I Trust Myself and Keep Playing
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
Am I a Good Musician? I Don't Know - How Much Fun am I Having?
In the first blog post of this series I gave a quick argument for the proposition that the feeling in music is supplied by the listener, not the performer. If the musician has his performance techniques and stagecraft together, he doesn't have to be "into it" to sell it - to create the perception in the listener that the musician is "playing with feeling." All good performers are good actors.
In the second post of this series I told the story of how I came to this conclusion; it took several years of shows, at least 6 nights a week, 50 weeks a year and watching guys with more experience than me "play with feeling" night after night, even though I knew they weren't always into it.
I alluded to an obsession with technique, and why I quit being concerned with speed; it was for the sake of gaining more control over inflection. However, that's not to say I rejected technique work in general. My conclusion was that "playing with feeling" was actually the result of technique - inflective devices; vibratos, dynamics, bends, slurs, pinched harmonics and so on. All these things are technique. They presuppose a sufficient level of fine motor control. All that, plus acting techniques - facial expression, body language etc. In short; Attitude! Employ these techniques and you can cause an emotional response in the listener who then interprets their own feeling as, "Man! That guy is playing with sooo much feeling!" Thus, "Feeling in music is supplied by the listener."
The common myth is, of course, that the performer has some kind of emotional or mystical connection and is able to be a conduit that facilitates some kind of a shared emotional or spiritual experience. The myth is that the performer is functioning as kind of a high priest in this capacity. My contention is that what is going on is simple emotional manipulation. This phenomenon is not limited to musicians. Public speakers - think of Martin Luther King Jr.'s command of language, inflection etc. There is technique involved in being a good speaker, actor, preacher - any kind of communicator. And music IS communicative. If there's any mystery to music, and of course there is, I think it has to do with the fact that there is something inherent in sound that produces an emotional response in us, and those who can control sound have the ability to move us emotionally. Why sound has this effect is a mystery. Probably has something to do with interacting energetic vibrational frequencies - since that's what we are - but that's a rabbit trail, suitable for another blog series perhaps.
Anyway, I want to continue my story. I said,
The key to expression - feeling - in music, is inflection, and the faster you play, the less inflection there is. I began to work on slowing it down (it's hard to play slow!) and cultivating the habit of using lots of inflection when I play.
I did just that; I got to the point where I had ingrained a certain habitual level of inflection in my playing - no matter what I felt like. This helped a lot with the issue of the listener's perception. I was able to attain to a more consistent level of performance - in the eyes (and ears) of the listener, that is.
But my own perception of my performances was still all over the place - some nights I felt on, some nights I felt off, but at least the listener felt I was on, even when I wasn't, because I was habitually employing what I'd learned.
So I was still making judgements about my playing, concerned about how good I was, mistakes I was making and so on.
However, I was slowly beginning to think that maybe my perception of my own playing was not trustworthy. I remember an hours-long conversation with a band member I was rooming with on the road at the time. We were trying to figure out why tonight sucked and last night was great. Not to the audience, they loved us, but to us. Was it what we had for dinner? How much sleep we'd had? The phase of the moon perhaps? The alignment of the stars? Different people in the audience? A butterfly flapping its wings in China? The variables were overwhelming and impossible to quantify.
The straw that finally broke the camel's back happened in the early mid eighties - I'm guessing sometime in 1983.
It was the 80's rock era. I was using a 100-watt Marshall. Everything was loud and high-energy. The lead singer was a woman with a powerful voice and a look. We were in a week-long stand at a club - Tuesday through Sunday. Friday morning I had 2 wisdom teeth surgically extracted. Played the gig Friday and Saturday. No big deal. Been way worse off and still played the gig. Sunday morning I woke up vomiting fresh blood - a bunch. I'd been bleeding while asleep and swallowing the blood. We got the dentist off the golf course and he re-sutured the incisions and gave me a bunch of vitamin-K. He said, "You've got a bleeding problem and if you're still bleeding by 5 o'clock tonight I'm putting you in the hospital." I remember laying on the couch and my little 3-year-old daughter being very concerned and checking on me and talking to me throughout the day.
I managed to stay out of the hospital - but I still had a gig to play. The bass player picked me up because I wasn't supposed to drive. I was weak from blood loss, my face was swollen out to here and I was on double-doses of Tylenol 3. It was a 4-hour gig. I couldn't stand up. I sat on a bar stool slumped over my guitar. My guitar playing was on complete autopilot. I mechanically played through the show. I sucked big-time and I didn't care. I felt BAD. All I wanted was to get through this gig and go home to bed.
It just so happened the bass player TAPED THE GIG that night. CRAP!
Sometime later I'm sitting down to listen to the tapes, preparing myself to be thoroughly humiliated, because I remembered how bad I felt, how much I sucked and how much I didn't care.
You know what? It sounded fine - I was kicking ass! There was nothing really wrong with my playing.
Now I'm not saying it was a good overall performance. I'm sure my body language and facial expression - my attitude in general - did not integrate and line up with my playing, but with an audio tape there's no visual and as far as what I was hearing on the tape? - it was fine, nothing wrong with it - in spite of the fact that I was convinced it was going to be horrible! I was flabbergasted!
I realized that cultivating the habit of playing with lots of inflection, no matter how I felt, had payed off. I also realized my very negative judgement of my own playing that night was completely wrong!
I said, "Ok, that's it! I give up. I'm done! I am the least qualified person to judge my own playing because, by definition, I cannot be objective!"
And in that moment, just like that, my priority flipped from worrying about how good I was - to - how much fun I was having!
From that time to this, I no longer make judgements about my own playing. Am I any good? I don't know, who am I to judge? Apparently I'm good enough that some people want to listen to me. I have good days and bad days, but when I do catch myself making a judgement while I'm playing, whether positive or negative, I ignore it - it's not objective by definition, and I know it's not trustworthy. It's rooted in my emotional state at the time which is subject to a multitude of unquantifiable variables, none of which involves my playing but which are transferred to my playing. I just trust myself, and keep playing.
Besides, making negative judgements about my own playing gets in the way of my fun.
(The next blog will be how I apply this concept when teaching my students. Look for it in a couple of days.)
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