On hearing the music
A few weeks ago, after a long hiatus, I decided to play the guitar. I own a Yamaha classical, and it had been waiting many months in my family room on a cherry-wood holder. Any musical instrument one plays is refreshing to return to again, but the classical guitar is perhaps the most pleasant.
The piano, which also resides in the family room, likes to hide its vital parts and will greet you with a rasp and squeak as you slide open its wooden key cover. The alto saxophone, sharing a corner by the window of the same room with a tall leafy houseplant, must be assembled into a whole with grease to make the parts fit and water to soften up the wooden sliver of the reed. The latest member of the Family Room Ensemble is an Arabic drum, and while it is a cheerful companion, its boisterous rhythms sound almost sad without a party of dancers to accompany them.
The classical guitar, though, sits always upright on its stand, its face looking at you, ready to be played. When you pick up the guitar, you touch its gentlest part, the lacquered backside of the neck, opposite the strings, which feels like a polished marble statue, but warmer. A sweet scent wafts from the same opening in the instrument that projects its sound, like a perfume of the forest. The sound of its strings is soft and unassuming.
And yet despite its welcoming appearance, the classical guitar is a difficult instrument to play well. I had abandoned it out of frustration late last year, when after months of daily practice (not to mention the years of private lessons I took before college) I was still producing the same dull and mechanical sound from the instrument. Music is more than about getting the notes right, I told myself, it’s more than the sum of its parts.
I had it down to a science, though, the practicing. I’d ask the right questions and find actionable solutions. How do I get this musical phrase to sound more connected to the next one? I’ll have to learn how to move my left hand between the two chords faster. Five, ten, twenty, a hundred repetitions, every day, from one chord to the next. Why does this song sound monotone when I play it? I’ll have to work on my crescendos and play the pianissimo parts softer and the forte parts louder. Practice that a few hundred, a couple thousand times. Every musical problem can be broken down into composite parts, I thought to myself, solved at the smaller levels, and result in a great performance of the whole.
And then, after all of this practicing last year, someone had asked me to play for them. Performing on the guitar has always been trickier for me than on the piano – too many intricate movements going on at once. On the piano, when you hit a key, you hear a clear note. The guitar responds with an awful buzz if don’t properly place a chord as you pluck the strings. One note buzzing here, a slow transition there, combined with awkward pauses from brain numbness trying to remember what comes next in the song after obsessing mid-performance about proper finger placement, and you can throw the magic of the music out the family room window. My audience member, after a rendition of perhaps the easiest piece in my repertoire, dryly commented that my guitar-playing sounded more like disjointed phrases strung together than music.
My amateur interest in the hobby of plucked string instruments could not recover from this blow. The guitar went back to its home on the cherry-wood stand to age in the alternating humidity and dryness of the family room. I tried, I gave it my best, I created a scientific method that was going to guarantee beautiful music, and I failed. The method itself had failed me, and I was a fool to put my hope in it, I thought. Mechanics would not produce genius.
That happened late last year.One evening a few weeks ago, I was at home and feeling restless. This feeling, along with despair, frequently inspires some form of creativity in people. And so it was with me. Having no place to go and nothing that I wanted to do, I wandered into the family room and instinctively went for the object that I liked most there. I rested the guitar near my right hip, not in the traditional position of placing it on my left quadricep supported by an elevated foot rest as when I used to practice.
Mindlessly, I rummaged through the bits and pieces of songs that I remembered like a forager looking for the odd berry. I had some fun, put the guitar back on the stand, and thought nothing of it. The memory of past betrayals dwelt in my mind, and I knew this guitar business was best left to casual encounters. Then I left.
Though I had closed the door to the family room, my brother-in-law had overheard me playing music from the kitchen. He was visiting from San Francisco and was cooking vegetables when I walked in and started a conversation. We talked about what each of us had been doing since he last visited, and then he commented on my guitar-playing. “You have nice tone”, he said, and coming from a much more accomplished guitarist than myself, this was significant news to me. Tone, more so than rhythm or even fluidity, was what I was unable to achieve during my days of guitar practice. But more than tone.
The great Andrés Segovia had once said that when he would play the guitar, he would lean forward so that his chest rested on the instrument as it resonated. He did this so that his heart was close to his music.
That’s what music is all about, it seems to me. It’s a way for the heart to communicate to others. That’s the reason that I was so dejected by a bad review of one of my performances and elated by a positive review of another. An engineer can build a bridge, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it as long as everyone can walk or drive across safely. Music, or art in general, or even love, is different. It’s done for others as much as, or perhaps more so than, for yourself.
I was thinking about Segovia when I was playing the guitar in my room a few days ago. I had a moment, like the first few seconds after one wakes up from a vivid dream, when I wandered into a different part of my brain. I was sitting either on my bed or on my wooden chair, strumming the melody of one of my favorite songs, when I remembered something else Segovia had once said. The maestro had once observed that each of the strings on the guitar has its own unique personality. I stopped playing and pondered this. Strumming the second string, I said to myself, this is the B string.
The B string. An odd string, it’s the one that’s out of place on a standard tuning – I always have trouble finding the notes on it. That one and G sound unsure of themselves, plain nylon strings trying to carry the deeper-toned weight of the wound strings above them. As these impressions perambulated through my mind, I stumbled upon about thirty second of pure inspiration. My fingers took off. They were obeying the music in my heart, the science that Segovia perfected, and I played guitar for the first time. It was genius.
For thirty seconds. You can’t hold on to something like this. No matter how hard you try to continue living a dream from which you have just woken up, the thinking, the desire, the effort only pollutes the fresh world from which you have emerged. It’s just not who we are 99.999% of the time.
Like something one can see through a foggy window but can not approach, I have thought about this experience of mine these past few days. Every time I had tried to play the guitar ever since, I only go further from it and see it less. That part of my brain is inaccessible to me on command, and mechanical practice will only go so far in taking me there.
But I know it exists, this truer kind of music. What other aspects of our lives could benefit by seeing it more? As Matt Damon says in the movie Rounders, “if you’re too careful, your whole life can become a f***in’ grind.” Life is more similar to music than to engineering. And when we break down something beautiful, spontaneous and paradoxical into component parts to crudely master it like a bridge-builder triumphing over a river, we lose what we are seeking completely.
I’m not saying that practicing and science and methods are not important. I just think that sometimes the best way of finding what our subconscious minds are looking for is asking stupid questions like, what is the personality of a guitar string? Music seeks, to borrow a phrase from a former teacher of mine, to “take us out of our own skins” and experience a heartfelt sort of communication with others. It’s a different state of mind, and you can as much expect to experience it while being your usual self as you can try to continue dreaming after waking up.