July 16, 2010

Things that bear repeating...

I just read a nice blog post from Bob Wooldridge about a concert and workshop given by Jorge Caballero at the GFA convention. There was a nice quote in it:

The workshop started out with Jorge simply asking if anyone had any technical problems that they would like to discuss. But I believe that Jorge was engaging in a somewhat Socratic attempt to shake up our thinking. Several things were suggested as technical problems. Tension, scale velocity, tone, etc.. but Jorge's answer was that these were not really technical but musical. In other words, almost all technical problems are fundamentally musical in nature!
In fact, my teacher Kevin Gallagher said pretty much the same thing to me in my lesson today. I really believe it, and for me it's one of those things that I was starting to grasp and then suddenly it seems like the whole world is shouting it at me.

I can give a really concrete example for it. For a while I've felt like I just wasn't getting out of my guitar what I knew it was capable, in terms of volume and tone. For a while I thought it was because I was trying a different nailshape and wasn't used to it yet, or hadn't gotten it quite right yet. Kevin pointed out to me in a lesson that I was missing some notes in faster passages, or at times they were there but not consistent with the surrounding notes. I started paying a lot more attention to the consistency of volume and tone, not so that everything was even really but so that it fit in better with the "trajectory" of the line. So if I meant to play a line at a given volume level, that all the notes fit in, or if I was making a decrescendo, that each note had the right volume and tone for its place in the line.

Of course it helped right away, but the best thing about this was that it made me pay a lot more attention to the sound I was producing. It made me take the time to listen to things like chords and arpeggios. Did each note in the chord have the right "weight" behind it? Did the voices within the chords sound connected to the adjacent chords, as with the single-note lines mentioned before? Without these details in place, the sound gets unfocused and deteriorates.

Now, this is the kind of thing that if I were to try to think about every detail while I was playing a piece, I wouldn't be able to play it. But in practice, I could take it a bit at a time and start building the correct habit. Obviously, there was technique involved in solving these problems, but the reality is that technique wouldn't make sense without the musical context and that educating the ear and letting the rest follow is often a much easier way to accomplish thing than to focus closely on the mechanical aspect and risk getting distracted from the result.

The result has been that I feel like I'm producing a lot more sound with the guitar, although the reality may be that it seems louder because the music is coming through more clearly. To use another metaphor, you could look at it like an improvement in the signal to noise ratio.