Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Music Lesson

I just finished reading a wonderful little book entitled The Music Lesson, by Victor Wooten.

The author is a jazz bass guitarist. Although the book describes some of his experiences as they relate to playing jazz and improvising, the principles apply, I believe, to any kind of music.

He opens by saying that he had been a musician for a long time -- no, actually he had played the guitar for long time, which is different than being a musician. (See my earlier post titled Pianist or Musician?).
He goes on to describe his frustrations with playing, with "practicing," and with the struggles of earning a living playing music.

One day, out of nowhere, a mysterious character arrives at his door. Michael, the visitor, begins to "teach" the author about Music, although he often says he cannot teach anything but can only show. The style of teaching is like that of a Zen master, or of Don Juan in the Carlos Casteneda books (for those of you old enough to remember those), that is, having the student discover the lessons through experiences.

The first "lesson" is on what Michael calls "the groove." He says "You should never lose the groove in order to find a note." This idea is close to my own teaching and philosophy, in that I always try to have my students feel the music first, and not let "the notes" become too important. For many pianists, the struggle to find and play the notes actually becomes an obstacle to playing well, to playing from the heart. I believe that the musical architecture and the emotional content should be first priority, with the notes falling in place more gradually, as the piece is internalized. "If you stopped playing notes, music would still exist," to quote Michael. "Fewer notes, more music," (to quote myself).

The lessons also cover Articulation, Technique, Emotion, Dynamics, Rhythm/Tempo, Tone, Phrasing, Space/Rest, and Listening.

I loved the chapter on Space/Rest. To paraphrase, we must learn to hear the empty space from which music arises. I find it quite true that many pianists almost cannot bear to have space, or rests, in the music. It's like wanting to talk constantly and never breathe or have a silence. When I teach rhythm I try to have my students become aware of the empty space. If you stop to think about it, you will realize that what we call rhythm is actually the time/space between the notes. If this were not so, there would be no rhythm, and music would just be a jumble of notes. This spaciousness is also important in the method of learning that I call Outlining (see previous posts on this subject). The student/player needs to learn to enjoy the empty spaces into which the notes will fall, naturally, when we are ready. Without space, there can be no music.

Many of the lessons seem to have little to do with music, such as listening, where Michael takes his student into the woods to listen to the calls of the birds and frogs. This may sound trite at first, but when we do this we realize how little we really listen during most of our daily activities.

Some may find the book too "Zen," too "new age." Yet I feel it absolutely goes to the heart of what we must learn, or better put, become aware of, if we want to truly be musicians. Did you know that Music means the Mother Science? (Mu = mother, sci=science.) The book is largely about the power of music. We don't "create" music when we play it, we "channel" it.

I loved this book. It was humorous and lighthearted, yet with a profound message. I hope you will read it, and put it into practice in your daily lives.

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