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“…You feel the plants if you are quiet enough…” Linda Hogan

November 21, 2016

A couple of weeks ago a guitarist asked his friends what their preferred warm-ups were. This question brought in a flood of responses with various things from scales to right hand arpeggios to studies cited. I find this kind of thing problematical because it seems more important to warm up the brain and soul. In thinking exclusively of the body we create and maintain an artificial schism.

The musical process starts with imagining the sound as richly as possible. One’s own sound includes the particular instrument, preferred touch and articulations as well as various volume levels. These elements are in addition to the rhythms and pitches that make up the music one is playing. In warming up the hands one tends to look for speed and physical ease.


This division started during the enlightenment, as teaching methods started to reflect a step-by-step process. Reading about J.S. Bach’s approach to composing for students we have an account of him beginning a piece for a pupil, demonstrating the first few bars, before the master went on to finish the piece in a flurry of inspiration. Teaching always included the musical experience. The step-by-step process posits a division between physical and musical learning. Now have music exams where the time one has to allot for scales exceeds the time needed for repertoire. We have studies that are not considered as musical as repertoire for they are allotted only a minimal number of marks.

By contrast, I have discovered that improvisers depend on mental flexibility to begin working. Robert Fripp [league of crafty guitarists] and Karl Berger [creative music studio] both employ rhythmic games to create alert players who can readily adapt to any musical need. The late Paul Bley once credited selling his piano as a significant learning experience: he had to come up with simpler ideas to work with because he couldn’t hide behind a nifty lick


I like to think that creating music brings us closer to how the composer feels. There is evidence to suggest that while improvising [or composing] a different part of our brain is activated specifically the medial prefrontal cortex. While doing this, the judging brain [dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] quiets down. This would explain that when students listen to each other’s compositions they listen to them differently – they hear music as if it were a brain storming activity.*

DSCF9254As we judge we also tend to censor and the more we do this the further we move away from the creative act. In a world that demands faster-louder-higher-longer we lose the joy of music. Play with your guitar and play with the music, simple joys really matter.

One day returning from his vineyard with sacks full of ripe grapes on his donkey’s back, Nasrudin came upon a group of children who asked if they could have some grapes. Nasrudin gave each child one grape and when they complained about his stinginess were met with the reply: “All grapes taste alike, so it is of no interest to taste more than one – you have one and you might as well have sampled them all.”

  • notes for this paragraph come from




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