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Gentling the Human*

September 9, 2013

DSCN2073This blog post is about the tension between the natural and mechanical worlds as they play out in guitar playing. Yehudi Menuhin once said that it was difficult playing with a swing feel because he’d spent his whole life striving to divide beat up into equal units. As one prepares for music exams this seems very important, indeed some examiners value this mechanistic approach. There are numerous reasons why this has become such a pursuit: modern printing makes all the notes appear equal, recording technology gives us a way to achieve this goal through editing and the rigid scheduling of modern life where humans frequently follow patterns dictated by machines. [The grueling timetable followed on movie sets is dictated by the huge cost of equipment rental.]

When we strive for perfectly even notes several things happen. Regularity decreases our ability to imagine musical sounds as our sensory system is set up to monitor change so as we get better and better at making notes even, we pay less attention to them. Our mind begins to wander and this becomes a habit. We become frustrated at our body’s inability to render this mechanical sound – it is a body after all – as we try to make our weak fingers act like strong ones. In general we try harder and get a result that we are unhappy with.

What if we turn this idea on its head and say why don’t we try to divide the notes up as unevenly as possible in as many different ways as we can. Some notes are longer, and some shorter, some louder and some softer. In order to perform this task we must listen carefully monitoring subtle temporal and dynamic differences.  In this model we are required to pay intimate attention, and to render notes with subtlety. We stay in the moment and our mind no longer wanders. We try but aren’t even aware of the effort because this re-creative approach is liberating.

More importantly we can see how certain fingers behave without judging. If the “a” finger is weaker and slower than the index finger we can use that to make certain things sound just right – it becomes a feature rather than a weakness. It is quite freeing for our natural physical attributes to serve our playing. If music is to make us more human then we must act more humanly. We need to express the joy of first light at dawn and the inevitable pull of water to the ocean. Every note must be beautiful but not the same, placed aside its cohorts at just the right volume, tone and just for the right amount of time.

Once the Sultan had a guard who minded the treasury, making written entries in leather bound books on good quality paper as money came in and went out.  Eventually the guard started taking some money and falsifying the documents. When the Sultan found out, the guard was called to appear before him, removed from office and forced to eat the books he had falsified. While he was following the order Nasruddin was brought in to take over the job.

After one week of service the Sultan asked Nasruddin to report on the entries. Nasruddin placed bread in front of king with the records written on them in jam.The Sultan asked, “Why did you write your records on this?”

“O blessed one,” Nasrudin said, “I saw what happened to my predecessor, so I made entries on bread in case you should make me eat the records too.”

* Title of a poem by Linda Hogan in “Rounding the Human Corners” published by Coffee House press in 2008

From → Learning

  1. I hope this idea gets more involvement from teachers and students, it took me 4 years to find liberty while playing music the way the score tells me to, I find rules and rhythmic perfection challenging and I sometimes wonder what if I just play :-), thanks William

    • it is a combination of discipline and freedom – the freer you ant to play the more stringent your preparation must be…

  2. Thank you William

  3. Indeed…….perhaps a metaphor for our modern existence all together. It seems sometimes the scientists, bean counters, and people that strive for absolute predictability in things have taken over everything.

    • glad you think so mike – hope to hear your playng again soon – will listen to the thing with domenic tinight…

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