My favorite Scott Henderson Solo. Great changes and examples of his use of pentatonics to navigate them.
Practice Part I: Passion
Over the years, I’ve been asked many questions regarding practicing and motivation. Due to the recent interest expressed by some of you on this matter, I would like to respond by exploring reasons for, and ways to avoid, “Hitting the Wall.” Today’s post, the first of three, will address what I believe to be the most important element of any artist’s/musician’s quest for self-improvement. Passion.
It is my belief that if you are to excel at something, in this case music, you must know, with all your heart and soul, what your passion is. What is the one thing that makes you so happy, that you would want to do it everyday, for free? My passion has remained constant since I was 12 years old. I love the guitar and it’s function in the overall sound-scape of music. Everything else stems from this. I could expand on it endlessly but that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Your passion may be songwriting, performing, or a specific style of music. Whatever it is. Define it.
The most important thing about your passion should be your innocence towards, and excitement for, whatever that passion is. Every time I pick up a guitar, I get jazzed! The possibilities wash over me like a wave, and I can’t wait to dig in. The shape of the instrument, the feel of the wood, and the sound of a string vibrating give me the same feeling of butterflies that I felt the first time I picked one up as a boy. You must see your passion through the eyes of a child. When you do this, you will begin to see the musical world, and your instrument, as infinite. Can you imagine the spirit of a child, with endless possibilities, ever ”Hitting the Wall?” In Part II, I’ll discuss the natural extension of defining your passion. Following your path, and using it to jump-start your practice regimen.
Practice Part II: The Path
Ok, so you’ve defined your musical passion. The next step in your development is your path. Now, this is where most self help books would talk about setting goals. I’m not going to do that. We are, after all, musicians and not Olympic decathletes. Now don’t get me wrong. Professional goals are necessary. I have major ones. I want to teach 100 students a week. I want to play on the biggest sessions in Nashville. I want to perform at the most prestigious jazz festivals all over the world. I want to teach improvisation at the collegiate level and write a book on the subject. However, this is an article on practice, passion and motivation.
What I want to stress is this. Be real! What do you really want? If you know what you want, why do you want it. Be honest with yourself and really listen. Listen to that voice deep in your heart and that feeling in your gut. When I was younger I wanted to “make it”, whatever the hell that means. I wanted a record deal, lights, flash, cameras, glitz, adulation, and accolades. The funny this is, I couldn’t tell you why I wanted it, if you asked me. I blindly wanted it until one day something clicked in my head. I realized that it was my MTV generation, pop culture, raised on radio mind that had established a set of “goals” for me. I was chasing down a phantom of a dream, and an image of myself that only existed in my head. I realized that something had been gnawing away at me. It was the fact that my musicianship was suffering. I was more concerned about my hair then I was about my instrument. I had momentarily lost touch with what made me love music and guitar in the first place. So I cut my hair, quit my band, enrolled in graduate school and earned a degree in jazz performance. Now, I’m not saying that this needs to happen for you the way it did for me. The point is, I listened. I was honest and I was real. I finally knew who I was, what was important to me, what I really wanted, and what I loved to do. That set me upon my path.
Once you have a real vision of who you are and who you want to be, you can formulate a realistic practice regimen to compliment that lifestyle choice. Notice I used the words “lifestyle choice.” True practicing consists of milestones, not the attainment of a goal. It’s like fitness. If you stop working out, you get flabby. If you stop practicing, your skills get dull. Your specific passion, path and practice regimen work together. I’ve actually heard people say that they want to be better technical players, yet their practicing consists of playing things that they perfected 15 years ago, followed by playing songs for that weekend’s gig. There’s a disconnect there between the path they want to be on and the path they’re taking. If your passion is songwriting, your daily practicing/lifestyle should be increasing your catalogue or challenging yourself with new lyrical concepts, story lines, melodic ideas and chord structures. If your passion is Be-Bop music, you should be transcribing Charlie Parker and learning the vocabulary from a great teacher. You may not care about your development on the instrument. You may want to be an entertainer and make people smile while getting paid for it. Great! That’s a noble pursuit as well. Live a routine of preparation that supports that.
Once you are honest about what you love above all else in music, and set forth on that path/lifestyle, you can take a good hard look at your shortcomings and weaknesses to forge that path. Your weaknesses are not cause for dejection. They are a divining rod leading you to what needs to be worked on. More on this in part III.
I’ve noticed a lot of middle aged people develop quite a negative and depressing attitude towards music. Now, I’m not talking about being a little jaded, or being a realist. A little bit of that can actually drive your true passion and make you wiser. I’m talking about when I hear people say that they don’t want to do music anymore. They’re quitting, giving it up, and selling off gear. When you ask them why, they say things like the following: ”The music business let me down.” and ”Clubs, labels, band mates and agents have all turned me off to music.” To all these people, I respectfully pose the following questions. What did you want out of music that you didn’t get? Did you really want it to begin with? Was it your passion? Did your path compliment that passion? Were you real?
Practice Part III: Patience
We live in a “Get It Now” society more than we ever have before. There’s a phone application at our fingertips that gives us anything we want, anytime we want it. This is not the path of mastery. The ever-growing social attitude of “I want it now with the least amount of effort.” is not only the antithesis of musical progress, but a cancer eating away at it. Many private instructors and colleges are dumbing down their curriculum and standards for monetary reasons, thus creating future generations of lazy musicians, who in turn pass on these skewed values of learning to others. I’m going to be rather blunt here. If you want it now, without the work, sweat, and sacrifice, then quit. Your art and your craft deserve better.
Patience, patience, patience. Breathe, relax and focus. The key is detachment. Not detachment from your passion but from the result. There is of course no result. Just the love of what you do and the path of living it. If money, success and recognition ensue, then they are icing on the cake. These things should not influence your craft. In part II I spoke about letting your weaknesses be your guide. Embrace them for they will tell you what you need to focus on. You may need to work on technique, improvisation, theory, or phrasing. Being comfortable with who you are, and where you are in your progress will make it easier to spot these problem areas.
You must also remember that self-improvement never ends. What kind of Greek would I be if I didn’t make a reference to Hellenic mythology. When Hercules battled the hydra, every time he severed one of the serpent’s heads, two sprouted in its place. This is the path of musical development. You will always have more to improve upon than you will ever master in your lifetime. There is no “wall” to hit. It’s a figment of your imagination. Music is infinite. Enjoy the path and the journey. Detach yourself from why you are practicing something. Instead, be in the moment, immerse yourself in it, then move on to the next thing. Get excited while you do it. Let it make you happy. You will see results! They’ll happen in little moments that bubble to the surface three months, six months, or a year down the line. Believe me when I tell you, these moments are magical and you will always remember every single one! Each one will energize you and motivate you to stay on the path. Patience, patience, patience. If you can have it now, and with no effort, it’s not worth anything. I wish all of you the same joy that this outlook has brought me. Have fun and let music make you happy.
Please enjoy these examples from my new book Ballads For Solo Guitar. The book may be purchased at www.lulu.com/spotlight/mvaleras