Letters to a Young Musician – 3

Dear Friend,

How should you find your sound?

Well, every hand is different, every nail strikes the strings at a slightly different angle. So, if you play long enough, your sound will eventually emerge somehow. There are rules, but they can all be broken. For example, I file my nails to a shape that is “wrong” according to some experts.

I think there are two elements to “your” sound. The first is the sound-production itself, how your fingers strike the string, where they strike the string. Many guitarists don’t make use of the many different sounds one can coax from the nylon strings and the box. That length of guitar from the fretboard-side of the soundhole all the way to the bridge is rich with different sounds. This can also help with the tuning of the guitar. Sometimes plucking the string in a different position will sound more in tune. (I recently watched a Julian Bream video and was impressed at how he would bend this note in a chord here and that note there… he was always aware of the pitfalls of a fretted instrument and the well-tempered scale)

The second element is what you play. Some guitarists are instantly recognizable, like Carlos Santana for example. Others have a more chameleon-like approach and it takes a while to hear their personality. One is not better than the other. Just different.

Finding your sound is a little bit like finding what you should do for a living, or finding your place in life. It seems to come to us of itself, almost sneaks up in the dead of the night. One day we wake up and from then on we wear our heart in our melodies. Maybe finding your sound has a lot to do with finding yourself and finding yourself comes out of being natural. In the West natural refers to whatever humans have not manipulated, controlled, or despoiled. That’s a dualistic view. It separates humans from nature. In the East, what is natural is what exists according to its true nature. There is no separation, no dualism. That also means that there is no despoiled nature devoid of humans to return to.

What is your nature? What does your nature sound like?

I discovered that at the core of my melody is a slightly melancholy feeling. Even when I am expressing happiness you will find a few notes that speak of longing. But, that is as much a part of me as my crooked right index finger – it turns to the right and because of that turn the nail is perfectly parallel to the string. A flaw may become a pearl in time.

Don’t forget to practice. And keep thinking about what your nature sounds like!

Letters to a Young Musician – 2

Dear Friend,

To listen with a mind that flows freely is to listen with your whole body. In Western thought we often separate Body and Brain. But is that correct?

I think Mind happens where Body and Brain meet.

In a groundbreaking New York Times story, Sandra Blakeslee disclosed that new scientific evidence is giving credence to the notion that the human body actually possesses two centers to process knowledge and dictate physical actions. Blakeslee reports:

[Scientists say] that the body has two brains–the familiar one encased in the skull and a lesser known but vitally important one found in the human gut….The gut’s brain, known as the enteric nervous system, is located in sheaths of tissue lining the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. Considered a single entity, it is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters and proteins that zap messages between neurons, support cells like those found in the brain proper and a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn, remember, and as the saying goes, produce gut feelings.

Musicians can learn to perform with their whole body, that is to follow the flow of the music with their mind, using the brain, ears, body and their “gut”. Eventually we can learn to LIVE with our whole body – if we are willing to do the training. The main obstacle is our own ego/brain that can get in the way by jealously guarding the self it has created. There is nothing to fear but fear itself, and there is nothing separating us from life itself but our own small selves…

Now check out the definitions of Hara and Qi.

Go with your gut! And integrate Body and Brain through your music.

And remember to practice.

(Reference: “Complex and Hidden Brain in the Gut Makes Cramps, Butterflies, and Valium,” Sandra Blakeslee. New York Times, Tuesday, January 23, 1996. p. B5)

Letters to a Young Musician – 1

Dear Friend,

“I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

That is what the protagonist says in Herman Hesse’s wonderful novel ‘Siddhartha’, when a prospective employer asks him what he can do. Those three talents would be of great advantage for any young musician as well. Maybe we should replace ‘I can think’ with ‘I can play’…

“I can wait.”

A professional musician WILL spend a good amount of his life waiting – for the start of the concert, for the boarding of the flight, for the bus to reach the next venue, for the recording to get finished, for the CDs to arrive in stores, and most importantly for a check to arrive, months or sometimes years later… Being able to wait is a difficult skill to master. Most people will get bored, but one skilled in waiting will not.

“I can fast.”

Being able to fast is a handy ability as well. Being able to cook for oneself is good – cheaper than going out. Being willing to eat rice and beans and sink one’s money into studio-time can be important…

“I can play.”

This ability is not as obvious you might think. Children can play, but can you, or have you already lost that skill? Most people lose it, you know, sometime in their teenage years. Children play with abandonment and don’t mind if the result isn’t perfect. Most adults on the other hand tend to be self-conscious and try to avoid mistakes. Consequently adults tend to stick with what they know. For a musician that means they keep returning to patterns they have rehearsed, scales they know like the back of their hand. That’s not really playing though… Somewhere between the scales and chords we know and the exuberant noise of abandonment lies the real music, and to get to it is the real dance of creating.

Those three skills may not seem like much to you now, but believe me they are rarer than you think, and much more useful than you can imagine.

Remember to practice.