Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I'm re-reading Glenn Kurtz's book, Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music. Re-reading it, I say, because when I picked it up in the bookstore, it didn't ring any bells, but once I got it home and got into, I realized I'd read it -- or at least part of it -- before. Or maybe I heard about him on NPR, where he's been featured, or in one of the guitar zines. Whichever, it sounds familiar enough so that I'm able to predict what happens next, and some of the stories I know I've heard.

Kurtz was something of a child prodigy on the guitar -- went from folk to rock to jazz to classical, and got good enough to make it into the New England Conservatory in Boston. He worked hard, but looked up one day and realized he wasn't going to be as good as he wanted to be. He quit playing, got a degree and a job teaching -- German and comparative literature --and came back to the guitar years later with a new purpose. He wasn't going to be a professional player, but he could play for love. The book is about how he got there.

It's a long road he took to realize what a lot of us figure out along the way: Being as good at something -- anything -- as you want to be isn't easy. One's reach often exceeds one's grasp -- what are you gonna do?

My attitude is as my splash panel says above, If you do the best you can, nothing else matters worth a damn.

In music, there are many different pedagogies -- i.e., methods of teaching. In classical guitar, a lot of these start with finger exercises and scales -- you sit down, run through these, often with a metronome. Start slow, speed up, seek a machine-like precision -- no buzzes, no squeaks on the chord changes or glissando, varied tone, volume. Once you are warmed up -- and this might take an hour or more -- then you move into playing pieces.

On the other end of the spectrum are the teachers who say repertoire is king. Once you know some basics, then you jump right into playing songs or instrumentals, learn how to make those sound good, and use that for a basis to learn the next piece. That is how most non-classical guitarists seem to learn. Here's a guitar. Here's a chord chart. Here is "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore ..."

Both methods have their pluses and minuses. Both require learning about tone and timbre and sustain; what the instrument sounds like with your picking hand above the sound hole (sul tasto) versus near the bridge (metallico.) Hammer-ons, pull-offs, glissandos, bends, rubato, attack ...

Kurtz's focus on coming back to the instrument moves from technique to tale -- What, he asks, is your story? What do you want to do? Figure that out, and you can determine your methodology. Want to sit solo on a concert stage playing Bach or Barrios? That's going to take you down a different road than if you want to play heavy metal rock or down and dirty delta blues. (Old joke: Know how to stop a classical guitarist from playing? Take away his sheet music. Know how to stop a rock guitarist from playing? Put sheet music in front of him.)

For me, woodshedding is fine. I want to learn how to play the guitar well enough so that I keep getting better. Maybe someday, sit down with somebody else and be able to jam well enough to keep up, but no aspirations to make any kind of living at it. I have an hour, hour-and-a-half a day right now to give it. I'm not very good and won't live long enough to get very good. But I can manage "better." I'm not a musician.

With martial arts, I train because I want to master as much of it as I can, knowing that with any good luck at all, I won't ever have to use the stuff for real. I'm not stepping into a competitive ring for a trophy or cash; no plans to try and clean out the bad-ass biker bar; no desire to open a school and teach. It's a personal journey, and my biggest critic is me.

As a writer, I want to sharpen my edge and keep it honed well enough to continue to sell books. Maybe the odd script now and then. Rich and famous? Be nice, and I wouldn't kick it out of bed, but that's not what I'm focused on.

The blog? I see this not so much scales and finger exercises, (though it makes a nice warm-up,) but as repertoire. It's mostly non-fiction, but I'm still telling a story with most posts. Beginning, middle, and end, an arc, albeit a short one, that starts somewhere, travels a bit, and ends somewhere else, having made -- I hope -- a point.

And the point of this post? It's easier to get what you want once you figure out what it is that you want ...


Jay Gischer said...

I liked every sentence you wrote except for one, the one that reads, "I am not a musician".

I submit that that thought will limit what you can accomplish far more than your age or your limited practice time, even as I acknowledge that those limitations are real, and will have an effect.

We have to pick our battles, but isn't it possible that you are passing up on things you don't need to because you believe you aren't a musician?

Steve Perry said...

Jay --

musician |myoōˈzi sh ən|
a person who is talented or skilled in music : your father was a fine musician.
• a person who plays a musical instrument, esp. professionally : aspiring rock and pop musicians.

Widen it a bit:

A musician is a person who writes, performs, or makes music.

Technically, if you read the definitions, yeah, I can qualify at the broadest reach. I play an instrument, I also have created some original pieces. With a little bit of stretch, I can even claim to be a professional songwriter -- in that I once put lyrics for a song I wrote into a novel for which I was paid.

But I'm not very good at it when I look around and compare myself to folks who have real talent and skill. (This is not to deny that I'm a better player and singer than some folks who make a living at it. Three chords and the truth is all you need, and I do have more than three chords. The truth is a little harder to nail down.)

Technically, yes. But when I think of a musician, I tend to think of somebody who has much more mastery of the craft than I have.

Somebody who can pick up a piece of music s/he has never seen before, prop it on a stand and play it cold? That's a musician. Or somebody who can walk into a studio and look at Nashville notation charts, sit down, and play back-up and get it right on the first take.

Somebody who might not be classically-trained in music theory, but who knows what chord sounds right, and where best to play it.

Paul McCartney couldn't read music, but he produced some outstanding songs and instrumentals. (None of the Beatles, could, and probably most of the blues musicians who ever lived couldn't read music, either, but they were musicians.)

I have some skill. I can play a few simple tunes, and a couple of them pretty well. I have an okay voice. But I am also aware that what I know versus what I don't is vast, and I'm not harboring any illusions there.

I don't see that this limits me in what I want to do, mind you. It's just a recognition of the reality as I see it.

Plus it's great sandbagging -- if I allow that I'm not very good, it lowers expectations ...

Mike Byers said...

You're a musician, no doubt about it. Couple of friends of mine, guys who make their living with music, thought your cover of "Dial-up Blues" was tops. And a good friend of mine, a woman of otherwise excellent taste, wanted to know if I "actually knew that hunk in the sunglasses." You play guitar, sing and have groupies: you're a musician, old son.

Steve Perry said...

That the groupie with the white cane and dog?