Last month we were wrestling with the tough topics of style development and intuitive performing. As a player, how does one
arrive at a style that is unique, recognizable, and intuitive? Are there things that a practicing musician can do, over a career,
over a lifetime, to get this to happen? Why is it that some players seem not to need to ever practice (Chet Baker) and still communicate
something ethereal, and others (most of the rest of us) have to practice every day?
It has been said that 99% of emerging as an artist
has to do with hard work, and that one’s natural ability accounts for a mere 1%. I remind my students of this regularly. However,
there seems to be no denying that people come into the world with different levels of ability and talent. The flow of how this natural
talent emerges and develops can be influenced to varying degrees, but even so, some players just seem to have a greater natural capacity
than others to develop the technique, to interpret the style, and to express themselves in a luminous way. Eric Clapton saw Stevie
Ray Vaughan for the first time and judged himself lacking by comparison, saying of SRV, “I got chills and knew I was in the presence
of greatness. He seemed to be an open channel and music just flowed through him.”
For the mere mortals among us, who practice every
day and who desire to be such a channel, let us not give up hope! I would offer that we might be able to influence our own capacity
for becoming a more mystical channel for the music, but in many cases it seems to have a timeframe all its own – it will appear when
the time is right.
So what do we do? How do we practice? How do we prepare ourselves? Each serious performer, either consciously or
unconsciously, has to wrestle with these questions, and their answers will all be different. But I do think that the wrestling itself
bears fruit. This journey towards becoming a channel for the music is a process that cannot be rushed or forced. It is, rather, a
process that can be accepted, invited, nurtured, and allowed to unfold.
Think of performing as you would think of mowing the lawn.
When I go to do the task of mowing, I have no anxiety. I don’t worry what others will think of me if they are watching. I know that
however it comes out it will probably be OK. I do a little preparation and then, without fear, do the task. Such common, routine tasks
really are all the same, aren’t they? The daily tasks of being a human being – washing the dishes, driving a car, etc. – all have
the same level of importance. Yet, we often attach our egos to a musical performance in a controlling manner that actually keeps us
from becoming a channel, and instead brings anxiety. Many times, a great performance can follow only after we let go of our need for
a great performance.
Let practice time be a time for playing music, not a time for working out a technical math puzzle on the fretboard.
No one creates in a vacuum – we all have to listen to and study the styles that came before us, and study and practice the techniques
(chords, scales and other technical things). In learning the technical aspects of the instrument and in studying the language of the
earlier players, we proceed with the idea that the co-mingled end result is the emergence of a unique, personal style. This personal
part means the player puts something into the mix that is unique to them. This holds true in the successful development of any style:
rock, blues, jazz, etc. The style is merely a means to communicate that personal, unique, soulful thing. It really matters not what
style it is – what is important is what is channeled through the style.
Once basic scales are adequately learned, put an end to over-practicing
technical exercises and instead learn songs by ear. Most of the early jazz performers learned all the popular songs by ear and improvised
based on all of the many melodies they knew and could play by ear. Focus on melody rather than technical and speed exercises. Practice
playing single-line melodies on the guitar, as you sing them. Practice singing all the intervals. Learn where the intervals are on
the guitar and be able to sing, hear, and play them. If an idea or phrase inspires you and you want to incorporate it into your improvisational
vocabulary, practice it slowly and repetitively (this is the key to mastery: repetitive, slow practice of all things). These types
of ear and melody practicing will result in a different – and more luminous – performer than one who is focused on technique, speed,
and fingerboard gymnastics.