My student Cathy, is halfway through Mel Bay #1. In a recent guitar lesson, Cathy played through a piece in the book, a chord melody arrangement of “Careless Love”, (p.34) which had the melody being played by the thumb, and accompaniment chords with the fingers. She played it quite well technically, but it had nothing musical about it.
Even though Cathy had spent a lot of time doing correct practice on this, so that she was able to play the notes in time, and technically, it sounded like music, their was one ingredient she was leaving out: herself. Now, in all fairness, this is a very normal occurrence at this stage of development. There are a whole lot of technical things that Cathy is dealing with at this point, and when dealing with so many technical issues it is easy to “forget” the entire reason we do all the practice that we do, which is to give life to the music, to make it alive. And this only happens when we give ourselves, emotionally, to the music. Let me elaborate
Because of the technical focus of much of my work, it is very easy for someone to get the impression that the non-physical and non-technical aspects of music, what we would call the musical, artistic, and spiritual aspects of playing, are of lesser importance. So, let me make this perfectly clear: that is NOT TRUE! That is no more true than that the beginning of a journey is more important than the middle or the end. Or that the bottom of a building is more important than the top. That is wrong thinking.
But, it is true that we don’t get to the middle or end of the journey without going through the beginning. And we can’t build the top of the building until we build the bottom. And the bottom of the guitar playing building is the physical dimension of playing. It’s just that plain old fact that we play a physical guitar with our physical body, and if that part isn’t working right, you can have all the feeling inside you want, but you’re not going to get it out, at least not through the guitar (maybe air guitar can help).
In addition, there is a pitiful lack of proper guidance in the physical area, and that is why I stress it so much and so often. But, and here is the BIG BUT: if you don’t begin to relate to the music emotionally, as quickly as possible, your development as a guitarist will be severely stifled. It’s just like learning a language.
How good do think you could possibly ever be at speaking a foreign language, if you never actually understood the meaning of the words you were speaking? You would not be able to express any emotion with your speech, that’s for sure. The “meaning” in the language of music is emotion, its what we feel. If I am playing music, and I am not feeling anything from that music, and from me playing it, then you as a listener are not going to feel anything either, in which case, we would probably all get up and wonder what we were doing there!
Music IS emotion, and if you play it, you are obligated to have an emotional relationship with it, and the deeper the better. Would you want to be in the audience listening to someone give a speech about something they didn’t even care about? If you are playing music, especially for other people, and you are not feeling anything about the music as you play, then don’t bother. You cannot learn to play the guitar if you are not having an emotional experience from your playing. Without your emotional involvement with your playing, the music will be like a lifeless corpse. You breath the spirit into the music with your involvement.
After Cathy played, I had to wonder what the level of her involvement with the music was. I said, “Cathy, do you know this song? Do you know the words? Do you know what they mean? Do you even know what the melody is. (I suspected not, because she played the accompaniment chords as loudly as the melody. It should be softer, to bring out the melody.) No, she didn’t know. Now, I don’t mind the fact that it is my job as her teacher to make sure that she is doing her part, and is relating to the music emotionally, but I hope that she goes out of her way to make it happen next time.
Along with the Mel Bay, we happen to be using also a folk song book that has this song in it. I played the song, sang it, and even explained the inner meaning of the words to “Careless Love”, about the time-honored theme of someone having to suffer the results of bad judgment in their love life. I did whatever I had to do to start to get her to have some feeling about the notes she is playing. So, everyone out there, those working through the Mel Bay, and those not: know that it is your responsibility to be enjoying yourself when you make music, it is your responsibility to be having a musical experience when you make music! And that means having an emotional experience.
Now, maybe some of you are saying, well hey, everybody’s not the emotional type, you know. So, here’s my answer: if you’re going to make music, get emotional. Figure it out somehow, and start doing what you are supposed to be doing as a musician: being the conduit, the bridge between the feeling and emotional power in the music and the human beings who are listening because they want the power of that music. Don’t forget, it is the power of life, that’s why all human beings crave it.
Also, as study after study shows, music is one of the greatest healing powers known to man, because most of mankind’s problems are emotional in nature, and music heals and transforms our emotional selves. Do not make the mistake that so many guitar students make. Do not carry around, unknowingly, the belief system that says “I need to wait until I qualify, until I can play really fast and impress people, to be able to say I am a musician, and I am making music and enjoying it.” Do not wait, get to that place as soon as possible.
Get the right attitude and information about what it really takes to become a good musician, and let the process unfold. You’ll get better as you go along, but don’t put off enjoying the actual music you are making. Once someone knows how to practice correctly, and the body begins to be trained and come under your command, as Cathy is experiencing, and the notes are, gradually being transformed into music because of your developing skill, then, seize the moment. Listen to yourself, enjoy it, add the emotional element, enjoy combining your own self with the music to make it your own, as you would if you were studying a character in a play that you had to act in, and you were deciding upon your interpretation.
Discover what the music means to you, and what it makes you feel. If the answer is “nothing”, you need to take a serious look at your ability to be present with the music, your ability to “get involved”. That can be worked on, like anything else, but you need to know its importance, and exactly where you do stand with it all. Understand that even if you start to play the notes clearly and in time, if you are not emotionally involved, it will not become music. And if you are not emotionally involved, well then what are doing it for anyway?
For myself, if I am preparing a piece of music for a concert or for recording, I have to play it for a while, get to know it, bond with it. I have called this Level Three practice in “The Principles”, where practice is, essentially, playing, and a full emotional relationship to the music is explored and established (as opposed to Level One practice, where the microscopic details of technique are dealt with). Level Three practice is the fun part.
Get your juices flowing for the music as soon as possible with everything you play. I was trying to get this across to another student, who has played for about a year and had played increasingly complex pieces from some method book before lessons with me, but had never done anything as simple as try to pick out the melody of some song he loved. He was amazed as I helped him do that, kind of trial and error finding his way to the notes. It reminded me of the time when I had been playing for probably about two weeks, and I figured out the notes to a song I loved “Long Black Veil”. I was hysterically happy to play it on the guitar, even single notes! I wasn’t about to wait until I was really a guitar player to start enjoying it!
Always know the melody of anything you are playing. Don’t play something like the little arrangements in a method book like Mel Bay, and not be clear on what you are doing musically. Know when you are playing a texture that has a melody with supporting chord accompaniment, and know which fingers are doing what. Ask your teacher for help on that. Be able to sing that melody, and sing it often. Many professional musicians spend a long time just studying the music before ever actually touching the guitar.
Don’t wait to enjoy yourself playing. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it will get better. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Musical feeling is real simple. Unless it is added to the process, the process doesn’t occur. Not anymore than you could eat a steak without your body showing you its involvement in the enterprise by starting to salivate just looking at it and smelling it. Make sure those emotional juices are flowing when you play, and the sounds you are making will become alive, for your self, and your listeners.