Am I a Guitarist or a Musician who Plays Guitar? There is a Difference.

In the early part of my musical career I was primarily a classical musician.  The bulk of my training during the first fourteen years was in classical guitar, and the last four years or so of that period was spent practicing about eight hours a day focusing entirely on classical music and guitar technique.  There was a precision to the process as well as the end product that was very appealing then, and still is to some extent for me today thirty-one years later.  Some of this is entirely based upon the tactile sense of performing those works and performing them well.  It felt good physically as well as emotionally and there was a lovely sense of logic in how the fingerings lined up and fell under the hand.  At that point in my life I loved the music, but I loved the vehicle even more.  My focus was to be the best guitarist I could be, which is actually different from being the best musician one can be.

That is not to say that I lacked emotional expression in my playing.  I had enough of a connection to the pieces to work some magic, and my level of commitment for at least the first three years of school was sealed in granite.  However, when my junior recital came up my ADD was in full force.  I wanted to play everything, particularly the difficult pieces.  My memorization was all based on muscle memory, some of which was still very much locked in the short-term memory rather than long term.  When I hit the stage I was underprepared, had quite a few memory slips which had never happened before, then walked off the stage at the end of the performance and into a major depressive episode that ended up with me in the Army at Fort Knox six months after graduation, much to the confusion of my college professors and the college friends I had who were still in touch.

Part of the problem was that I was entirely invested in being the best guitarist I could be.  I was much more concerned with the act of playing the music than knowing and understanding it.  My process was based on repetition, rather than analysis and while I’d listen to folks like Janos Starker for how they performed Bach’s First Cello Suite, I didn’t bother to analyze the harmonic structure of the chord progression.  When working on a fugue I would look at the outline of the theme and it’s variations, but didn’t dig into the nuts and bolts of the harmony in the process.  This is all very ironic when considering the fact that I took multiple years of music theory covering periods from the middle ages all the way to the contemporary along with double majoring in music composition.  But it’s not too surprising in retrospect because my compositions were based on some good ideas, but the development was where I really struggled.

Today the story is different, as it should be.  Now I do apply my knowledge to figure out what is going on in the pieces that I’m playing and while the bulk of them are far less complicated than Bach’s masterpieces I’m not simply being analytically passive when I play.  I no longer consider myself a classical guitarist, nor should I.  My chops in that area are quite rusty after three decades of performing in other genres.  But I do go through periods when I pull out the classical and work on pieces, which did recently result in a two-year stretch of performing with two classical guitar ensembles, one large and the other a sextet.  When I start reading the pieces, it’s usually because I want to play something that requires more sensitivity and complex thought process than running through some blues or classic rock.  Forgive me, but I often think “I want to play something beautiful,” and then pull out some Villa-Lobos, Scarlatti, or Bach, get myself set up and start running pieces.  I’m not doing so to actually perform them; I’m doing it to enjoy the process and I find myself thinking about the chord shapes and how they lead into each other.  I find myself loving the music for what it is and how it communicates within the lines and their relationships.  I find myself doing what I should have been years ago, and I’m doing it out of love for the music.

If this had been my approach years ago, my end results might have been different with my recital.  The aftermath certainly would have been, but instead because I was so focused on being a guitarist first my self-image was ripped out from beneath my feet.  We all second-guess our pasts which is why that old cliché “hindsight is 20/20” is so apropos in so many situations.  But change is something that is something we all have the power to create, and if we can learn from our past experiences to change our perspectives and processes for the better then we should put our efforts into it.  Today when I pick up my bass I still love the tactile experience of working those big fat strings; it feels oh so good, but I also love what I can do with the music when I’m playing it.  I’m not really concerned with being a great bass player, I’m more concerned with playing the best bass line I can to support the piece that we’re performing and what I need to do musically to accomplish that.  I’m deep in the structure of the tunes, paying attention to phrasing and articulation because it is an integral part of the piece.  I love the role that I have in the band and how what I do works with what the others are contributing, and the only way that works and works well is if I have a solid understanding of the musical pieces we’re performing.  Today I pursue being the best musician that I can be which places the focus on the music, how it best works, and why it works that way.  That’s why I’ll be able to make this a life long career and have made it through about 45 years of doing it thus far.  Always remember, your craft matters, yes, but not more than the music itself.

 

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