of us could muster. With this ability to learn, focus, and absorb, talented people are temperamentally predisposed to do the difficult work that is essential to become great musicians. This is not to say that the less talented can’t also become great through hard work, but since our lives are finite, the talented will simply have more time to spend developing their art than late bloomers or slow-starters.

But even still, talent is not enough.

Undiscovered talents abound as well among people whose schooling failed to gear with their abilities, as among people whose abilities were unrequited in spite of their talent. Predispositions are probably much more numerous than actual vocations allow us to suppose.

People who are born to crushing poverty, or in a time of violent upheaval, or without access to the necessary tools are not likely to become great musicians because the accident of their upbringing and education could not provide the proper environment for their talents to blossom. How many Mozarts died under a machete blade in Rwanda never having seen a piano? How many Louis Armstrongs succumbed to disease and hunger before they could even hum a tune? If those examples seem too extreme, how many Georgia O’Keeffe’s were thwarted by a careless remark from their third-grade art teachers?

Talent, Kubler states, must be reinforced with “gifts of fortune” such as “physical energy,” “durable health,” and “powers of concentration.”

Clearly, talent is not enough.

Earlier in this entry, Kubler also attributed the success of an artist to two other ideas: entrance and position in sequence. These factors are are also out of an musician’s control. Quite simply, we are unable to choose when we pop into existence. If we generalize and assume that jazz guitar is a single tradition, you could have been born early in the tradition (Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt), in the middle of the tradition (Joe Pass, Jim Hall), or later in the tradition (Bill Frisell, John Scofield). Of course Charlie Christian was an astoundingly talented innovator, but his particular talent and temperament were able to take root in the swing era. If Bill Frisell had lived in the time of Charlie Christian and of swing, it is not a given that he would come anywhere near the stature he enjoys among jazz guitar fans in 2015. He might have been a mere footnote, a tiny blip, or may have been discouraged from even starting to play.

This part of musical success seems especially cruel. Kubler writes, “Without a good entrance, he [the artist] is in danger of wasting his time as a copyist regardless of temperament and training.” I will not be so bold as to make any grand proclamations about which guitarists were the innovators and which were only the pupils and followers. I’m sure lots of people will have different opinions about who is who.

Kubler thinks that comparing different artists in a sequence or tradition is ultimately of little value.

It is meaningless to debate whether Leonardo was more talented than Raphael. Both were talented. Bernardino Luini and Giulio Romano also were talented. But the followers had bad luck. They came late when the feast was over through no fault of their own…Talent itself is only a relatively common predisposition for visual order, without a wide range of differentiation. Times and opportunities differ more than the degree of talent.

Also Leonardo and Raphael, but I think Kubler meant someone else.

Thinking about the jazz guitar tradition, Kubler would find it pretty senseless to argue whether Django Reinhardt was more talented than Jim Hall, or whether Joe Pass was more talented than John Scofield. Kubler, who is highly suspicious of the concept of innate genius, thinks that the talent needed to be Django, Jim, Joe, or John is for the most part pretty similar, although there might be slight differences. To play on the level of any of these guitarists requires keen ears, a developed sense of timing, physical dexterity, and good musical judgment. What makes these men so different is when they were born, when they started playing, their education, and the state of the music world when they entered it. A young guitarist starting out now has access to many more things than Charlie Christian did in the 1930s. Charlie didn’t have the access to the almost limitless music available on the Internet. He didn’t have access to the many instruction books now for purchase and the colleges that provide a rigorous and systematic study of jazz. He didn’t have access to the quality of musical equipment that even a beginning student can afford today.

But Charlie Christian not only had it: he also had the when. Charlie Christian was there at a time that was able to process, accept, and understand his special gifts. Likewise, Charlie Christian was able to adapt his personality, judgment, and tastes to the music of his time.

So, the drummer grousing about Ringo Starr, Meg White, or Mo Tucker may be absolutely right in once sense: he or she may be a much more talented drummer than any of these people. However, because of the opportunities afforded to these three by entrance and position in sequence, they were there.

You’re not.

And no matter how many hours you practice, you never will be.

I think a lot of people would view that conclusion as discouraging. And it may be for some people. But there is also a sense where that conclusion is very, very liberating.

Once we realize that whether we are considered innovators, geniuses, or trailblazers is something absolutely not in our control, it allows us to relax and focus on the things we can. While a good ear, great technique, and a sophisticated musical sense do not guarantee you a place in the guitarist hall of fame, I can pretty much guarantee that these traits will greatly enhance your enjoyment of both playing the instrument and listening to music. Barring poor health, dire economic circumstances, or lack of resources, you can exert a good amount of control over how deeply you choose to understand your instrument and your art. You can’t make yourself Jimi Hendrix. But it is perfectly in your control to study hard enough so you can enjoy playing the instrument on the level that Jimi did and see how that shapes your view of the world.

You can study as hard as Beethoven, work with the focus of Beethoven, but it will only be a cosmic accident whether you are Beethoven or not. Once you can truly accept that you cannot make yourself a genius or an innovator by an act of sheer will, all that remains is you, your guitar, and the music.  Take away attachment to rewards and what remains is the infinite possibilities of arranging sounds in time.

And that’s a beautiful, miraculous thing.

Tunes of the Twelve-Note Chord

Think about it: all melodies in Western music are arpeggios of a single chord.

For that to make any sense, we need some background. The word arpeggio comes from the Italian word arpeggiare, which means “to play on the harp.” A human voice, a flute, or a Minimoog can play the notes in a chord only in sequence, that is by breaking the chord up into individual notes. Unless it is modified, some extended technique is employed, or the instrument is electronically processed, a guitar can play no more than six notes at the same time (or I guess 7, 8, or 12 if you own one of those guitars). When monophonic instruments play chords, they must arpeggiate them. However, polyphonic instruments like the harmonica, banjo, marimba, and, of course, the guitar, can play chord tones simultaneously or separately as arpeggios.

Since melodies consist of pitches in sequence and are not played simultaneously, melodies are arpeggios of a chord with twelve distinct pitches (microtonal peeps, humor me for a moment here). It looks like this.

The chordal basis of all equal-tempered Western melodies
Every melody you’ve ever heard is an arpeggiation of this 12-pitch chord.

Of course it may sometimes look different, but it is still the same chord.

Two other versions of the same 12-pitch chord
Same 12 pitches, same chord, different inversions.

This means that all dodecaphonic (twelve-tone) melodies consist entirely of arpeggios of the twelve pitch chord. Twelve-tone serialism celebrates the possibilities of this chord. So this is certainly an arpeggio.

Alban Berg, Lulu basic tone row starting on C
Alban Berg, Lulu basic tone row starting on C

Since arpeggiating a chord doesn’t require that we play every single pitch included within it, and it is certainly permissible to repeat pitches, then this melody is an arpeggio.

J.S. Bach
J.S. Bach “Cello Suite I Prelude, Opening”

And then so is this.

Jimmy Page,
Jimmy Page, “Stairway to Heaven,” solo excerpt

This twelve note chord is the primordial ooze from which our melodies arise. Since all life started in the oceans, then it is possible to think of the twelve-note chord as the sea from which the first human songs arose.  The philosopher Michel Serres conceptualizes the sea as the prime example of the noise which is the background of human existence, the “uproar” that is the mother of all phenomena.

The background noise never ceases; it is limitless, continuous, unending, unchanging. It has itself no background, no contradictory… Noise cannot be a phenomenon; every phenomenon is separated from it, a silhouette on a backdrop, like a beacon against the fog, as every message, every cry, every call, every signal must be separated from the hubbub that occupies silence, in order to be, to be perceived, to be known, to be exchanged. As soon as a phenomenon appears, it leaves the noise; as soon as a form looms up or pokes through, it reveals itself by veiling noise.

Michel Serres, Genesis, 1995, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Genevieve James and James Nielson trans, p. 13.

So is the twelve-note chord the noise which births all of our melodies, the sonic chaos from which our tunes escape? Certainly, when all twelve pitches are sounded simultaneously, this chord can seem very noisy to most ears. It would take a very well-trained, acutely-aware musician to be able to distinguish all twelve individual pitches. But, if you think about it, the noise of the sea is much more complicated than the twelve pitches in the chord. There is certainly more turbulence in the sound of the sea than twelve pitches that vibrate with a regular periodicity. The white sound of the sea births both musical pitches as well as other sounds historically considered not musical, which some people call noise. The twelve pitches are a tiny subset of a vast number of possible sounds.

God! he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Since most of us can’t easily distinguish the twelve pitches in the chord, they can be more readily heard if we arpeggiate them. This is the task that melody accomplishes.

So what does this mean for the guitarist? Maybe nothing, but I was struck by a few things.

  • When contained within one octave, no single note stands out more than any other in the chord. No one note is more or less important.
  • A single note becomes more noticeable the farther it is separated in frequency from the other pitches. A note that is very high or very low will be easier to hear. Of course once notes approach 20,000 hz or 20 hz, they will get harder to hear again until you won’t be able to perceive them at all (unless you’re a bat or dolphin for high pitches, or a mole or an elephant for low pitches).
  • An interval or smaller chord may be noticeable the higher it is from the other frequencies. Alternatively, if the intervals or chords are too far below the other pitches, the individual pitches may appear muddy and hard to distinguish. This is why basslines tend to be constructed of single notes.
  • If all Western music in equal temperament (Google that term if you need to know–it’s much too complicated to cover here) uses only these twelve pitches, then all musical styles are much more similar than they are different. I suspect a Martian musicologist would have a very difficult time telling our various styles of music apart.
  • Do you have a tipping point beyond which you cannot distinguish a subset of the twelve pitches sounded simultaneously? Is it three or four? Eight? What would you have to do to increase your awareness of pitches in a chord so you could hear one more than you do now? If so, what would you have to change?
  • Of course, some world musics divide the octave into more than twelve pitches.

Connections

A wise friend of mine had an interesting notion of what it is to be stupid. Yes, I know, not exactly a PC term, but every once in while, I meet someone who, well… their knobs are on full, but the brain is not generating a heck of a lot of power.  Yes, I fully believe that as humans, we have rationality which gives us unlimited potential for achievement. But as much as we want to tiptoe around the issue, it is a fact that some people are just not as smart as other people. (Before you bitch me out, I also think that treating people who are less intelligent than others as less than human by restricting their personal freedom or causing them pain is a great, great evil to be avoided.)

In any event, back to the matter at hand. My wise friend had a clever approach to understanding what makes some people smarter than others. Stupidity is not simply knowing fewer facts than someone who is not stupid. I have met PhDs who were not very bright people, although they certainly knew many, many more facts than I do. Stupidity is not simply a lack of common sense. As anyone who knows a really brilliant person can attest, sometimes genius is inversely proportional to one’s ability to cope with the mundane rituals of life.

His idea was this: stupidity (or if this is too loaded a term for you, feel free to substitute another that is less pejorative) is seeing the world as a series of random, isolated events without any interconnection. It’s missing out on patterns, similarities, and metaphors. I might also add that it is the ability to zoom in and zoom out as needed, which this film by Charles and Ray Eames demonstrates pretty well.

What does this mean for a guitarist? Well, since I am a working musician who also has a non-music day job, and who also happens to like a lot of things that don’t involve pieces of wood with six strings, it was huge for me when I realized that no matter what I am doing, I am always a musician primarily. No matter what I do, music is the way I best interact with the world. I am attuned to sound always, whether I am shopping for groceries, getting the car an oil change, or writing a blog post. You do not stop being a guitarist, or a saxophonist, or a drummer, when you are not at your instrument.

Realize that your instrument is not in one compartment while everything else is in another. If you are mindful in your approach, any activity can be musical. Stop thinking that if you want to be good at A, I must do A a lot and B a lot less. I suggest that to get better at A, don’t do A exclusively.

When you open your eyes and ears, you notice the connections between stuff in the world. I’ve been in a lot of classes where my classmates were frustrated that the teacher did not directly teach the subject at hand. If these students bothered to notice, the lecture may have been abstracted up a level or two but it was still very much about the promised topic. What the teacher was doing was demonstrating the universality of the idea.

Think about this: what if each and every software program was very, very different from each other? This, I think, is the misconception held by people who find computers so mysterious. The fact is, we don’t learn a new program from scratch each time we purchase new software. Instead, we are able to use so many different programs because, on an abstract level, all of the programs are more similar than different. They all have drop down menus, control-C or command-C almost always means “copy,” and they share a common terms like window, palette, enter, save, etc. Abstraction, like metaphor, teaches the general principles shared by a collection of things. Now we can spend time thinking about the way one program is an improvement on another instead of learning a completely new set of commands each time. So if you can browse the Web using Chrome, you can also with a very minimal learning curve use Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari. If you literally had to learn 100% of the program from scratch each time you switched browsers, I suspect people would not switch browsers very often.

Which is why–although a guitarist absolutely must spent adequate time with a guitar in his or her hands because knowledge of the kinesthetic challenges of an instrument is something gained through physical contact, time, and repetition–you can also get better at playing guitar by practicing the piano, by studying a score, by listening mindfully to music, or even by taking a walk, watching a movie, playing with your children, or washing the dishes. Every activity offers a chance to become a better musician if you take a moment to see the interconnectedness of your art and the world. Truth: the limitations of our brains means that things in the world must be mostly the same. So as you set aside time to practice scales or chords, also schedule in time to practice noticing and finding your own metaphors! (And realize this, artist types: mathematics ain’t nothing more than systematizing analogies. But just don’t forget to carry the one.)

Closeup photograph of the leaves of a plant.
The Logan Stripe Duvet Cover and Sham, now on sale at Pottery Barn.
Closeup photograph of Saturn’s rings.
LP spines.
Gerhard Richter, Strip; 2011; 300 cm x 300 cm; Catalogue Raisonné: 922-1; digital print on paper between aluminium and Perspex
a3, Hatori Yumi
Cornelius Cardew, except from Treatise