Monday, July 6, 2015

Musical Musings

I've been fooling myself for 20 years. More than 20 years I've been playing guitar off and on, even took a class at a community college. I've read books, methods, weaseled into master classes to listen but mostly I've pondered what it means to be a musician and recently, with the help of Jamey Aebersold's methods, I've concluded that a musician is not someone who pokes at an instrument to produce notes. No, that's a technician. A musician needs an instrument to release the notes in his head. This is such a fine distinction that it's rarely even mentioned in method books. 6 years in college music classes and this topic did not come up. I approached the instrument as a means to play a song and I memorized the places where I put my fingers to produce the right notes, but that's actually backwards to what a musician does. I never really internalized the notes. Maybe I memorized the beginning and the end, some fancy licks and what they sounds like, but mostly I memorized the mechanical/physical manipulations to produce the notes. I am basically pantomiming the act of being a musician, going through the motions, and memorizing all the movements requires to play a song...but there is a big difference between this and memorizing the notes, the sound of a song, and then using the instrument to produce those notes. Maybe this is something that can't be taught, but must be learned through experience, but wouldn't it help knowing that's not only the goal but knowing the mental reasoning behind it? I think it will, so I'm going to try to write down my understanding.

This is a big topic, something I've been working toward for years, so I can't break it all down in one essay, but I can give a pedagogical comparison.

If you ask an adult to describe how they learned to walk then they will likely be unable to give any accurate information. They learned to walk when they were 12 months old? But how many hours did they practice learning to walk? You can study an infant's behavior but does that give you an idea of the mental work being done? What if the baby is thinking about how to walk, but merely sitting down? That counts, right? So we can get an idea of between 4 and 6 months of effort, almost non-stop effort by the infant to learn to walk. Let's estimate 1800 hours to learn to walk...and that's if we don't count the time spent learning to crawl, which is arguably a step to learn to walk. So, really, it's over 2000 hours learning to walk. And another 20,000 gaining mastery of it. Hell, I still fall down sometimes.

So, after 20,000 hours, an adult should be able to give a comprehensive explanation of the exact steps needed to walk. He should be able to explain it clearly. So ask an adult to describe exactly how he learned to walk and furthermore, to teach someone else to walk.

This would make for a laughable conversation. As laughable as if you asked someone to describe in detail how to whistle a melody. Describe exactly the steps required to whistle or sing.
"Pucker your lips," is merely a starting point. Pucker them how much, how much air, where is my tongue, where are my teeth, where are my cheeks? What thoughts are required to whistle a higher pitch? Explain these thoughts to me.

You see? Whistling and singing are far closer to what an actual musician thinks like. The act of whistling or singing is not a mechanical memorization game to produce a certain note. No, the note is already inside your head, like the ability to walk, and you simply make the physical movements to produce the note or to walk.

It's metaphysical, which is why I like it, but that's also why no professor ever tried to get this distinction straight. What is the difference between learning the mechanical movements required to make a note, or memorizing a note and then learning the mechanical movements required to make it? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

Well, yes, there is a difference. There is a big difference. And while I know the master composers definitely had the notes already in their head and simply needed to learn the symbols to communicate them, and the lesser technicians have almost no notes in their head, but have mastered mechanical movements to create pleasing sounds. But I don't want to polarize this isn't masters and laymen. I'm not even sure a person can ever learn to think musically at the level of a Mozart. In that case there are three levels of musicianship:

Entry Level-- Learns the mechanical movements required to produce notes. (Oggy)

Intermediate Level-- Memorizes the notes, and learns the mechanical movements associated with those notes. (A professional musician)

Expert Level-- Composes mentally, with no instrument. (Mozart)

I like to use the analogy of exercising at the gym with weights because it's something that is totally misconceived by most everyone. When you go to the gym you see people lifting weights. Ok, so weightlifting means lifting weights. If you look with only your eyes you will see people lifting these weights with their arms and their legs and you will copy their actions in an attempt to build your muscles. You see a person curling weights with his arms. So you pick up a weight and curl it in the same way. Will you see similar results?

The question is loaded because there are so many other variables. Billy Mitchell is a video game expert and when people ask him for tricks his reply is, "I could tell you but you won't be able to do it." And I don't think he's questioning someone's ability to learn, but he's questioning the question. Yes, there are secrets, like getting the Pac Man ghosts to get trapped in a circle chasing each other, but the technique is so detailed and nuanced and it took so many hours to learn how to do it that a simple 2 minute lecture on the technique would be worthless. Simply knowing that such a trick is possible is actually all the hint you need because from then on it will be trial and error based on a constantly moving game. You might as well say that there is a trick guaranteed to get any woman to sleep with you after 2 minutes. Now, there might be such a trick, but whoever learned it will never be able to explain it in 2 minutes and if you learn it in 2 minutes you will never be able to apply it successfully. He could tell you the trick, but you won't be able to do it.

Back to the weightlifting analogy, the main problem is that you might pick up a 2 pound weight. And the weightlifter you are watching is curling a 35 pound weight. Well, technically, you are both doing the same motion. But you aren't doing the same work. Ok, so you get a 35 pound weight and do the same motion. And again, you are almost doing the same motion, but not quite. You are cheating a little here and there, bending your back, using your knees, curling your wrist, finding ways to cheat your bicep. And this is where, thankfully, the weightlifting technique can be taught, and you can do it. There is a secret, and if a professional weightlifter told you the secret, and you applied the advice then you would indeed be able to do it. Your goal is to tear the specific target muscles so they can rebuild bigger. The diet element is very important but I'm not even going to touch on that part because the mental process involved in weightlifting is very similar to the mental process involved in playing an instrument.

An instrumentalist can 'cheat' by learning the mechanical movements of fingers and hands and lips and air to produce the right notes. I know this is possible because that is how I've learned to play any song I know. I simply grind through the mechanical memorization like it's a Pac Man screen. I memorize that I put my finger here at this point and there at another point in the song. Simple, but it's also not what a musician does. My approach has been technical/mechanical because I truly lack musical inspiration. I do not have a gifted ear for music. I think I have a gift for instrument manipulation and maybe some improvisation, but I've never actually memorized sounds and have always struggled memorizing even simple melodies. I've struggled so mightily in this aspect that I sort of assumed that every musician approaches an instrument the same as I do, that they memorize their physical relationship to it and their mechanical motions produce the right notes. And that might be true for some musicians, but the Aebersold method repeatedly stresses the importance of emphasizing the mind over the hands. 

All this occurred to me as I pondered why playing scales made no sense to me. Was I learning the pattern, even if playing that specific patter was academic? I didn't understand why these scales were important and it frustrated me that 6 years in college would not answer this question. It might be a case that a professor felt they could explain it, but it would still come down to me playing scales, so don't question her. But that's not a good enough explanation for me in a philosophic sense. I really wanted to know why these scales are important. They are important in what sense? What's the end goal? I think this reflects back on the weightlifting analogy because the professor was simplifying the steps by saying "Follow me, copy me." So I would copy them physically but mentally I was not copying them and the mental part is equally as important. You can't simply curl weights in the same physical way as a professional weightlifter and get the same results. They approach it differently in their minds too.

So, how does a musician approach scales in their mind? Yes, they play scales, but what is the point? At long last I have discovered the point and I think I can tell you and it might make a difference. The point to playing scales is two-fold:
1) To internalize notes in your head. This may also be accomplished simply by listening to someone play scales. Whether you play them or you listen to a recording is the same thing. Your mind must be filled with all the notes of the piano, at least.
2) To learn the physical movements required to produce notes on the instrument.

See, it's not complicated, but the difference between Ab2 and G2 is very small, but musicians can recognize it. Another analogy is like being able to recognize the difference in accents between someone from Central Mississippi and East Texas. I know there is a difference, but the only people who could tell it immediately are people from Central Mississippi and East Texas. I still get Australian and English accents mixed up. But a intermediate student in accents would not get them mixed up. And an Expert would be able to impersonate someone from Central Mississippi or East Texas. See, it's in their head. They don't merely fake the accent, they actually know the accent. And a musician doesn't simply learn the physical motion to play a G2, they first hear the G2 in their head, and they have memorized the physical movement to play the note that is in their head.

I told you this was philosophical, but I insist that this is a major source of frustration for me. Maybe I'm wired wrong. Probably. But I felt that something was wrong, and it's basically my limits as a musician. I only aspire to play what is in my head, but the steps were never clear...learn all the notes as mental memories. Then learn all the physical manipulations required to produce each note. People who learn compositions like Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto DO NOT merely memorize the physical motions required to play the piece. NO! They have memorized the piece as a musical memory, purely musical, each note as a note that exists outside the realm of the piano. The piano enters the picture later on when they want to perform it. They rehearse in their heads, not so much where the fingers go, but what the notes are. The fingers move to produce the notes that are in their heads, not the other way around, not the fingers move to produce the right notes. They've memorized the music and mastered the physical reproduction of notes. The expression and articulation is really what separates concert pianists.  Everything else is easy. I've always approached it backwards because my musical memory is lacking but my physical memory is OK. I memorized The Entertainer by Scott Joplin strictly as a physical exercise. I learned where the notes belong on the keyboard, but I would have a hard time singing the entire melody. It's amazing that so much enjoyment can be had without even knowing what the song sounds like unless I'm playing it, but this is all wrong.

When I play The Entertainer my musical mind is a split second behind my fingers. I simply go through the physical motions to produce sounds and then my ear picks up the notes and determines where I am in the song. The difference is apparent when you watch George Benson do his vocalization of his guitar improvisation…his musical mind is a split second in front of his fingers…he isn’t scat singing what his fingers are playing, no, he is playing what he is scat singing. You might argue that there is no difference, but I’m telling you there’s a big difference, a world of difference. George Benson’s musical mind is the principal source of his music while my musical mind simply hears what my fingers have memorized. Aebersold suggests this musical mind can be trained to take a leadership role and I agree, as long as that’s the theory you work with. I don’t know if everyone can think like George Benson, but I know that everyone can at least grasp slightly how George Benson approaches his scat singing guitar solos.

If I told you to go get a pair of socks from a drawer then you would have no problem doing that because the socks exist independently of you and you have memorized their location and description. You recognize their details and specifics. You are an expert in finding socks. Now, I tell you to reproduce an G3 note and if that note exists in a similar mental realm as the socks do then you will be able to reproduce it from mental memory. Otherwise you will need an instrument because you have memorized the physical manipulations required to produce that note you asked for. This is like if I asked you to bring me a pair of socks and you brought me a shoe that I had placed next to your socks in your sock drawer. You went through all the steps perfectly except for one detail: a shoe isn’t a sock. You were merely pantomiming the steps and didn’t notice the sock and the shoe are two different things.

It’s like if you have bad theory but mess up so bad in the execution that you end up with good practice. That happens a lot in the oil field but it doesn’t sit well with me. The theory has to be unshakable and I don’t really care about the practice.
Aebersold says “Your Goal…to reproduce instantly on your instrument what your mind hears.” Also, “Try to get the sound, Sound, SOUND, SOUND in your ear!!!” Also, “Your instrument is merely a means of delivering the thoughts of your mind.”
This last quote is exactly what this 12 page essay is trying to defend. I fully agree with Aebersold. The instrument is the source of the sound, but the note exists in your mind independently of the instrument. While he does provide good entry level approach to learning Jazz Improv, I also respect that he accepts his method is mostly the mechanical, step by step, approach and the real philosophy of his method doesn’t involved dry theoretical whole-step, half-step formulas. He knows there are the anatomy of Music but not the soul. The soul can’t be dissected or manipulated physically, it must be embraced mentally. The notes on a page is the easy part while letting the music into your heart is the hard part. Maybe Aebersold has a whole book going more into depth than simply platitudes. I know the subject deserves more than bumper sticker treatment and I’ve tried to give it the respect it deserves. I think if I take students then they will be assigned a philosophical topic, the subject is Aebersold’s statement, “Your instrument is merely a means of delivering the thoughts of your mind.” Discuss. 

Until I’m satisfied with your appreciation of that statement then I have nothing to teach you. If we immediately dive into chord grips and scale patterns then not only have I done you disservice by focusing on the practice while ignoring the theory, but I’ve forever hindered your priorities so that you may think by memorizing physical movements you are a musician. You may be led away from that noble pursuit of embracing music independently of sound.
I'm trying to overcome my own limitations and in the process I might be able to help describe my conceptualization of learning music. I know this is important because I've encountered almost no material or teachers who approach it in a way that satisfies me. Most methods, even Aebersold's Jazz Improv method have to rely on physical memorization, the physical patterns are primary and he stresses that "The mind is the originator of all musical thoughts" but I find that admonishment weak. It's a platitude but I don't think it sinks in because it's in the realm of Pac Man tricks that can't be taught.

I see a disservice being done with all these guitar methods because the root mental perception is not discussed. And if you don't have the right mental approach then you will be the person in the gym mimicking the weightlifter but getting no results. Or maybe you'll get some results but you won't know why. You will be a technician, a pantomime, a fake. Now, it's actually possible to have some fun being a total fake, but if I can write an essay or construct a simple lesson that will explain this mental approach clearly then you can at least attempt to be an authentic musician, who has musical thoughts, who only needs the instrument to express these musical thoughts. 

One explanation for the lack of dialogue on this topic reflects back on my toddler learning to walk. The adult can't describe something that he did so long ago. He can only approximate what he must've been learning, what might've gone through his head. And a musician who has internalized musical thought probably did it so long ago that his only advice is an approximation of how he learned, "Listen to music, play scales." But that's only a mirror image, a pantomime of what he actually was doing when he learned. So I'm searching for the root thought process and it's simply this.

1) Memorize all possible note sounds as sounds by themselves, independent of an instrument. However you internalize these note sounds is up to you. Play scales or listen to scales. It doesn't matter. You need to grasp note sounds as philosophic entities and appreciate that there are infinite combinations or series of these notes.
2) Learn to recreate the notes in your head on an instrument. Or sing. Or whistle. It doesn't matter. 

When learning guitar, for example, the guitar is not the first step. The notes are the first step. The notes are fundamental. Internalize the notes and then get a guitar. The traditional method that I've seen everywhere is exactly the opposite. The guitar is seen as the instrument that produces the notes, but the notes exist without the guitar. See? The notes, not the guitar is primary. But when people want to play guitar they go get a guitar and that's jumping over the first step. The first step is the notes. Yes, you can get a guitar, but you must understand that the guitar is not the master of the notes. No, the notes exist in a realm outside the guitar. But the guitar is simply a piece of wood art without the notes. You produce notes with the instrument of choice. You do not use an instrument to produce notes.

This is beginning to sound like Yoda but I will stand by these claims because after 20 years of believing the guitar produces notes I think I've been pretending to be a musician. I've disrespected the notes and aspired to be a technician.

I did have one piano teacher who said that you only know a piece of music when you can write it out from memory. I'm thinking he assumed that memorizing how all the notes sounds independent of the instrument was understood, but I sort of ignored that part.

I do have serious musical memory limits but I'm wondering if my attempts to compensate by developing my physical memorization were because of this limitation or caused this limitation. This is important because theory has always been more important to me than practice. Theory is the almighty. Theory, or concept, is paramount. Bad practice is always caused by bad theory, and good theory doesn't necessarily mean good practice will follow. No, good theory can be ignored or messed up. But Good theory is paramount because at least we can return to the theory and start fresh. With bad theory then we will not only have horrible practice, but we won't even know why the practice is bad. We'll simply be fakes chasing our tails without any understanding of what is going wrong.

This essay is my first attempt to express this idea of a theoretically pure approach to music. I imagined making a video but I know it will turn into a rambling mess. One day I'll try to demonstrate this with a guitar. I'm almost ready because lately I've been playing an electric guitar silently at 4am and I can not hear any note coming from the strings...but the correct notes are sounding loudly in my head better than any amplifier. That was the breakthrough I've been waiting for.

Again, I suspect this kind of method does not mean anything to a beginner and would probably dissuade them from learning, or make them find another teacher, but I have to get to the root of the topic. I've had many conversations about this and never had a good answer. What does it mean to play music? To someone in the audience it looks like a bunch of people on a stage sawing away at instruments. So, like the weightlifter analogy, it's easy to think that if you saw away on an instrument then you are a musician. No, you will be fake, even if you produce the same notes they are making. It might sound identical but you are a fake. If the notes don't exist until you play them then you are an instrumental technician who manipulates an instrument to produce notes.

Again, in conclusion, a musician carries the notes with him as philosophic memories and uses the instrument to release them into the world.

Update: I can't find where to insert this comment so I will put it here. I had a kind of revelation that an adult guitar student should have required counseling and the session would go like this: Amateur 'campfire' guitar can be taught in about two days, and mastered in a few weeks or months. It's perfectly acceptable to play Bob Dylan and that is what I recommend aiming for. However, if you have fallen in love with Danny Gatton or Les Paul or Joe Pass then I would point out that those are the elite players and aspiring to play like them is actually the same as impulsively deciding you want to perform brain surgery on your daughter. They are the equivalent of doctors and while it's technically possible to reach their level of expertise, you would be better off if you actually enrolled in Medical School and became a brain surgeon in the same time. And if you want to be a rock star like Pete Townsend then I would say the time required to play like them is equivalent to what you will need to become a Journeyman Electrician and Carpenter, which are infinitely more practical. These comments attempt to put the goal in perspective of reality.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.