Mental Health, Music and Me

May is Mental Health awareness month, and so I thought it might be helpful to talk about it.  It is my experience that many full-time musicians deal with some mental health issues: anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD are among the most common.  I have many friends in music who are also dyslexic, and though not a mental illness, if undiagnosed it can add to the depression and anxiety one deals with on a daily basis.

Most people who know me probably wouldn’t think that I have dealt with all of these maladies except dyslexia since I was a kid.  Hell,  I didn’t really KNOW until last June when I had an anxiety ‘attack’ while on tour last year.  I’ve long known that both my father and mother dealt with both anxiety and OCD, even though we didn’t use those words back in the day let alone call it mental illness. And my paternal grandmother also dealt with an assortment of mental health issues that seems to mirror mine. And, I hate to say it, but I see my four adult daughters deal with these issues at varying levels themselves. And I also knew that a lot of mental health issues are genetic.

The thing about mental illness is that denial, or even just lack of understanding, is part of the illness.  I won’t lie to you. I’ve known I was fucked up since I was about 8 years old when I knew I was ‘different’ from normal kids. But until last June I never used the phrase mental illness to describe my maladies. And because I’m a smart SOB, and a pretty fine actor I was able to ‘fool’ people into thinking I was a gregarious, confident and healthy person. Myself included.  But on the inside. Holy fuck-what a worm riddled mass of fear, anxiety, depression and anger my poor brain was.

Folks who know me know I struggle with sleep. Getting to sleep.  And I have for as long as I can remember.  I slept with a nightlight in my room until I was 10 or 12-it helped keep the terrifying thoughts at bay-a little bit. Because once the room was dark and all I was left with was my own thoughts-it was terrifying. And still can be.

My inner thoughts have always been on the dark side. Especially at night. I imagine ‘real-world’ scenarios where bad things happen to me and those I love.  And I can have an argument with someone in my head days or hours before I see the person. And I get angry and can stay that way for days, weeks, even months under the ‘right’ conditions.

In the 80’s when I was in my mid-20’s my first marriage was starting to implode.  So we went to therapy-something my wife stopped doing, but I continued doing.  As I look back the folks I was seeing for therapy really didn’t have a handle on the organic piece of mental health; it was all about how we thought and then acted.  It helped, I began to act differently, and even begin to get a ‘handle’ on the thinking piece of the puzzle.  If you’ve read these blogs you’ll find what I learned from therapy in much of what I teach to budding performers and musicians.  Self-talk, the words we say to ourselves, may be the most important conversations we have. I learned to put ‘screen doors’ on my ears and visualize the ‘bad thoughts’ going in one ear and out the other. Those who deal with my cocktail of mental health issues understand how looped base thinking can affect them-those bad thoughts just keep going round and round until we either feel them and let them go or act them out.  I got much better at letting them out. But I still didn’t feel better. Not on the inside. And as you can imagine my marriage ended in an ugly ball of flames.

And then the most wonderful thing happened. I got carpal tunnel syndrome and the possibility that I might lose the ability to play the guitar helped me get my priorities straight. And there began the process of becoming honest with who I was, who I am, and who I wanted to become.

And this was brand new territory for me. I’d never asked myself who I was, what I believed, and how I wanted to act. I took my lead from my father-that’s too nice. I didn’t have options of being who I was as a kid. Kids don’t get enough credit in my opinion. They know way more than adults think they do. I knew that my father didn’t like who I was-I think I scared the shit out of him because we were so much alike-so I did my best to be the person he could like.  I learned to be a chameleon. I have an ability to fit myself into almost any group, no matter how deplorable. I had learned how to read people and give them what they wanted.  I used to think it was a gift. Today I think of it as a curse. Because it was a really difficult ‘habit’ to break.

Playing an instrument is a wonderful tonic for me-it helps me with my mental illnesses. The music I compose and play is music that helps ease my anxiety and depression. And let’s face it, it gave me a healthy way to deal with, and even use my ADHD and OCD for the power of good.  I mean, what normal person sits down and draws out fingerboards with all the notes from open position to the 12th fret for 5-6 tunings? As a way to relax? And how many 35 year olds are willing to relearn how to play the guitar

And as someone who believes that the ultimate responsibility of a musician is sharing their music with a live audience it forced me to deal with my anxiety head-on.  When I talk to folks who have ‘normal’ stage fright I nearly laugh.  Their hands shake and their voice quivers a bit, but have they been having daily nightmares about performance, do they lose their ability to eat a day or two in advance of their performance? Does it give them diarrhea? (Sorry to be graphic) Does it make them snap angrily at everyone around them over things that really don’t matter?

The last piece of my mental health puzzle was when I realized the role that cannabis has played in my life the past 25 years. Remember, as I was coming to many of these realizations about myself, we were in the Reagan era of “Just say no”. And marijuana was touted as one of the most dangerous drugs on the planet.

But a good friend of mine in Taos, NM knew I was dealing with a pretty bad case of depression at the time and offered to find me some cannabis-he said it’d help. At that point I hadn’t smoked in over a decade. At the time I was proud of the fact that I’d taken on some of my issues without medical or chemical intervention. Just done the hard work of therapy and using 12-step Co-Dependency meetings do try to temper my chameleon-like nature.

The first time I used cannabis after that decade was pretty amazing. It definitely helped me deal with my depression, and looking back I now realize that’s when the dark thoughts started to abate, and my ADHD and OCD had much less control over my behaviors. That’s still true today.

But most of what I’m talking about in this blog today is relatively new information to me.When I look back at my life, actions, and feelings now I can see the role my mental illness played.  And it makes me wonder what my life would or could have been like if I’d known and acted on my mental illness when I was a much younger man. Or if my parents had. But the times were different then. We didn’t know what we know now.

My hope is that if you are dealing with mental illness you’ll get help-both chemically and therapeutically. I’m not suggesting you smoke weed if that’s not for you. Or play the guitar if that’s not your thing.  I know that there’s not enough cannabis or guitars in the world to help me with my issues if I don’t do the therapy work and learn new ways of thinking and acting. It’s something I will work on the rest of my life. But please, seek out the help you need.  It’s pretty amazing when you get the help you need.

The good news for me is that I no longer beat myself up for being fucked up.  Owning my mental illnesses has really given me tremendous freedom, as well as making me even more responsible for how I act and feel than ever before.

And yes, I still suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD, and OCD. But they control me less than they used to do.  And I can more easily see my thoughts and actions for what they are and act accordingly.

And I am closer to the person I want to become than ever.

 

Be well friends.

Advertisements

The Power of asking “What if…?”

This weekend I was reminded of something that’s been a huge part of who I am as a composer and solo guitarist; the power of asking “What if…?”

Oddly enough, the reminder didn’t happen while I was playing or rehearsing. It came while I was cooking bread for my sister-in-law while both my wife and sister-in-law looked on.

They were both talking about how we should make changes to the dough recipe for no-knead bread that we’d only tried once.  I was aghast, and at my OCD best telling them we knew this worked and we shouldn’t change it at all. I went even further and told both of them how much I objected to them always wanting to mess around with MY recipes.  I told them, laughingly, that it drove me nuts. It kinda does.

But then it dawned on me. If I’d treated the guitar and music like this I’d have probably never written a single piece of music because nearly all of the 8 hours of music I’ve written is played in some altered tuning. Nor would I have recorded one of the first ensemble fingerstyle guitar records in the mid-90’s. Asking “What if…?” has been integral to who I am as an artist.

power of what if

And just last week I asked”What if…?” in relation to my baritone guitar and was rewarded handsomely.  I decided to try tuning up from my baritone’s standard tuning of CFBbEbGC to reach the alternate tunings instead of tuning down and the result was everything I’d hoped for when I asked the question.

And that gave me great joy. And joy I can share with others. I was able to debut a couple of pieces at my concert last Saturday on the baritone that I’d never performed before. And they were extremely well received. And I was so inspired by the sound that I played an almost 20 year-old piece of music better than I ever have before, and I’ve played it well quite a lot. And just today, a couple of hours before I started writing this, I found another 35-40 minutes of music that works really well on the baritone-most of it music I’ve never or rarely performed.  That’s HUGE.

Forbes and other business magazines have spent time writing about this it’s so important. My favorite quote from the Forbes article is that the “status quo is mediocrity’s best friend.” And goes on to say nothing leads to more powerful ‘a-ha’ moments than asking “What if…?”

In the corporate world asking “What if…?” can lead to profitable new products, or creative ways of marketing through social media both improving the bottom line. For musicians asking what if can create hours and hours of new music, or lead to visionaries like Michael Hedges whose two-hand tapping would revolutionize the acoustic guitar world. What would happen if you asked yourself “What if…?”

When was the last time you tweaked one of your musical recipes.  Think about it. We get bored when we eat the same thing all the time right. So, what do we do? We tweak the recipes-try something new.  It doesn’t always work. I’m sure at least half of the time I ask”What if…?”, the answer comes back as a no.

But half the time it doesn’t.

And every time I ask what if and the results are positive I get another color in my palette as an artist. Something else I can use to tell a musical story. Another way to reach my listeners. And it inspires and motivates me.

When was the last time you asked yourself “What if…?”

I dare you. Try it. What’s the worst that can happen?

I double-dare you.

And yes, I’m going to start asking “What if…?” in the kitchen now too.

Cheers, kb

 

 

Not all mistakes are created equally

 

One of the things I’ve noticed about some of my students is that they react the same way to each mistake they make.  Typical reactions are anger, fear, or shame, and mistakes of any kind stop them dead in their tracks. They try to back up and attempt a do-over.  That in itself is a mistake.  Music keeps moving, whether you make a mistake or not. If you are in rehearsal mode, playing songs all the way through, then don’t EVER let a mistake stop you. Spend your rehearsals practicing getting yourself out of the self-inflicted jams.  It’s truly the fastest way to improve your performances.

A master musician is not someone who doesn’t make mistakes, a master musician is someone who hides their mistakes well.  Learn how to hide yours.

imgres-1

And learn the different types of mistakes musicians make; is it mental or physical?  If you simply flubbed where you put your finger GET OVER IT, and keep playing. Physical errors happen to the best musicians and athletes on the planet. Do not spend a millisecond of your life berating your playing for this kind of mistake. IT. IS. NO. BIG. DEAL.

Of course not every physical mistake is the same either. Did you make a physical mistake because you don’t have the right technique or correct fingering for that passage? That’s different from a simple flub. Don’t stop playing, but acknowledge the problem and when you’re done playing spend time on fixing it. If your technique or fingering is incorrect, go back to work, slow everything down to about half-speed and practice the right moves until they feel natural.

imgres

The mistakes to be hyper-aware of are mental errors.  Any sports coach will tell you that mental errors are the unforgivables in sports.  They are in fact, unforced errors.  But there are two kinds of mental errors. One is thinking you are doing the exact right thing and doing it only to find out it’s wrong.  And the other is a brain-fart.

In the first instance, instead of berating yourself, figure out what you were supposed to do, get committed to that and play through it the next time the correct way. In the second instance-get over it-it’s not a big deal; it is a mental version of a physical flub. The first instance speaks to having bad information, and the other speaks to not being mindful. Both are worthy of correcting.  I’ve noticed a huge uptick in the quality of my rehearsals since I’ve become mindful of being mindful.  BE. HERE. NOW.

And please, don’t ever give yourself the goal of playing mistake free.  It won’t happen. Even on nights that I’ve been flawless in my performance I’ve made more than a handful of mistakes; the difference for me is that I don’t telegraph my mistakes, I’ve probably made the same or similar mistake before, and I’ve planned an emergency exit of sorts. This is more for my benefit than the audience’s.  If I’m not affected by my mistakes I’ll play better, and both the audience and I gain from that.

So figure out the kinds of mistakes you’re making, make the right corrections, and go play music that inspires and moves you. If you do that, you’ll inspire and move us.

Cheers, kb

An Inconvenient Truth

I think one of the things pros don’t talk about enough is the time we spend away from our instruments; and the stage.

If you’re a pro that plays, practices or rehearses every day there is a very strong chance you’ll have injuries that will affect your ability to perform.

Typically these are repetitive stress injuries, or RSI. Surveys of symphony orchestras found that 64% to 76% of musicians were experiencing RSI that affected their performance. And remember that these musicians are among the most highly trained in the world. They are taught, and practice the very best ergonomic and musically efficient techniques.

Imagine how those who are self-taught fare.

imgres-1

I personally think that about 85% of my peers over the age of 50 have dealt with some form of RSI. Enough that it’s kept them home when they’d rather be, and quite often financially need, to perform.

So what are some examples of RSI that guitarists frequently encounter? Tendinitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Ask me how I know.

imgres

And then there are other physical issues that present themselves to guitarists specifically; lower back, neck and shoulder problems are most common.  Sciatic issues abound. These injuries can affect a guitarist’s ability as much or more than the above mentioned RSI. Ask me how I know.

And let’s not discount the toll travel takes on the body. If you have back or neck issues from playing they are severely exacerbated by driving and flying. Ask me how I know.

imgres-2

So, what is a sexagenarian with over 30,000 hours on his hands do to protect himself?

I play as little as I can.

This still averages out to over 15 hours a week; most weeks.  But I also schedule an off-season. And then a spring training, and then I go about my year.  And I pretty much insist on celebrating a sabbath from my guitar every week. I only play 5-6 days a week.

If one were to look at my schedule closely over the last decade they’d see very few performances January-March. And if I play them, they’re typically regional 60-minute, one-set affairs.  This is on purpose. I plan my year in much the same way an MLB player does.

I take January off. In fact I take from the last gig of December until the end of January off. This doesn’t mean I don’t pick up the guitar, but none of it is rehearsal. I only play what I want, when I want to, and I spend most of my time fishing for ideas on a variety of guitars. Or experiment with strings and tunings as I did this year with my baritone-eventually deciding to tune it C-C in standard which was another step lower. This is a valuable creative time for me, but I only play 3-4 hours a week, at most.

The rest is invaluable.

imgres-4

February is when spring training starts for me.  I play at least one 60-90 minute focused session on one guitar 5 days a week. This time includes warm-up and stretching. I play as long as I can stay actively engaged in critical listening which is the requirement for me to call it a focused session. Once the outside world begins to intrude I put the guitar down.

I allow myself to play one more 45 minute focused session, if I want to, on another guitar, or play a ‘casual’ session for up to 90 minutes. An example of a casual session would be playing while watching a sporting event or news broadcast. But the only mandate in early February is one 60-90 minute focused session .

I ease myself back in making sure that I’m playing at about 60-70% of volume and tempo. Think pitchers playing long-toss. I’m stretching muscles that haven’t been taxed in 30 days.

By the middle of the month I move to two 60-90 minute mandatory focused sessions, and allow one casual session of any length as long as I’m feeling relaxed and pain free. I also up volume and tempo, approaching performance tempos and volume.

In February I do not evaluate my accuracy.  This is important. If you’ve taken a break from focused playing, or playing at all, your accuracy is going to be negatively impacted. To expect anything else is foolish, and can set you back. Expect to make more than the average amount of mistakes.

Instead, I evaluate how loose I feel when I play, how well I’m playing dynamics, and how is my tone. I get to the basics of playing music. For example right now I’d rate my tone and dynamics close to 9, my rhythm is about 6.5 as I’ve found myself rushing a bit, but I’m playing with 100% commitment. I would say I’m playing enthusiastically. I’m really happy about that. The mistakes will clear up over time. It’s important to KNOW that that last statement is true. The mistakes will clear up over time.

By the first week of March I will play three focused sessions, one on each of my stage guitars, and as many casual sessions as I want to play. I think it’s important to note that most of my compositions come from these casual sessions, and I think it’s important to make those a regular part of my daily guitar habit. I also increase my playing to 6 days a week; if I want to or feel the need. Quite regularly the 6th day may be spent all casually. Meaning I’m going fishing on all my instruments. As a guitarist/composer I think of this as a working vacation.

I have been playing injured for most of the past 6 years. It was really a series of unfortunate events and included major flare-ups in tendinitis, neck and shoulder issues that pinched nerves and numbed the fingers of my right hand, severe right-hand thumb pain and stiffness from a non-guitar related injury, and major sciatic nerve damage. I soldiered on, but at a pretty serious cost. Both to body, but ultimately my performances as the injuries severely limited my repertoire.

I’ve had to learn the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. As well as learning the warning signs from when pain is presaging an injury. And what to do about it. Right fucking away. I no longer mess around.

One of the things I need to remember is that I’m not going to forget how to play the guitar if I don’t play for a week. In fact, I don’t get that rusty when I’ve not played for a week.  I can take a week off and get back 80% of my repertoire to stage-ready in 5 days. You just have to know how. And for me I basically do a compressed spring training.

 

For me, I’ve come to realize there are probably no more guitar mountains to climb.  I’m about as good a guitarist as I’m going to be. This does not mean that I can’t get much better as a musician. Because being a great musician is about being a great storyteller, and my storytelling can always improve. That has become the focus of my playing for over a year now.

So, if you play every day, keep an eye on your hands and body. Make sure you’re playing in the most ergonomic position that you can, and don’t be afraid to take time off when time off is required.

Happy playing, kb

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!

imgres-3

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.

imgres

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.

 

imgres-1

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!

imgres-2

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

 

 

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.

blog-mem

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.

121214-listening-to-digital-music

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?

 

Personal truths, music and religion

This blog has been brewing for quite awhile. I can remember almost exactly when the seed was planted. It was the fall of 2011 and I was touring with a lovely female guitarist in the Southwest. We were talking about the rise of evangelical Christianity and it’s impact on our society, politics, and governance. And then both of us admitted that as we had drifted away from organized religion that music had become our religion.

imgres

Religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, and societal organization that relate humanity to what an anthropologist has called “an order of existence”.  Religion is about teaching us our place in the world, a ‘code’ by which we can assess our behavior and personal growth.  It is something that holds us to a higher standard, and something that involves the embracing of a higher power. Music, and my pursuits in music as a performer, composer, and educator has provided me all those same elements.

There has always been a spiritual connection for me with music. When I’m listening to something that moves me I am filled with emotion, ideas, inspiration, motivation, and joy. Even if the music itself is sad. When I grieve, or cry, or mourn the release of that pain is instantly replaced with joy and gratitude. The world is a bit brighter. For me, listening to music is prayer and meditation, and a celebration of the human spirit.

Composing for me has the same affect as listening. It involves a deep connection to something bigger than myself. At my best, my compositions never feel written or pieced together. Quite often they come whole; I call this dipping into the divine.  The music was there, always had been, I was just the first to hear it.

In the pursuit of being a touring artist music has asked much personal sacrifice. It has challenged me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  What person of God hasn’t had a crisis of faith. As a person of Music, I know I have had repeated crises of faith.

The discipline of religion is no different than the discipline of music. It involves constant self-inventory. It takes practice.  It takes study. It demands personal sacrifice. And it requires faith and belief in something bigger than one’s self.

And to become a better performer I realized I had to become a better person. Music asked, no, demanded that of me. I realized that performing; the type of  musical performance I wanted to provide was an act of service. It had nothing to do with me. There’s no i in performance, or band, or ensemble.  Through music I learned that love is a verb. That’s powerful shit.

And through musical performance I learned about building and nurturing a community. What it means to be community, and how to help each other out. And just how powerful the shared live  musical experience truly is. It can alter someone’s life every bit as much as a powerful sermon.  And it can save lives too; as well as make someone’s passing from this life easier. Just as religion does.

I’m not suggesting music should be your religion, or that it’s in any way better than any Eastern or Western religion.  We all need to find a code to live by, to challenge ourselves so that we grow, and a place to build community with like-minded folks. A place to prosper and grow as we each find our own way from the cradle to the grave.

Music has been mine.

Peace and joy to you and yours,

kb