The Three C’s Of Zen Guitar: Centered, Committed, & Controlled

First a big shout out to Philip Toshio Sudo; author of Zen Guitar. I read that book before I went into the recording studio to record Homecoming & WinterNight over two weeks in September of ’97.  Philip plays electric guitar and the book has almost nothing about actually playing the guitar in it. But it was still one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read on music.  If you play guitar you owe it to yourself to read this book. You can get it at Amazon!

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The book deals with the mental attitude we bring to our practice, rehearsals and performances. It had a huge impact on me-as you can tell I write more about the mental aspect of playing the guitar than the actual playing. Ultimately I think mental attitude is more important than any of the physical skills that we have or don’t have. And physical skills diminish over time, but think of how many great older musicians there are playing right now. It’s because even though they can’t fit quite as many notes into a two bar phrase, they are capable of putting more emotion, more intent, more feel into every note they play. Their music has more depth. Those musical stories are more vibrant than ever.

In last week’s blog I wrote about the Holy Triad of Tone, Rhythm & Dynamics and the core importance they have in any musical performance.  Over the weekend as I was rehearsing on harp guitar I realized that unless one had the right mental attitude it would be hard to achieve what one must in regards to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. And I found that there was another ‘Holy’ triad. This time it was being centered, committed, and controlled.

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I find the key foundation to a great rehearsal or performance is being centered. From a dictionary I get this: well-balanced and confident or serene. That’s perfect.  But to paraphrase my wife; “What’s that mean?”

It means you can’t bring worry, anger or fear into the rehearsal with you.  It means that you don’t just pick up the guitar to pick up the guitar.  It means you have intent, you know what you’re about and you’re ready to do it when you pick up the instrument.  This is not about being focused per se, though some people may feel focused when they’re centered.  To me what it means is that I’m balanced. I’m not easily knocked off my goal when I run into some difficulties which I inevitably will.  If one is centered they won’t be overly critical and bring a lot of negative self-talk into their analysis of their rehearsal. When you are centered you bring a calm certainty to the proceedings.

If you are stressed or agitated, angry or upset, it might be smart to reschedule your rehearsal. Otherwise you’ll bring those feelings and patterns of thinking into your playing. And it probably won’t end the way you’d like.

 

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Before we talk about commitment it might be good to discuss the two sides of that coin.  There is big C Commitment which is about long-term aspects. For example this describes an approach to learn a new song, tuning, key, or new technique like two-hand tapping or slide. And then there’s little C commitment; which is how we decide to play an individual note, phrase or composition.  In this blog I’ll be focusing on little C commitment.

You can’t play music timidly if you want to convey emotions.  And there’s really no other reason to play music. IMHO.

When one is calm and confident it is easier to achieve the next mental state. Commitment. This to me might be the key ingredient in musicianship. If you don’t commit to the note and how you’re going to play it you’ll never achieve what you want as it relates to Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics. It cannot happen.

And yet, that is what confounds most intermediate musicians as they attempt to master their instrument. And at the core of not committing is fear. Fear of a mistake which will shame or embarrass us. FACT. Great musicians make HUGE mistakes.

Michael Manring is considered by many to be the finest fretless bass player in the world. I’ve gotten to tour and play dozens of gigs with him and I know he’s the best musician I’ve ever been around. He’s also among the most kind. I call him Skinny Buddha, and  I think he’s gone whole years where he hasn’t made a single mistake.  But when he does? It’s a doozy! HUGE with a Trumpian Y YUGE. Because that was the note he meant to play!

I learned everything about committing to a note/phrase through a performance with Michael in Southern Utah in 1998. We were playing my arrangement of Duane Allman’s Little Martha and he thought the chord change was to the IV chord when it was to the I. Meaning he played a big fat G against my big fat D and it brought everyone out of their reverie; momentarily. We’re pros, we played on, and incredibly never skipped a bit-no easy task given that I play the A section in 17/8.  No words were spoken, and the rest of that evening was like all of our shows-fun for all. Me most of all.

But we talked about it after the show. Because I was amazed that he shrugged it off so easily. At that point in my career, if I’d made that kind of mistake I would have crawled into a hole and played scared the whole night. He told me something that as an ex-jock I understood.  It was a simple mistake. It was not a big deal. He meant to play it that way. There was no fear carried forward.  Athletes, great athletes shrug off failure and mistakes as long as they commit. So do great musicians. Great performers FORGET their mistakes. They leave them in the past, where they belong. So should you.

Playing committed is often a way to discover just how well you know a particular piece of music. Is your knowledge formative, or nuanced?  How you commit is the acid-test to your depth of understanding of that piece of music.

If you make a stunning amount of committed mistakes, it probably means you don’t know the song well enough to perform it. But that is still better than playing a timid version with fewer mistakes.  Play with passion or don’t play at all. Take that song back to practice and get to work. That’s all that needs to happen.

I feel it’s important to say that playing committed doesn’t mean always playing loudly. It’s committing to how we’re going to apply tone, rhythm and dynamics to a note, phrase, or composition. You commit to playing softly and tenderly every bit as much as you commit to playing something loudly and brashly.

I also think that it’s important to say that for a guitarist, the idea of commitment is mostly about the plucking hand.  As I’ve read recently on Facebook. Your left hand (fretting hand) shows us what you know. Your right hand (plucking hand) shows us who you are.  Are you confident and committed, or timid and indifferent?

In other words; mean what you play!

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Control. Merriam-Webster says this: restrained.  Other synonyms are disciplined and contained. Those last two are closer to my meaning for controlled.  But I’m going to use another jock reference: staying within yourself as my definition.  What do you have to offer the music today? Right now? This minute? This is about how I feel emotionally and physically.

The sports I played most were baseball, tennis, and golf. All are basically individual sports; baseball is a game mostly played between the pitcher and hitter (especially as it relates to this topic).  All are sports that can be and are played daily by professionals.  But you can’t bring your A game to every occasion. In fact even the very best only bring their A game about 40-50% of the time.  The rest of the time you’ve got to do the best with what you have.

I was trying to get this idea across to a student the other day. Luckily they’re way into sports so I used a baseball pitching reference. There are days I know I can throw an easy 94 with late movement, and some days I’ve only got 89.  As long as I don’t try to play a song as if I can throw 95 I’m fine. For me, control is knowing my limits. Knowing what I have in my hands that day. Focusing on control doesn’t stop me from doing, focusing on control allows me to choose appropriate repertoire, tempo (rhythm) and dynamics. Focusing on control allows me to do well.

If you are lucky enough to perform your music you must understand that every day is a new day.  This is especially true for aging musicians. Respond accordingly.

But sometimes control can be about restraint. This is especially true as it relates to tone and dynamics. I’ve seen guitarists who hit the thing so dang hard that nothing stays in tune let alone sounds musical. Strings rattle against frets, strings are bent out of tune, and there’s no nuance. EVERYTHING IS PLAYED FULL VOLUME ALL THE TIME. If this is you, knock it off.  No one wants to hear musical screaming all the time.  Control yourself!

And control can also be about speed.  It’s a mistake to play everything at 100% maximum speed or effort. Golf pros and MLB pitchers will tell you that it’s best to maintain about 75-85% of maximum effort. That’s repeatable over the years.  And this is when staying in control keeps you from becoming tense.  Playing too fast always leads to tension and that effs up everything. And if you’re always hovering around max effort you have no way to go when more is required.

So the next time you pick up your guitar ask yourself if you’re calm cool and collected. Are you ready to play each note with intent? And are you playing within your capabilities at that moment?

If you can answer yes to these you’re going to have a rewarding time on the guitar.  And so will those who get to listen.

 

Cheers, kb

 

 

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The Holy Triad of Musicianship: Tone, Rhythm & Dynamics

Over the past year or so my focus has been away from playing the guitar and on playing music.  Given the fast-paced, information-rich world we live in, it’s very easy to get trapped into the minutiae of our instruments, the kinds of instruments we play, and all the gear associated with those instruments.  And given the guitar’s primacy in today’s musical landscape it can get nearly as overwhelming as today’s political climate.  In many ways, I’ve been part of that ‘movement’ with my vlogs, clinics, workshops, this blog, and even the title of the show I still occasionally produce: Artistry of the Guitar.

Ultimately, as a player and performer I found the focus on the guitar and my guitars almost stifling.  As the man who builds them, Alan Carruth, told me years ago, guitars are just tools for musicians.  It’s the voice they’ve chosen to use to tell their stories.  But it’s the ‘stories’ that are important.  Everything the musician does should be in service to telling the story.

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So as I’ve meditated on this over the course of the year I’ve tried to come up with broader areas to focus on.  The things that matter for playing music regardless of what instrument you play.  And as so often happens for me, I found that there were three pillars that were common in every performance: Tone, Rhythm, & Dynamics. I understand that melody and harmony are also important aspects, maybe the most important aspect of a song, but those two items are really musical items that are up to debate, personal taste, and the era within which a composer lives. To me, it’s the effect that Tone, Rhythm, and Dynamics have on the melody and harmony that make the performance strong and engaging or boring and dull.  They are the foundation upon which all musical performances hinge.

I view the performance of a song as telling a story. The guitar is the narrator’s voice, and that voice is very important, but it’s the words (notes) the narrator uses, and the way the narrator uses those words (tone, rhythm, and dynamics) that either elevate the story and make it interesting and engaging, or have us yawning and looking around the room. I don’t care how good the melody is, if the other components aren’t effective, neither is the story telling.

And I think it’s smart to inform ourselves how tone, rhythm, and dynamics work in storytelling and musical performance.  It drives the lesson deeper for me.

Tone

In written composition, tone is an attitude of a writer toward a subject or an audience. In music tone can be described as giving a note particular quality or way of sounding.  

How many times have you heard someone get mad and say: “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it that pissed me off!”  Tone is critical in story telling. Hell, it’s critical in relationships of all kinds.

In music tone elicits feelings of warmth and beauty or feeling brittle and tense, and other myriad complex feelings.  For a guitarist especially, shifting one’s plucking hand from near the bridge to near the end of the neck is huge. What tone do the words (notes) you’re playing in this measure need? A musical passage can absolutely come alive when it’s played with the right tone, and die if it’s not.

Think about great story-tellers or great public speakers in general.  They shout, whisper, get guttural, but they’re never monotone.  You can tell immediately if they’re sad, angry or happy.  A musician’s tone should give the listener the same information.  Too many musicians worry about getting every note right and end up playing in a monotone.  It’s ok to stumble over a few words (notes) if they’re played with emotion.

Rhythm

In written composition rhythm is described as the effect produced in a play, film, novel, by the combination or arrangement of formal elements, as length of scenes, speech and description, timing, or recurrent themes, to create movement, tension, and emotional value in the development of the plot.

In music rhythm is described as a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound, and the systematic arrangement of musical sounds, principally according to duration and periodic accents.

Most of musicians focus on the speed as in how many beats per measure when they play a piece. And tempo is critical. A story told too fast isn’t understood, the scenery blurs by, and things become a jumble. A story told too slowly bores us, frustrates us, and turns us off.

But rhythm for a musician isn’t just how fast you play a piece, it’s about where the accents lie.  The accents are the places that really grab our attention, and accents on certain beats helps us stay out of a monotone as well.

For soloists it’s important to remember that time, or rhythm, can be played with; it’s called rubato. The temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace.

Think about a great book on CD/Tape/Audible you’ve heard.  Sometimes the narrator races along at breakneck speed, and then suddenly slows down. Or maybe the narrator starts slow and soft and builds up speed and volume.  All of these are effective tools for storytellers. They are just as effective and important to the musician.

And this of course brings us to…

Dynamics

I couldn’t find a literary description for dynamics, but I think when I share the musical description you’ll still see how it can be applied to story telling.

In music dynamics are described as variation and contrast in force or intensity. A storyteller will go from a stage whisper to a bellow, from belly laughs to hysterical tears, but they’ll never use the same volume for the whole story.  Listeners to both stories and music need to have their ears ‘moved around’ to stay fresh.

For those of us who continue to assault people with our original music dynamics are critical for keeping people engaged. If you’re always playing loud or always playing soft your going to put people off. I wouldn’t want to listen to a story teller whisper or yell all night. Great musicians will go below the noise floor to grab hold of a listener. Loud isn’t loud unless there’s something softer to compare with it. And timidity is as bad as shouting; you’ve got to have a full dynamic range to be a good musician.

Dynamics seem to be the last thing most musicians achieve on their way to becoming better musicians. But to me it’s the special sauce that makes or breaks a musical performance. I find this is the plane musicians reach when they’ve learned how to critically listen to their own performances while they’re playing. This kind of critical listening will further enhance one’s ability to self-evaluate tone and rhythm as well.

 

While the audio of this doesn’t do Vin justice, I think his performance of Dark Blue Wind speaks to how the effective use of tone, rhythm and dynamics create an incredibly engaging and powerfully emotive performance. His most recent CD, when the sea lets go, is a lesson in this holy triad of musicianship.  You can check him out here http://vindownes.com

These days, as I evaluate my tone in rehearsals, I’m evaluating both overall tone, and in individual pieces I’m looking at my use of tone as flavoring through moving my plucking hand towards or away from the bridge during different phrases in the piece. I also evaluate how attack, which is also part of dynamics, affects tone and plucking hand placement.

My evaluating overall tone recently had me totally re-think my approach to my acrylic nails, and I now keep them much thinner, and a bit shorter. I find I’m getting better detail, and a purer note from my nails.

But tone on the guitar isn’t all about the nails, the fretting hand comes into play as well. If I’m pressing too hard on the string I can choke the note out, or if it’s too light it might thud and not ring the way I want.

I also use a fair amount of vibrato; effective use of that enhances a piece, but too much is like listening to someone hit their throat as they sing. I don’t want to warble and wobble a note, I want to sweeten it up by gently stretching the string up and down, or even more subtly by allowing my fretting finger to ‘sway’ above the finger tip as I hold the note.

Listening, critical listening is the key in being able to respond musically as we play. Vibrato is something that is felt and I can only feel something to do it if I’m listening closely.

As I focus on my rhythm I evaluate whether or not the piece breathes.  I play intimate music. Rushing it in any way, even in the uptempo tunes, kills them. Dead. Because rushed tempo takes away my ability to produce nuanced passages. Think about how hard it is to follow a speaker when they’re rushing every word. It’s both hard to understand, and even creates tension in the audience. It can be unintelligible. I want to hear every hammer-on and pull-off with clarity and vibrance.  Sloppy doesn’t work for my compositions, and rushed tempo does more to induce sloppy playing than anything.

Also in regards to rhythm I’m looking at where accents fall. I don’t play a lot of music that is based on 2/4. My compositions are much more baroque/folk based where the focus is on the 1 and sometimes the 3.  But I also play some jigs, and blues, and tunes with swinging 1/8th notes.  It’s important to place emphasis on certain beats; tempo plays a part in my ability to accent well, but it’s also about listening hard enough to feel the accents. If I feel it I can play it.

And lastly as it relates to rhythm I look at how I’m playing with time to better tell the song’s story. This is the rubato I spoke of earlier. As a soloist, I am free to not be metronomically correct.  I can slow some passages down, or push some measures if the music calls for it. For example, one of my songs is about a border crossing from Canada into NY at Niagara Falls that had as inching forward for a fairly long time until we crossed the border and finally got up to full speed.  So it’s vital that I play it that way. And this is another ‘feel’ thing. I don’t want to over analyze passages and say that I must ALWAYS play it that way. My songs work better when I feel my way through them, and just like the last paragraph that involves critical listening.

As I look at dynamics it’s all about feel for me. I’ve been lucky in that for as long as I can remember I’ve used dynamics from the very beginning of pieces I’ve written or arranged. From the first halting steps-I play with feeling. I actually can’t play in a monotone-even scales. I encourage you to do the same. It’s hard to add at a later date. And for me it makes all the work on a piece of music much more satisfying, both short-term and long-term.

Martin Simpson and I were acquaintances back in the last century, and I can vividly remember him saying that the only reason to pick up an instrument and play music was to convey an emotion. The better we use dynamics, the better we engage our audience, and the better they ‘understand’ our stories the better they understand those emotions and the depth of the story we’re trying to tell.

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As you can see, the umbrella over the holy triad is critical listening.  Being a good musician is about being a good listener. And if you want to be great, then you’ll have to be a great listener.  And the only way you can become a better listener is to practice.

How? Put some music on, and turn everything else off. In fact, you may want to start in a dark room. Close your eyes and put on music.  Listen, breathe, and let go.  I encourage listening to ensemble music so you don’t focus on whatever instrument you play. This can end up in comparisons that might throw some shade on your playing. That’s not what this is about. So find some classic Beatles, Allman Brothers, Pink Floyd, or some New Grass from Barenberg, Meyer, and Douglas.  You might as well make it fun.

At first listen to the group as a whole-listen to the song holistically. The whole thing; beginning to end. Just take it in. And this isn’t about judging or critiquing; JUST listening.

Then hit repeat and this time listen to one instrument-one that’s not yours. Try to follow it through the entire song.  Do that with every instrument you can identify on the song, but not listening to your instrument until it’s the last.

Limit your critical listening sessions to 45 minutes. Be warned, most of you will get distracted before 15 minutes is up. Listening to music uses your whole brain, and listening to music is nearly as good for your brain as playing music. But it will tire you out.

While playing, be as Zen and in-the-moment as is possible-that’s where you have to be to listen to yourself play.  Be Here Now.  Turn off all iDevices, light a candle if that helps, do whatever gets you in a Zen place, and then play. Just play and listen. Don’t judge while you’re playing. You’re listening now to feel what you want to do with tone, rhythm, and dynamics. And then respond to what you hear.Your ears are telling your hands what to do.

Only evaluate after the piece is finished. Then, depending on your evaluation, rinse and repeat.  Maybe it’s perfect and you nailed it, or maybe not.  Armed with your evaluation play it again.  And listen. When you’re focusing on listening in your playing sessions at first, limit yourself to 45 minutes.

Here’s what this focus has given me. I’m playing better than I ever have before. The songs are more musical, and playing guitar is more rewarding to me now than it ever has been. And I’m sensing the same thing from audiences. And while I’m not perfect at this, I bungled a recent concert, I’m enjoying performing more than ever, and enjoying playing more than ever. I’ve found that focusing on the music and the songs, and not the guitar has also helped ease stage nerves. That was an unintended benefit, but a welcome one.

I realize all of us must put our focus on our instruments all during our musical journey. But I think it’s important to always remember that all that focus and learning is in service to playing music, not the instrument. It’s about telling a compelling musical story.

How’s your storytelling?