For a modern, successful performer in our culture, what is the Holy Grail we seek? What is it that we value in performing, over all else? Is it technique (we practice scales all day long, so this must be important)? Is it fame? Recognition? Status? Power? Is it money? I would argue that the Holy Grail for a serious performer in our culture is style, a recognizable and intuitive style, the thing that is unique and honest about the performer, transferred through the medium of a musical instrument (or voice). The thing that is from the soul, the guts … a mystical source.

Consider the moderately known jazz guitarist Cal Collins (d. 2001). Like him or not, when he came on stage, he sounded like himself – I recognized him instantly. His technique was somewhat awkward, sometimes aggressive, sometimes just plain wrong by academic performing standards, sometimes even hick and country – in a jazz performance, no less – which reflected his roots, yet he played with fire and soul on every song he attempted, and along with that we are presented with his recognizable, unique style.

The list of famous performers is long, with players and singers who give us those two aspects of performing: playing from deep inside while performing with a unique style. Maybe the two traits are inseparable, even dependent on each other. If I am studying and copying another artist, I cannot perform using those techniques and give you what’s uniquely inside myself. The performance will lack something – conviction, honesty, truth – and without those it likely won’t be a “from-my-own-guts” performance.

The bevy of new, younger jazz guitarists on the recording scene today is a case in point. When I listen to them I often cannot tell many of them apart – it is due in part to how we are doing jazz education (blues and rock styles likely suffer the same problems). These players have impeccable technique; they play all the right sounding notes over any chord, their time is perfect and it may be a perfect performance every time, yet I can’t tell many of them apart and often am left uninspired.

Repeatedly, beginning and intermediate students come to a lesson and say “I can’t play fast enough … teach me to play fast.” The question itself implies something about our culture: that we are taught to value strength, speed, and being impressive (including one-upsmanship and competing). I very rarely hear “I would like to be able to perform so that what’s in my soul is communicated, inspiring people to feel deeply and move to a new plane of being.” I have asked it myself, and it is the question asked after being on the path awhile and learning that the “heart” (which tends to get communicated through one’s unique, instantly recognizable style) is more important than the “head” (which tends to focus more on technique, competing, and needing to be impressive).

This is a value that tribal cultures embrace intuitively. The value is on expressivity and intuition (the heart, or soul) rather than technique (the head). The music is not thought about, but rather is intuitively expressed as a group activity. In those cultures, everyone is a musician and music accompanies every activity. Conversely, in our culture, we tend to select a few artists and let them speak for everyone. In our individualistic way of seeing things, we have often missed this intuitive aspect of music (and most especially the communal aspect) that tribal cultures have enjoyed over the millennia. Maybe that’s the Holy Grail – finding the channel to let what is intuitive flow out in a performance. In the rare moments when we are doing that, we are not worried about technique, what others think, if we are accepted, if the guitar is in tune. We are only aware of ourselves as a medium for something being expressed which is greater than ourselves.

This is a transcendent experience in performing that those tribal cultures were able to create at will. And they did it without selling tickets, charging admission, booking the gig, buying advertising or promoting the artist.

In the Age of Information – and being tied closely to a computer – it is a challenge to recreate a group dynamic which facilitates this kind of intuitive expression. In developing as musicians, how do we arrive at a unique style that is at once intuitive? Are there things one can do to this end? Kenny Werner (Effortless Mastery) says that it starts with letting go of our need to do it. He says that what is needed is an innate reaching down into one’s guts and allowing “warts and all” to be present in the performance. But can we somehow place ourselves on a journey where this can take place? To be continued.
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