A recent letter:
I am one of those who seems to always practice and never plays. In fact, when I say “just play for yourself” I’m really not sure how. For two years I’ve been waiting for the experience of being fully in the music but since I don’t know the feeling of that experience I’m sort of stuck. Maybe this is the essay I’m really after:”What it feels like to play”. Anyway, I know your insightful enough to maybe see what I’m getting at. Thanks for all your time and effort and please keep the essays coming.
There is no one thing that is “what it feels like to play” guitar. The way to connect with it for yourself is to connect with the feeling of what it feels like to WANT to play, to NEED to play. That sensation, that awareness will lead you to what is for you, the feeling of what it is like to play.
Does a little five year old kid have to read a book on what it means to “go out and play and have fun”? Do you think you needed somebody to explain that to you when you were five years old? I don’t think so. You might as well ask, “what does it feel like to feel good”? Or, “what does it feel like to have fun”? It is an emotional experience. It feels good. You find yourself wanting to do it, you feel like it is filling a need for you, like it is feeding you.
You don’t need to wait to be “fully in the music”, whatever that means. And you should realize that you don’t know what it means, and in fact you did admit that. So, how could you look for it, how would you recognize it? In fact, I suspect you may have brushed up against it and not recognized it.
I suggest you focus your attention on whatever portion of yourself you find IS in the music when you play. I will assume there must be some portion of yourself that either IS in the music, or WANTS to be and probably COULD be without too much trouble or coaxing. Otherwise, I don’t know what would be making you feel like you wanted to play the guitar in the first place.
Once you find that portion of yourself that IS in the music, and focus your attention there when you play, you will find that portion grows larger. That’s how it works. You may be preventing yourself from starting that process because you’re looking for the whole wonderful cosmic experience your first time out!
It may be helpful to you if I think back on my own process of developing a deeper experience of “playing” the guitar”. And I hope you are beginning to see the point I am making that it is not just one thing and that’s it. What it might be when it presents itself to you may be totally unique to you, who you are and where you are as a person. But one thing I do believe is this: it is possible for it to present itself to you in the way you need it presented to get the whole thing started. Then, you can continue moving along in the way you need to move to pursue your own path of discovering and intensifying your experience of playing music.
Anyway, here is how it was and is for me:
When I started to play at age 14, it was an entirely unconscious experience. I was only aware of an overwhelming desire and need to learn to play the guitar. Fortunately, there was a guitar around and a method book for teaching yourself to learn to read notes, and it was an easy book. I only gradually noticed, as did my parents, that I was spending many hours a day doing this. I remember an intense feeling of satisfaction as I learned my first chords, my first songs, and started to pick out melodies of songs I liked. I’m sure my technique was somewhere between horrible and non-existent, but I was having fun! I particularly remember the first time I picked out a melody, to the song “Long Black Veil”. I was quite impressed with myself, and I felt like I was playing the guitar. Then came lessons, and look out! Now I’m practicing twice the amount. As I go through high school, it is apparent to everyone that I simply refuse to pay attention to almost anything except the guitar.
I remember another memorable musical moment, the first time I actually used a scale I had learned to improvise on a song. Hearing the harmony of the notes I played against the chords was thrilling. it was the first time I understood what improvising was on the guitar.
When I switched to classical at age 16-17, I do remember a period of feeling like I wasn’t really having the right feeling, or even any really musical feeling in my playing. I remember that beginning to change, especially as I started listening to a lot of classical music, especially Beethoven and Bach. The key moment came when I started to get the same wonderful excitement and feeling of beauty frm playing music that I got when I listened to music. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is this: focus on the feelings you get listening to your favorite music, and locate those feelings while you are playing.
Now, it is true, that when it comes to a complex motor skill like playing the guitar, the mere acquisition of the ability can often be difficult for various individuals. Added to that is the extremely hap-hazard quality of careful, comprehensive, and graded instruction. The result is that someone who pursues playing ability on the guitar can actually experience, after years of dedicated commitment, that he or she is making very little progress, and, in fact, doesn’t feel good when they “try” to play!
If the very act of playing the guitar is a physically uncomfortable one, and continues to remain so with little reason to hope for improvement, then there really is a lot less chance that someone is going to have the perseverance to keep going. And I say this because I really do believe that the study of music requires a very intense and lengthy period of time in which various skills and understandings are given the time to gradually unfold. For myself, it has always been a process of studying hard to understand certain things, and to be able to do certain things on the guitar, and having to literally keep at it for years and years before I felt I was really getting the full understanding of something, or the ability to even play something well.
Without such an intense focus of time and attention, without a great amount of work and perseverance, I simply would not have achieved what I have achieved. I often get letters from people stating their “great desire” to achieve mastery on the guitar, but they show very little willingness to put forth the effort required to do so.
So, realize two things. “Mastery” of the guitar is only available to those willing to make the kind of commitment and sacrifice that most people are not willing to make (someday, I will write a book about the “abnormal” life my addiction to the guitar has provided for me!)
And second, “Fulfillment” from playing the guitar is available to ANYONE, just as fulfillment and pleasure in life is available to anyone. But, you must have that very special human quality: the ability to derive pleasure and happiness from your life in THIS VERY MOMENT, without demanding some future state of perfection that will make you worthy of it.
Here is a good way to get started "knowing what it feels like to play".
Do this: pick up your guitar, play a chord, and thank God for the beautiful sound you are able to make, and able to hear and enjoy! Everything else will follow.