The What, or the How?


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

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?

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.

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.