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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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?