Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to Get There (It's Not About the Maps)

Recently, a question was asked. It was about improving as a musician, specifically as a frame drummer and performer. It was a question framed as a question about what techniques should one use to improve, to teach oneself better facility on one's instrument, and it included a list of technical skills to choose from. The question was framed as: What are three or more fundamental skills that will become the building blocks for good [performance skills] in the future? What three things should the student nail first? Most responses to the question focused on the list of technical skills that had been asked about. So did my initial response.

But then I got to thinking about the question. I was reminded of my old friend Jack Grassel, guitarist, master teacher, and writer of practice books. His key practice technique book contains not one chord chart or musical exercise. It's called Power Practicing, and the topics it covers include: motivation; efficient practice; ear training; technique improvement; listening to music constructively; physical and mental fitness. I recommend this book to my own students, when I have students. It is foundational. It has certainly influenced my own practicing and playing of music.

So, I responded again to the initial question about fundamental skills, about building blocks. I responded as follows:

You know, you've gotten a lot of technical answers to your question, my own previous answer included, because it was phrased as a technical question.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say what some technically-oriented musicians consider to be heresy, but which I know to be simple truth: technical practice is well and good, but it's not the answer that's going to help you teach yourself to be a better musician.

The technical answers you've gotten are all useful in that they will help you avoid some common errors most beginners have, and hopefully help you monitor your own progress.

But the thing that's really going to help you more than anything else hasn't been mentioned so far, at least not explicitly: attitude. (Jack Grassel calls this mental fitness, and rightly so.)

Determination, perseverance, patience when you hit a plateau and feel like you're making no progress, going ahead and continuing to practice and play even when you feel bad that day. It's like John Wayne once said, Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway. You have to get on the horse, and stay on the horse, and get back on the horse when you fall off. Attitude will carry you far, and keep you on the horse, even if all your fingers were broken.

You show up. You show up every day. Even if you get nothing done, even if life sucks and you don't feel like practicing, and your hands are broken and your feet hurt and you've got the flu, you show up.

Because showing up means: this is your life. There are no rehearsals.

Listening was mentioned already, in response to your question. Listening is really, really important, for all musicians. Listening to others, to recordings, playing along with recordings, watching videos, etc. Those are all good technical tools that will help you improve as a musician.

But real listening is done with the heart and the body, not with the mind, not with just the head. You will improve as a player by practicing silent meditaiton for a short period every morning, or before every practice session, no matter how little you practice your actual musical technique. Don't take my word for it; it's well known in pedagogic and and meditation circles that silent practice can be just as effective as actual practice. It's also known to be true in the martial arts.

I drive on long roadtrips a lot; when I'm listening to music in the car, I drum on the steering wheel a lot; it's a nice handy circular surface that feels a bit like the edge of a frame drum. I finger-drum on tabletops when I'm sitting in an office waiting for someone, or on the side of my chair. It doesn't have to be obvious, and you don't need to make a big deal out of it. Most people never notice what you're doing unless you make a big deal out of it. My fingers are tapping in rhythm to what's on the stereo in restaurants. Or my foot is tapping.

You want to know how to improve your sense of time and rhythm? Never stop tapping your toe to music, never stop drumming your fingers wherever you are, never stop nodding your head on the bus. You don't have to make a big deal out of it, you just do it.

And stop caring what others think about what you're doing. Being self-conscious about it is the fastest way to kill your learning momentum.

Real listening is a mental stance, a mindset, a worldview, an attitude. It is at root the art of Paying Attention, which can only be achieved by constantly practicing Paying Attention. Your approach to practice is going to make a huge difference during practice, no matter how you practice, no matter what you practice.

Show up, it's your life, right here, right now. Pay Attention, Pay Attention, Pay Attention.

You can focus on your time, your tone, your proper posture, your breath, your finger skills, etc., and none of it will matter at all if you are tense during practice, or if your mind is going in circles around the hamster wheel of overthinking and overstimulation and distraction. People spend years never improving because they can't get out of their own way, calm their mind, free themselves from distractions, and just be the music, be with the music, be in the music, be part of the music. Music isn't something you learn the way you learn chemistry, it's an ocean you immerse yourself in. The calmer and more relaxed you are during practice and performance, the better you will feel, and the better it will go. And the benefits of your practice will happen faster and more noticably.

I'm serious about meditation, which is nothing more than sitting in silence and clearing the mind. Notice your thoughts, let them go, notice and release, just keep letting go; eventually they quiet down a lot. That's when you can really listen. There are so many meditation traditions that I encourage you to pick the one that you feel comfortable with, that works for you. Pick one, and stick to it for long enough to see if it suits you.

I start every single day with a bit of time set aside for silent meditation, spiritual reading, perhaps some writing, usually a few minutes of Reiki. It makes a huge difference for the quality of my day. It makes a huge difference for the quality of my music, my writing, all my creative work. I'm disgustingly productive, I never have "writer's block," and I do something creative literally every day. Even if my day is full of crazy bad insanity, moments out of Franz Kafka novels or Samuel Beckett plays, I still make something every day. You show up, you Pay Attention, and you make something. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, or even a finished piece; it will be something. It doesn't matter if it's crap, it's still something made that day, because you showed up. Eventually you will do better tomorrow.

If you approach your practice with your heart open and your soul engaged, your hands will follow.

So no matter what you do during your practice sessions, or suring your performances, how you do it is going to make all the difference.

Show up. Pay Attention. Have a good attitude.

That's really all there is to it.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

There was a programme on TV last night featuring the singer-songwriter James Blunt. I knew of him – I knew his big hit – but that was about it. It's a programme where they talk about the song writing process and so obviously his big hit was the first thing discussed. A question I didn't expect the interviewer to ask was what the chords were to this song but he did and Blunt's answer was that he didn't know. Now what's interesting about this is that he was a classically trained musician up until his teens although not on the guitar. And yet he says he rarely transcribes his songs preferring to remember them. When working on a new piece if he forgets it the next day then he says that it must have simply been forgettable and he gets on with something else.

All his childhood was taken up with exercises, scales and grades. It wasn't until he took up the guitar in his teens that he found his own way.

One of the things I liked about him was the lack of an attitude despite his success and his willingness to learn from others so it's not that he picked up a guitar and turned his back on all learning, no, he simply approached learning from a different angle, a less rigorous angle.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Great story, and I like his attitude. He really freed himself up by doing it that way, it sounds like.

I'm not sure I could do it, unless I were to pick up an instrument that I didn't know, like Blunt did. They drilled so much theory into us in music school that I'm not sure I could resist the urge to map the chords at some point, once the song was solidified. It's more for repeatability and transcription than any desire to know what the chords are. But could I not know what the chords are? There's a part of my mind that would at some point tell me what the chords were, unless I worked hard to keep it turned off.

That's one reason I like working outside the tonal music system. It's something I learned from all those years of playing Javanese gamelan. And it's part of the attraction to composing modally rather than tonally. You're able to "starve" that analytical part of your mind by not feeding it anything it's used to. So it can be shut up, at least sometimes.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Kass said...

Interesting post. I heard gamelan music in Bali and I wonder if any current pop musicians have incorporated that sound into their music. I'm sure they have, I'm just not very well versed in that area. I also appreciate your recommendation of the new Sinetar book.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Balinese gamelan (which is very different from Javanese gamlean) has been in film music for decades to add "exotic flavor." It's still largely seen that way. I'm sure there's some pop music that uses it.

12:02 PM  

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