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.

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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.

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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

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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

 

 

Fingers, Picks, or Fake Nails Oh My! Part 2: Should I or Shouldn’t I

While it can be a real pain in the ass to those around me, I am gifted with an incredible desire to always get better at what I do. It’s the reason I wake up in the morning, and I honestly can’t understand any other way of living.  The day I wake up and don’t want to improve myself will likely be my last day. To me, self-improvement is my reason to live.

The way this shows up in my musical life is in my experimentation. I am incredibly inquisitive. I love trying new strings, capos, slides, guitars, tunings, and picks. My experiments have yielded tremendous results for me personally. But luckily I am also pretty self-aware, and I know that I typically respond favorably to anything ‘new’ and different.  I LOVE change. Embrace it, and actively pursue it.  I know change causes stress in many folks, but for me change is like taking a great big bong hit of the best weed I’ve ever had; it inspires me and unlocks music that may have never found the light of day otherwise.

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The Power of Wow

Today I was reminded of the power of wow, and today that experience came from playing great instruments.

Truth told the last couple weeks have been hard guitar weeks for me. I’ve been working very hard to get ready to go on the road for a mini-tour the first full week of June which has included lots of office work, and I also had a less than satisfying visit with my father and family over his 90th birthday in Northern Michigan that included TSA hassles and gridlock.

I use the phrase playing the guitar to describe what I do and the word play is important. Play requires a certain mind-set, and mine was nowhere close to allowing me to play. I bounced back and forth from being a hyper efficient self-employed business man, and frustrated traveler/son.  I still spent time on the guitar, but man it was work. Real work. It was like doing push ups, or running on a treadmill. It was just exercise. I wasn’t playing at all.

Luckily I recognized that, and last week when I got back I told myself to chill. Most of what I was frustrated about was beyond my control, but anything that was within my control was dealt with immediately. And that really freed up my mind.

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And since I’d been fighting my baritone while I was in Michigan (my fault, not the guitar’s), I picked up my 20 year-old 12-fret which had recently been restored to its former glory by its maker, Alan Carruth.  And my immediate thought was wow. Just wow.

It sounded so good, and of course behaved great. I was once again transported by the power of wow. And because it felt so great I played with some reverence for both the music and the guitar, which translated to nice tone, improved dynamics, and really fluid rhythms. Ah, I was playing music.  I wasn’t working on the guitar.

And today, for the first time in several weeks I picked up the harp guitar and later the baritone guitar I had fought with last week. Holy Shit!! Twin Wows!  Both drew me in and seduced me. And again I was playing music not working the guitars.

People don’t know this about me, but I can go months without playing a particular guitar. So much depends on how much I’m touring, who I’m touring with, and what guitar has grabbed my particular fancy. And the last couple of weeks the wow has been the 12-fret guitar. But a couple of weeks before that it was the high-string, and before that it was the baritone. And before that it was the piccolo harp guitar.

As long as I’m playing a couple of hours a day, it really doesn’t matter which guitar I’m playing. I’m keeping my hands in shape, and if my hands are in shape it only takes me a few days to put together a 90 minute concert spread over 3 or 4 guitars.But I always try to follow the ‘wow’ because that’s where the playing is, that’s where new music is, and that’s where, when I’m really lucky, I can find a transcendent performance.

For me following the power of wow keeps me fresh. And staying fresh is so important when you’ve done something for over 4 decades, and something you still do a couple of hours of almost every day. It helps that I have five great guitars, but you can find wows in lots of different ways just on one guitar.

Putting on new strings, try a new tuning, trya partial capo, put the capo higher than you ever have before, play an old favorite song you’ve long neglected, plug in and turn up the amp really loud, record a video, or perform live. All can provide players with a wow-a breath of something fresh and exciting. Something that seduces us and draws us in. Something that makes 90 minutes FLY by. If we’re going to continue to grow as musicians it’s important to stay open-minded and keep asking ‘what if I?…” Following the power of wow does that for me.

What’s your wow? Find it, pursue it.  The power of wow, is powerful indeed.

Cheers, kb

Attitude

This morning I was reminded just how important the attitude I bring to the guitar can be.  I got in a bit of a kerfuffle with my bonus mom this morning who is an absolute control freak and will not endure her dog to be disciplined even when said beastie snaps and growls.  I am a huge fan of the dog training I learned through the Monks of New Skete, and got very wolfie with Oliver. I don’t hit dogs, it’s both wrong headed and ineffective.  But I do believe in doggie discipline and I put him on his back, growled and asked Ermy and the rest of her staff to ignore the dog for 45 minutes, basically a doggie timeout.  Not only did she totally ignore that she heaped affections him, basically reinforcing his behavior.  Needless to say I wasn’t happy.

I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to play the guitar at that point, but it is my sanctuary, especially during these family visits.  But man, even though my body and hands were feeling better than they have in a couple of week I sucked. I rushed everything, was sloppy as hell, and even spaced out parts of pieces I’ve been playing for 25 years.  It was ugly.

And then I took a deep breath, put the guitar down for a bit and collected myself. This was at about the 45 minute mark of my session.  I was bound and determined to get through this. I calmed myself, relaxed and played the last 3 or 4 tunes well. Not spectacularly, but I didn’t rush and played with dynamics for about 20 minutes. I can’t say that it was fun, but it was satisfying to work through it.

I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to play again today. It’s my Dad’s 90th and there’s a big party and then packing to fly home tomorrow.  But if I do play, I can guarantee you I’ll have a better attitude or I won’t play at all.

Because IMHO playing with a bad attitude is worse than not playing.

Cheers, kb

The Good, the bad, and the ugly

Yesterday was one of the more frustrating days I’ve had on the guitar.  I had been up since 3am traveling to Michigan when I finally got to play the guitar at about 4:30 in the afternoon.

There was a hive of activity as family members arrived to celebrate my dad’s 90th birthday Monday so I took my baritone guitar out on the back porch to chill and get some of the road off my hands.  My stretching and warmup went well, but the guitar was NOT cooperating.  I had put new strings on it before I left, and with the temperature dropping and humidity rising my guitar did what guitars do; it remembered it was a tree and was moving all over the place.  It was especially wonky when I played in its lowest tuning Dropped-D intervals starting on Bb.

After about 15 minutes of pulling strings and fighting the guitar I said screw it and tuned it up to DADGAD intervals starting on C and it handled it much better. Not great, but I got in about 45 minutes of playing that wasn’t satisfying at all musically, but did do the one thing I was looking for and that was to knock the rust off. I kept telling myself not to be pissed at the guitar, it was just doing what was natural, and that kept me relaxed enough to accomplish my goal.

This morning I had vastly different goals.  I wanted to play some music. My hands felt decent, not great, but my stretching session went well and I hunkered down on the guitar.  And I learned a lesson. As much as I’d like this guitar to be tuned lower for standard and dropped-D intervals the strings just don’t have the mass required to do that.  And the truth is, this guitar loves any alternate tuning a whole step lower than standard.  Any and all alternate tuning sound amazing bE amuse the string gauge is perfect for those tunings.

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And I played music for about 75 minutes.  The guitar sounded and felt fabulous, everything worked, and I played in CGDGAD, DGDGAD, DGDGBD, DGDGBbD, and DADGAD intervals, and the guitar LOVED it.  Every single note, even the ones I  fluffed.

While I’m a little bummed about not being able to play standard and Dropped-D material on the Bari, I’m a believer in using a guitar in a way that suits it best. Since I got my 12-fret OM refurbished about 10 days ago all the standard and dropped-D stuff sounds fabulous on that, so I’ll perform that material on that guitar. It’s a no-brainer. And  I’ll use the Bari for what it does best.  Also a no-brainer. I will use this information as I start putting together my set lists for my June concerts, and I know my performances will be better for it.

Frustration isn’t always a bad thing. To me it just signals that something isn’t working and I need to find a solution.  And today I did. I listened to my guitar and came up with a winning solution.

What did your guitar teach you today?

Cheers, kb

 

Long toss

I’ve been a baseball fan since I watched the Cubs one day in April ’63 at a hotel room in the Chicago area while my folks were looking for a house; don’t worry, I had a baby sitter other than the TV.  Baseball still captivates me. A team sport that is largely played one-on-one between the pitcher and hitter.  As you know my teaching vlogs and blogs are peppered with sports analogies.  But there’s a reason for that.

Much of the way I approach my practice on the guitar was learned on a baseball diamond, and later tennis courts and golf courses.  Learning most crafts requires time on the practice field repeating things over and over and over again to build strength and muscle memory.  Golfers call it digging it out of the dirt.  Lessons are great; vitally important in fact. But not as important as the playing that happens between the lessons.

Yesterday, was a very demanding day on my hands away from the guitar. The whole week has been. But yesterday was  brutal. I wrote and edited a blog, wrote lots of emails, booking emails, and edited a bio. All in all, about 5 hours of work at the computer keyboard. And then I weed whacked the yard.

I had played the guitar for nearly 5 hours Wednesday, and another 10 or 12 from Sunday through Tuesday.  When I was finally able to pick up the guitar  last night, Thursday May 19th for those of you reading this late, I had NOTHING in my hands. I played a little harp guitar and a little 6-string, but after 30 minutes I just put the guitars back in their cases. I was being smart. If I’d done anything more I’d have hurt myself.

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So today, I made sure I got the guitar in my hands first thing after I wrote my morning pages and answered and sent a few critical emails; about 9am.  But I went into it knowing how spent my hands were the night before, and that I had to mow the lawn later this afternoon.  I went into it like a starting pitcher who throws a long toss session after a complete game start having thrown 130 pitches a couple days ago.

I stretched for about 15 minutes before I picked up the guitar, and then played a bunch of chromatic scales and did some right hand warm-ups on my 12-fret OM, standard scale guitar.  Slow and steady, and I played softly. Everything I played I played with zero tension. I did this for about 6 or 7 minutes.

Then I played a couple of ballads in DADGAD, really just letting the guitar do the heavy lifting, and after about 10 minutes my hands felt great. My forearms were, and are, still a little tight, but nothing that stopped me from playing. That’s the best part about stretching and playing relaxed; you can get more out of tired muscles.

I moved on up to mid and uptempo pieces in DADGAD that were played at full speed but half the volume-that trick really saves my hands-it’s something I’ve learned to do on concert days as well as days I’m recuperating.  And then I finished up playing a difficult medley in EbBbEbGAD tuning at full volume and full speed.  Total elapsed time from stretching to casing the guitar was 57 minutes. This was my version of long toss.

I will probably play later again tonight. I usually do after I mow the lawn, and it will be a shorter version of this morning’s long toss session but played on the harp guitar. But I’m really looking forward to it, and while I know I won’t have my A game, I’ll have fun and get some work accomplished.

Tomorrow I travel, and won’t play guitar until late in the afternoon or early evening if at all. But I’m ok with that now because a day’s rest after the week I’ve put in might not be such a bad thing.

I hope you have a great day on the guitar.

Cheers, kb