We performed at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, this month. It’s an almost annual event that goes back to 1990 or 1991 when we performed at their old location for the first time. Every year the Birchmere is one of the gigs we look forward to. A great bunch of guys run the place, the venue is nice, and the audience fantastic. After our performance one of the guys working at the club asked me about guitar practice.
I gave him an abbreviated version of this post, which is from 02007-09-04 and still feels true and appropriate.
We practice to create space. This is true for playing a musical instrument, but applies to everything else as well, I think. Practicing creates familiarity. Familiarity creates intimacy.
When we practice playing a piece of music or a scale, we train our brain by using our body. We scrub those neural pathways by moving our fingers. And that creates space. If moving from this note to that note has been trained and ingrained, we no longer have to think about that move and are free to consider other or additional moves. If moving from point A to point B has become utterly natural, then I have established space between those two points in which I can make additional moves. Or, imagine jumping from a rock to another rock. Once that jump has become easy, we might add a turn, a twist or a salto. In music, we might add a new note, a trill, a tremolo, a vibrato… We have created space (or time) in which to make additional moves – or choose not to! The more natural that jump or that piece of music becomes, the more space we have created. Then we have more time and more choice.
I find it important that the space we have thus created should not necessarily be filled with additional notes as we can use that space to embue the sound with more intent or emotion instead. When we no longer have to work at getting to the next note or musical sound, we can enjoy playing the current note with complete conviction.
A large duffel is better for the musician who tours by bus. This is because one can open its zipper without moving the duffel out of the luggage compartment. A suitcase, on the other hand, has to be moved out of the bus compartment and onto the parking lot, or the sidewalk, to be opened. This is not a problem when the sun shines or when the bus is parked in a lot, but when it rains, or the bus parked on a busy street with a narrow sidewalk, it represents a sizable problem. Do I carry the suitcase onto the bus, which doesn’t have the space for opening a suitcase either, or do I try to climb into the luggage compartment, which may be quite full of all kinds of other cases and boxes…
A suitcase is better for a van tour, especially one that begins with a flight to the location of the first gig. Even better is a suitcase with very good wheels. Additional luggage items can be strapped to the suitcase and the whole thing can be rolled along easily. Airports are designed for wheeled luggage, as there are escalators and elevators ready to carry one to a different level. Sometimes, however, the musician with the duffel sprints up the stairs faster than the escalator moves with the musician and his suitcase. That’s okay because the musician wheeling the suitcase will catch up when the musician who carries the duffel tires.
For many years I mostly toured by bus and therefore I have a few duffels of different sizes in my garage. As of the beginning of 2018 I switched to van tours and now you might spot me guiding a suitcase, with very good wheels, through hotel hallways and airports.
Thirty years ago this December we drove to Los Angeles for our first little tour, about four months before Nouveau Flamenco was released.
How to produce a sound, draw a melody from the strings, is a constant question. You can hold a guitar comfortably, which may choke the sound a little, or you can hold it a little less comfortably and produce a finer tone. Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the perfect way to hold your instrument.
In Flamenco, when the guitar was mainly accompanying singers or dancers and when volume was an important concern in the days before amplification, people often balanced the bottom of the guitar on their right leg. The advantage of this position is that the guitar is loud and sings. Unfortunately the guitar isn’t very stable in this position and has to be held up by the left hand, which is not free to move about the neck.
In the last fifty years most guitarists favor this position: cross your right leg over your left leg. Rest the cut-out of the Flamenco guitar on your right thigh. Lean over so that your body is collapsing on the guitar to a degree. This will put your right hand in a good position to strum the strings and your left hand in a great position to play the neck.
Actually, I haven’t done that during concerts for a couple of years. I have been using a footstool, but while classical guitarists put their left foot on the stool and rest the guitar on their left thigh, I put my right foot on the stool and the guitar ends up in the same position as if I were to cross my right leg over my left leg.
The trick, then, lies is finding a balance between holding the guitar securely and thus enabling both of your hands to move freely, and holding the guitar lightly, so that the instrument isn’t choked and can sing. Similar to many relationships, isn’t it? Hold your lover tightly and set them free – at the same time. How do you do that? With care.
Don’t forget to practice.
The fine art of dampening strings, or specifically stopping particular notes from ringing and thereby colliding with the other notes that you do want. I learned much about this by watching Jon play bass. The fingers of both of his hands are constantly refining the sound that comes forth from his instrument, adding a slow vibrato here and dampening a string that would otherwise clash with the next harmony.
You can observe this constant vigilance in classical guitarists like Julian Bream. While one finger of the left hand goes to a fret to define the next note, another finger is poised to dampen the string that rang the last note.
I recommend renting a DVD of Bream playing guitar as it is most interesting and educational. (((You might also observe how he bends certain notes to create harmonies that are in tune… the well-tempered scale is a compromise, especially on a guitar, and you will notice when you play an E major chord followed by a C major chord that the G-string, if tuned for the E chord, will sound off when playing the C chord and vice versa.)))
And the faces he makes while playing guitar are very entertaining, also.
This, of course, is most important when changing keys, but is always a good idea because even strings you haven’t plucked or struck with the right hand will ring sympathetically. By dampening those strings you focus more attention to the notes you are playing. Things become clearer, as if a fog has been lifted.
There is practicing and there is performing and they are two very different sides of a coin. Practice is a solitary act while performance involves an audience, large or small. Having an audience changes everything.
Practice is something you will get used to doing every day, like eating, drinking, sleeping. Few artists perform every single day.
The truth is, you can’t practice performing. You practice to practice and you can practice to get ready to perform, but performing is so very different…
You can practice landing, rolling and catching your fall, but you can’t practice parachuting – unless you jump out of a plane. You can train your body to run a long distance, but you can’t train running a marathon race in a large pack of runners – unless you run many marathons.
So that’s how you practice performing – by performing. It’s as simple as that. The more you perform, the better you become at performing. The more you perform the more at ease with performing will you become. True, some people are natural performers, but I find that they are rare exceptions. Most people grow into themselves on stage over time.
After we returned from our first tour in 1990, we did a benefit concert in Santa Fe. Everyone in the band had lots of friends in the audience and we were excited and nervous. As a result we raced through 90 minutes of material in about an hour. Now, many years later the band seems to settle into a certain tempo for a song and that tempo doesn’t change much from performance to performance.
And remember: practicing is practicing and performing is performing. Do both!
Today I am thinking about time. Time is important to a musician, that’s obvious. Music consists of time and pitch. Without time there can be no song. A melody can only exist in time. A melody can only be heard because our minds can store time, for without memory a melody would remain a series of unconnected sonic events. The beauty of music lies in the many different associations and memories a mind can attach to the flow of a melody.
Our perception of those sounds-connected-through-time, or melody, varies from person to person and can be improved by practice. Modern classical music or Bebop Jazz often contain very long melodies that evaporate in most listeners brains. It takes training to follow these long lines, and may be an excellent antidote to a short attention span. I read somewhere that the average listener can hold about 7-9 notes in their attention. Bebop melodies are usually much longer than that.
Time is the essence of music in its guise as the sisters rhythm and melody. And time is also the duration of your practice. Most musicians serve a good portion of their lifelong practice as teenagers. We may never regain that sense of time we have as teenagers – everything is still ahead of us… and four or even eight hours of playing our instrument feels completely natural.
Allow me to give you this advice:
Don’t worry about being popular in school or in college. The unpopular kids have time to practice their musical instruments or paint, take photographs or devise science projects. The popular kids on the other hand are busy going to parties, their social calendars packed with events. Sure, you might watch them with longing, but being popular in school isn’t all that. (((although honestly, how would I know, I wasn’t popular in school and spent most of my free time playing guitar and reading…)))
What happens to the popular kids when they grow up? Maybe they become real estate agents or sell cars or find another profession where they can use the social skills they learned as teenagers?
And since I am on the subject of time…
We always look for the quick fix, don’t we, the silver bullet, the advantage?
That is true in terms of becoming a better player and also true for getting signed by a record company, finding a manager or agent etc. We never think it happens fast enough. What if I tell you that I was signed by a record label exactly when I lost interest in getting signed? Or at least stopped pursuing a recording deal and instead made the music I wanted to make.
I think this also parallels our search for happiness or enlightenment. We may find either exactly when we give up searching. Unfortunately we can’t start out by giving-up-searching… the quest must come first.
Time is the best teacher, but you’ll have to allow yourself and your music to ferment. Think of yourself as a cauldron of soup – let the spices mix, let the flavors develop, let the ingredients get softer… and play the music that makes you happy.
I shall end my letter with this observation:
In the beginning we play out-of-time, because we are scrambling to find the correct notes. When the fingering becomes more familiar, time remains sloppy while we learn to move from note to note. Later the correct rhythm emerges, at first clumsily and then more fluid… and when we listen to a master play music we can hear him/her stretch and squeeze time, playing before or after the beat… but returning to the downbeat at will. Another spiral of learning. At some point we arrive at a new stretching-of-time, only now it has become our choice and an expression of emotion, rather than the inability to move to the next note smoothly.
Time. It is the great puzzler. Enjoy your time…