While listening to NPR’s Sunday Weekend Edition on Oct. 4, I heard an interview with a Scottish harpist, Maeve Gilchrist, who talked about her craft. She spoke about how the emphasis on “mastering the instrument, conquering it, and pulling the sound out of it” can make us forget how much the instrument itself actually gives back to us. She references a poem by Edna St. Vincent Mallay (“The Ballad of the Harp Weaver”), and muses on how much an instrument (in the host’s words) “can provide in times of great hardship.”
In my early years of teaching classroom guitar, I had a student who’d just lost a second parent in a car accident. His uncle told me that the young boy was finding consolation in the solitude of his bedroom plucking out the simple tunes he’d just learned on guitar. I never got a chance to follow up with him, but I’m guessing he learned a lot more about the benefits of a music education than just “notes,” and “where the fingers go.” While he was ‘mastering’ the instrument, it was in turn nursing him.
We talk a lot in music classes about ‘nailing it,’ or ‘crushing it.’ We use terms like ‘shredding’ and ‘ripping’ and ‘banging out the chords’ – all very aggressive, as if we’re trying to subjugate the instrument, or dominate it to do our bidding.
We refer to a guitar (or other musical instrument) as an ‘axe,’ as though it were a tool for inflicting damage.
I’ve suffered through countless piano recitals where students think that an effective performance means to play fast, as if it’s some kind of wrestling match to see who comes out on top – heedless of what the music is meant to say. Some of my guitar students do the same – charging through a scale, correcting mistakes as they go, take after take, thinking that if they can’t make it work at 90 BPM, maybe 100 will somehow clean up the mess.
I much prefer the slow and deliberate newbie who takes time to feel, listen, and experience the effect of each note, each phrase, every passage.
So how do we pick our guitar gurus? And what do those choices say about our values when we introduce these players to our students?
Students are easily amazed by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Gabriela Quintero of Rodrigo y Gabriela, Paco de Lucia, or Al Di Meola. And with good reason.
But how do we impress the value of the understated? The evocative? The moody? The guitar whisperer?
Actors know when to check their tendency to emote. They study the script, and the context, and embody the character.The role consumes them – not the other way around. Not every role calls for grand gestures. Pete Townshend is famous for the windmill, but every Who fan should also make room for the evocative acoustic work on “Sunrise.”
Not every score or performance goes for the throat. Music won’t speak to the audience if it doesn’t speak to the performer. Learning how music ‘speaks’ requires patience, and a kind of submission.
In a July 24 post from Deering: The Great American Banjo Company, Barry Hunn says it beautifully: “When you are a beginner, learn your songs as precisely as you can. Practice them slowly and methodically so your hands move comfortably and with ease and familiarity. After that, play the songs and begin to feel the “movement” of the music inside you.’
A few years ago I stumbled onto a song performed by English folk group, The Unthanks. It was an interpretation of a song by Molly Drake (Nick’s mother). The song tells a story of two people walking through town and hearing three notes of music come from an open window. The song is called “What Can a Song Do to You.” It addresses the way a song can stir memories like some kind of mystical incantation. In this case, these three notes cause one of the two friends to stop and cry. The other asks, “Did it remind you of a time when you were sad?” And the reply makes my heart stop: “Oh no; But it reminds me of a time when I could be.”
“Feel the movement of the music inside you.”
Whether it’s the bright, independent feel of monophonic glee in an Irish jig, the nuanced reasoning of shifting tonalities in a Spanish etude, or the uneasy feeling of displacement in a strumming pattern of irregular meter.
We assign physical characteristics to a guitar. It has a body, a neck, a waist… There’s a kind of intimacy we develop with the guitar. Jimi Hendrix was known to sleep with his. A grieving high school boy discovers a new friend. It can even bring spiritual healing. Once you’ve set its tuning pegs right, why not turn attention to your chakras?
Much has been written in the classical realm about mood associations with tonalities. Theorists speculate it has something to do with the different sonorities resulting from the days of unequal temperament tuning. Still, there’s this concept that moods somehow vibrate in sympathy.
A piece of music will likely elicit very different emotional connections when played on a guitar versus a marching band.The sonic effect of hearing the music being emitted from the sound hole of your guitar is a very personal experience. Timbre says a lot.
And while a metal player may seem an unlikely messenger on this topic, Tom Hess offers some insight on playing with feeling, how we minimize or shy away from it.
In the end, there’s nothing wrong with wrestling with the guitar. Jacob wrestled with an angel. But he eventually called the match by saying, “I won’t let go until you bless me.”
Not a bad way to negotiate with an instrument.
Studio lessons pose so many health risks right now. But you can do it online, if you follow a pro’s advice in the Academic menu tab. It’s a new world. Embrace it.
We lost another one this month. And though it’s easy to think of Eddie Van Halen as an icon, there’s a way to put his craft under a microscope and see why it broke new ground and influenced so many other players.
Since we’re talking ‘harp’ in this latest post, why not travel to the highlands for an immersion class in drop D tuning with Rob MacKillop.
So your phone has become your music stand. But you only have two hands, right? This product does double-duty.
Can you do the fandango? Check out another engaging Andrew Forrest arrangement in repertoire.