Becoming The Music
“I want to become the music!” I shouted, after running around the house to let off steam from my excitement. I had just finished a practice/play session, learning the first couple of songs in my new guitar playing life, age 14. The songs were by my idol, Bob Dylan. That last practice session was, up to that time, my most intense experience of the great power there was in music, and the great pleasure there was in being a person who could play music. So, after running around the house, I came upon one of my brothers in his room, as I shouted at him, and declared quite triumphantly, “I want to become the music.”
Of course, he shared my enthusiasm. I believe his reply was, “Umm, okay.”
Why do we play music? What is the root, the fundamental thing we are really doing when we play and practice music?
We play music because a great desire has been awakened in us; and that great desire is to become the music. It is this desire, which for some is a mild prompting to explore such a possibility, and for others an overwhelming urge and need to possess completely the ability to become the music, that makes us pick up our instrument to practice and play. Fundamentally, when we practice and play, we are in the process of becoming the music.
The world needs such individuals, who devote themselves to becoming music, because the world needs music. It must have it, there is no doubt about it. And so, being devoted to developing ourselves as worthy to become our music so that we may offer it to the world, it is important to understand what we are really doing, or perhaps what we should be doing, so that we may really, and completely, become the music.
We must understand the word “become.” What is it to become anything? It is to “be,” so that what we desire will “come.” It is to so dispose ourselves that we create the conditions, inside and outside, for something to come into being. That is what it is to “become” something. If I want to “become” a doctor, I have to do certain things so that the condition, in which I will be a doctor, will become a reality. So the things I must do are the things necessary for it to “come.” So, in the process of becoming a doctor, you will see me do things like going to school, studying hard, and so forth. Similarly, there are certain things we do to become the music. The whole question, really, for musicians, is how to “be” so that the music is able to “come.”
For myself, I often learn the hard way. I have seen firsthand some of the ways you don’t want to be if you want the music to come! I remember when I first started to perform. I was in the middle of a big concert, and I forgot the music! I was really mad, and totally embarrassed. I tried to start again from the beginning, but I hit this same spot and had a blank where the music was supposed to be! The reason was very simple: in my practice, I did not completely become that music. I had become it up to a point, but not far enough. I learned from that experience the importance of one particular aspect of becoming the music: becoming the music in a mental way, that is, knowing the music, note for note, consciously and clearly, so we could say the notes and fingers if need be. That is one of the aspects of becoming the music, one of the things we must do.
This mental “knowing” aspect of becoming the music is different for various styles. You certainly don’t need to know all the names of the notes you are playing if you are just strumming and singing, for instance! You will simply have to know the chord shapes, and the order they come in. All the styles of music range in complexity from very simple, like strumming and singing, to staggeringly complex, as in classical guitar. In the concert I mentioned, I was playing a fairly complex piece of 20th century music on the classical guitar, and I needed to have the note by note awareness always necessary for a classical guitarist. But, even if you are a non-reading rock guitarist, you still must have the appropriate mental conception of your music - every guitarist does - as appropriate to the demands of the style. For instance, a rock guitarist may not think in terms of note names, but they will be thinking in terms of scale and chord shapes, as well as other finger patterns. They will have a sense of the form of the song. They need to do whatever is necessary to know, consciously and clearly, where they are in the song.
One other aspect of becoming the music is also common to all styles of music, although the degree needed will range from moderate to extreme, and that is our oneness with the physical process of becoming the music. Depending on the technical sophistication of the music we play, our need to commune with our bodies as they function on the instrument will vary. The higher the technical demand, the more need there is to commune with the body during practice, during the becoming of that music on a physical level. When something is new for us, the demand for our attention in this area is always great. That is why Principled Players understand two things: mishandling of the physical aspect of playing is what effectively prevents most people from beginning the process of becoming the music, and the continued development of awareness in this area is a mandatory part of creating vertical growth in our playing, regardless of our stage of development.
When we practice, the music itself is imprinted into our bodies, that is why we sometimes say, “I have this piece of music in my fingers now.” It is repetition, with focus, that imprints the music into our bodies, that enables us to “become the music” on a physical level. We usually call this “muscle memory,” and there are pieces my body knows so well that, if I had another set of hands to type with, I could be playing them while I write this!
The one area that does not vary, the one way in which we must become the music with the utmost fervor, no matter what style we play, no matter how simple or complex the music might be, is, of course, the emotional dimension of our involvement with the music. Our emotional connection to the music is the crux of the matter (still, as players, we must realize there can be no expression of the emotional connection until the physical connection is achieved). Our emotional connection to the music is what we are really communicating to people when we play, and that is what, ultimately, they want to receive when they receive our music. They want to know, they want to experience their emotional selves, and that is done through another emotional self breathing life into the music. We cannot breathe life into the music when we play unless we have breathed the music into our beings when we practice. This is why I am always emphasizing the complete focus of attention during practice, focus on the physical, mental and emotional dimensions.
The music exists first as a thought in our minds. This thought then unites with the desire and the emotional feeling for the music. At that moment, the music is literally “breathed into” the body. The energy taken in through the breath drawn with feeling for the music, is what brings the music into our bodies so that it may be given life, through the action of the muscles and bones of our body. This is the process of synthesis and synchronization that takes place as we become the music during practice and playing. This is why various dysfunctions of breathing, such as holding or constricting the breath, are so common with players, especially while playing whatever is most difficult for us. Fundamentally, problems in playing, and their continued existence, can be seen as a failure to properly breathe in the music. The music cannot be placed in our bodies without the synchronization process, mediated by the breath, that takes the thought and understanding of the music, and synthesizes it with the emotional feeling for the music, and results in the physical power to play the music.
It is interesting and important to realize that we must, at times, experience and focus on the physical aspect of playing by itself, relating to the music in only a technical way, without emotion. Equally important, at other times we must relate to the music with only our emotional selves, with only a background awareness of the physical element of playing. There are also times we must measure our attention in different degrees to each while playing. Sometimes our music wants playing, sometimes practice.
Great musicians devote their lives to becoming their music. The greatest music requires this lifetime devotion in order to be fully manifested by an individual. For instance, it has been said of the Bach Chaconne in D minor (considered by many musicians including Johannes Brahms to be the greatest piece of music ever written for a single instrument), “Do not perform it in public before the age of fifty.” It takes that long to become deep enough as a person to match the depth of the music.
I have two recordings of Julian Bream playing the Chaconne. One, made in his twenties, is quite careful and controlled, the notes are there, but not much else. The other one, made in his 60’s, is phenomenal; for me, is THE interpretation by a guitarist of this masterpiece. The growth in Bream, with the Chaconne, is quite evident. It takes time and great devotion to reach these heights with our music. The challenge of performing our music makes us put this time and devotion into our music. That is why Segovia recommended performing a piece for a year or so before recording it, to “burnish it in.”
Whatever style of music we play, and whatever level of playing we are at, the process is essentially the same, and we must meet the demands of becoming the music. The first demand is the desire for the music itself, the desire to hear it, think it, and feel our bodies make it. We should hunger for our music, and go to our instrument to satisfy that hunger. And we should feel a joy and a satisfaction when we do so. To feel this hunger is a special calling that we honor by giving all of the best of ourselves. As we do, we become the music more and ever more completely, always seeing something new, always feeling something new, always finding the deeper we go, the deeper it gets.