I'm Special, Music Hard for Me!
Secrets About Other Things
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Well, guess what? You are not special, I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but I have not met a person who does not have trouble with learning a musical instrument. The reason is because it's pretty complex to be thinking and playing at the same time. There is sooooo much to think about and do in a short amount of time. Everyone I ever met has trouble with learning. Maybe there are special people out there that don't have trouble, but I don't know any. The best thing you can do is to realize it's just going to take time and find a way to make it enjoyable. Play pieces you like, find tunes you want to play, and have fun. It will take longer than you expect to become proficient, but you will be better than you can imagine.
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There are many people who at some point in their life decide that they want to play an instrument, but then don't know where to start. And mostly that is the problem. We have this vague goal and it doesn't seem to have anything to do with what we might want. I was in this situation when I was a kid. I wanted to play the guitar, but didn't really like what I was playing, and couldn't see what I was playing then had to do with what I wanted to do, and I didn't actually know what this was, if that makes sense. But later in life, I heard a tune that just flipped me out. The title was "Dance of the Washerwoman." I wanted to play it, and when I found the music I played it and played it and played it and played it. It was at least thirty eight years ago, but I still remember where I was and the excitement I had when I played it until my fingers were sore. Then I found another piece, and did the same thing. This is how I learned how to play. We need a specific goal. One tune that you just have to play... then another, and another and another. The Book/CD collections these days make this a reasonable goal. The key is to keep the level of the pieces within our grasp, and the pieces ones that we really enjoy playing. For me, to have a tune that I just have to play one more time is the opportunity to get better for free. When I was small, I remember being told to practice, and it was a chore. There was no joy in it. On the other hand to have a tune that you can't stop playing is a feeling of Euphoria. This is where it's at, this is what it's all about. So don't think "I want to play an instrument," think "I just have to play that tune."
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Well, I understand, and I have felt this way in the past, but here is the big surprise. As long as you sit down and play the tune, you couldn't stop it from getting better. That is right, you don't have to do it slow, you don't even have to pay attention, it will get better. Now, are there better ways to learn? Well, sure, but the whole point of it is this. If you make sitting down and playing miserable, you won't do it, and why should you? There are so many things that are miserable in this life, going to the dentist, getting sick, eating squash, having some car drive by and splash you with a gallon of slush, the world is full of things that are not fun..... and those things aren't even really serious, I don't even want to think of the serious ones. So why should you sit down and be miserable when you play a musical instrument? I can't answer that. I have fun when I play. If I didn't, I would have quit a long time ago. Now there may be times when focusing is fun, and there may be times when just sitting and noodling is fun, but the point is, if you keep playing, you will get better, you can't stop it from happening if you wanted to. Now a teacher might try and tantalize you to do it his or her way, and tell you that if you don't, it won't get better. As much as his or her heart is in the right place, it's just not true. If you spend the time, it will always get better.
How Much Better?
One thing I have learned is that it a piece keeps getting better. It took me a long time to understand this. I will take a tune and need to record it, so I will start working on it, and it takes longer that I think it will take to learn it, but then for some reason, I keep working on it and it keeps getting better, better than I thought it would. so I have learned that if I just stick with it, and don't have expectations about how long it will take, the tune will eventually exceed my expectations. I find this amazing.
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So you see a tune in a book, notes all over the place, and you think, "Boy, if I could only play that tune, I would be soooooooo good." You sit down and start to play it, you see short cuts, it gets easier, it gets faster, and after a while you can play it. But are you impressed? No, you look at the tune and say "Oh, that is easy, of course I can play it." So you find another one, and you go through the same process. It seems like you start out with something that is complex, and end up with something that is simple. Well, here is the secret. That is what learning is. When you learn something, your mind simplifies it. When you first see a tune, it appears complex, as you learn it, you mind in its magical way, simplifies it and makes it easier to understand. Now realize, that the first rule applies here also, if you play it, your mind will simplify it, there is nothing you can do about it, you couldn't stop it if you wanted to. And here is something really interesting. No one understands anything complicated, because for them to understand it, it has to be simple, because that is what the mind does when something is learned. Concepts are only complex to people that don't understand them. So if something you learn starts to look simple, don't feel stupid, feel a sense of accomplishment!
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You have a free day and you are playing a tune. Although you are spending a lot of time on it and you see some progress, it just doesn't seem to be getting better as fast as you think it should (see "If The Tune Isn't Hard, How Come I Can't Play It?") Well, here is an interesting thought. You may have tried exercising, it's spring, you go out and run a mile..... and immediately you are stronger right? Once you run a mile you are stronger and can run two right away, right? Of course not, right after you exercise you are exhausted, your body has to build up. The exercise tears you down, the body builds you up as you rest. Well, learning is similar to this. If I'm going to record something, I make sure I work on it a lot the day before, or a week before I'm going to work on it, because I know the next day I will be able to play it better, just having "slept on" the playing that I did the previous day. Often the next day or two after working on a tune, I will make progress, not on that day, but later on after my mind has had a chance to sort through the work I have done. If the tune is hard, I have to repeat this process over and over.
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Well this is an interesting question, and what you have to ask yourself is this. "Who has decided the tune isn't hard." Often this is just some arbitrary conclusion we come to by looking at the music. But by definition, if you have a hard time playing the tune, then it's a hard tune. So the secret here is to face up to reality, and understand that if the tune is hard to learn, then it's a hard tune. So often we want to see reality as we conceive it, not as it is. This can be a huge insight and you can apply it to other areas of your life.
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Here is my advice, wallow in it. I have made a life of feeling deliciously guilty. When I am writing, I feel guilty because I'm not arranging, when I'm arranging I feel guilty because I'm not playing more, when I am playing I feel guilty because I am not writing. And I really feel guilty when I take an afternoon siesta, it's really wonderful.
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Well, we have something in common here. I have to say that I have repeatedly exceeded my wildest expectations. If I had any idea of how happy I would be with the way I play, if I had any idea of how happy I would be with the things I write, I would have done more. I'm sure of it, because for so long I have felt that it was futile, and then I kept getting better, but what amazes me is I kept thinking that I wouldn't get better, and I was wrong. I was wrong, over, and over, and over, and over. So don't be as thick as I was. If you spend time with an instrument, or an art, or anything you are attracted to, then you will repeated exceed your expectations. If there is one flaw humans have, it's the ability to be incredibly short sighted. If you understand that, you can work around it by ignoring those short sighted thoughts.
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This is interesting too. I have a student that felt this way when he came in, and in a couple of weeks he was reading music. What is funny to me is many people learn how to read tablature. I have a student that can read music, and I was encouraging her to learn lute tablature. She told me she could never learn how to read lute tablature. I guess what ever we can't do, that is what we feel we will never be able to do. Everyone can learn how to read music, it's not anything magical, just a bunch of rules. A great way to learn how to read once you have some basic reading ability is to do duets with a friend, or at least someone that you can tolerate. You don't have to talk with them a lot or be their friend, just have a truce that you will play some duets. Aaron Shearer's first book as some nice easy ones, Richard Pick's book is great for this, and there are many Carulli duets that are fantastic. I have never seen a Carulli solo that I liked, but I rarely see a Carulli duet that I don't like.
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Well First you have to write something really good, see "How can I write something really Good," and then once you do, you have to die. Mostly, humans don't like their composers and artists breathing. It reminds them of the fact that perhaps they could do it themselves, and that is often an unpleasant thought. Of course it would help if you had a story on the front page of the NY Times or in Time Magazine, but that only helps for a short time. For lengthy fame, death is advisable.
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Well, first you have to sit down and do it. That may seem obvious, but often people will think about doing something, and never really sit down with an instrument, pencil and paper and start writing. If you try, does it mean something beautiful will come out every time.... well I wish that were true, it would make my life easier. But if you even try, surely it will never happen. Most folks use what I call the "Quit Smoking" method for their dreams. They think about quitting smoking while they continue to smoke.... and then they call that "trying", as in "I'm trying to quit... puff, puff." I remember when I discovered that the reason I was not getting any pieces written was because I was not sitting down and writing them, sort of obvious perhaps, but it was a huge discovery for me.
Don't attempt to write something important. Don't try and write for history. Don't worry about what Bach or Gershwin wrote, you have to do something that appeals to you because they already have their place in history assured. They wrote good tunes and they died. Do write something that tickles you. Do write something that you really enjoy listening to, if you don't like it, change it or rip up the paper. Keep doing it.
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This one is easy, you can't stop playing it. Of course you can make time to eat, but then you have to play it again. When you go to bed at night, or early in the morning if you are a night person, you dream dreams of the tune, it rattles around in your head. You feel giddy and happy, you think the world is a wonderful place to live. You don't worry about your next dentist appointment, you just want to hear it again. Your left hand gets sore and you have to hear the tune again. You get very excited and happy...... If you have to keep asking yourself if it's good, it's not.
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Well, it's like this. Secrets are around in front of us all the time, it just amuses me to list them when I see them. I don't invent them, I am just an observer. I don't have to worry because I'm not in competition with you the reader. Music isn't a sport. I can give these secrets away and if people use them, all that will happen is there will be more people having fun with music and writing beautiful things that excite them. Hey, maybe I will bump into one of you, or end up playing one of the things you write.
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Michael is one of the great secrets and treasures of the 20th century. He is an incredible composer. You can download and play his pieces if you have midi on your computer from Michael Starke's Page. It's not just that his pieces are clever or optimistic, or that he is a good writer (which of course are all true). He weaves magic into his music, and this is not all that easy to do. He should be listed with the Great Composers of all time. I'm fussy, and I think I know what is good. I just love his music. If you play guitar, check out his Trio Sonata for Two Guitars and Harpsichord. You can find it on the midi page mentioned above.
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Not in my opinion. The difficulty of a tune is pretty independent of the quality of the piece of music, not unlike the relationship between Intelligence and Wisdom. There are very intelligent people that do very unwise things, and there are very difficult pieces that I do not find musically interesting. Many of the Renaissance Lute pieces are just incredibly beautiful and are fairly easy to play, it's part of the charm of the lute. Good music is hard to find. My favorite pieces are good tunes that are playable. My favorite people are ones that exhibit wisdom.
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Well, lets first think about the point of this. Is it a contest to see if you can learn a piece without forgetting it, or is the point to play music? The whole thing is pretty inconsistent if you ask me. If you play in an orchestra, you can have music. Have you ever seen an orchestra play from memory? Probably been done before a number of times, but I would file it with the biggest birthday cake and the most jumps on a pogo stick. Many solo performers use music, and many don't. Sort of a trendy thing maybe. If you play piano, you can have music, but if you play guitar, you can't. Hey, I'm not opposed to it for someone else. If they prefer to learn tunes and perform from memory and it makes their performance better, then they should do it. But when it comes to me, I'm not good at memorizing. In addition, I would rather write or learn a new tune. I don't want to take the time to memorize a piece when I can play it just as well, or perhaps even better, with the music.
I use music almost all the time. There are some tunes that are easier for me to play if they are memorized, so those I learn.
I have always had a problem with this. It took me some time before I realized I was really wasting my time and limiting my repertoire. I even had a special fancy music stand made by a cabinet maker, it's wide and low and made of Cherry and Maple...... Now that I think about it, I have several low music stands. I have also modified those metal folding stands. I hate that feeling of not being able to remember something, and if you think about it, most people experience this fairly frequently. Haven't you ever been speaking with someone and some common word or name just escapes you? You can't think of it for anything. I believe that is the same thing that happens when you are playing something that is memorized and you blank out. I have forgotten things that I am soooooo familiar with. I finally realized there are not enough hours in the day to remember all the notes in all the tunes.
However it works for you, the point is to play music.
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I have heard that, but it's not my experience. I have taught for years, and small children in particular are very slow learners. They don't have as much experience with learning as an adult has, and they don't have nearly the amount of coordination. Adults often have more baggage that will get in the way. They have more demands on their time. On the other hand, they have more motivation and discipline. I have found that once a person hits 16 or 17, they can be highly motivated and interested, but younger than that, I have found it to be rare. The young child also has less hand strength. That also makes learning slower. It's my experience that adults learn more quickly.
One day I was musing about what music is made of. Lets forget about things like "feeling," and just look at it from a technical point of view. I can only think of three ingredients, but if you come up with something I missed, let me know. The ones I thought of were Harmony, Melody and Rhythm.
Then I started wondering if one was more important than the others. The answer I came up with surprised me. First I took harmony, and tried to imagine random chords with large steps between them.... So you would be hearing chords, but not knowing when the next one was coming. And the steps between each chord would be large, otherwise they would be melodic. Not very appealing to me.
Next, I took melody, and I can see a melody being appealing, but not when I never know when the next note is coming. Without rhythm, it would be random. I think this would put me in the crazy house.
But I could listen to a drum, one pitch with varied rhythms, in fact, I think it could be pretty interesting. So now I'm thinking that rhythm is the glue the holds it all together, and I have to think that it may be the most important ingredient, because it can stand without the others. The others aren't very appealing to me on their own. Just my opinion.
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It took me a long time to figure it out... exactly
what it was in music that attracted me. It appeared to have nothing
to do with the complexity, the tempo, the period or the country of
origin. There was an indefinable essence that made me want to come
back and play it or hear it again. These were the tunes that I would
play until my hand was sore, these were the tracks on an album that I
would play over and over again and then go searching for the music so
I could play it too. There were certain periods that attracted me
more than others, and I found the music of some countries very
appealing... but then something would come out of the blue and blow
me away. The piece was simple and fit none of my accumulated
criteria, but it was great. And that is when I figured it out. It was
magic. That's what was in the music that I loved. I started to look
for it. It didn't matter if the music was easy or difficult, complex
or simple, as long as it had the magic. The Renaissance was a very
good source. I remember seeing Julian Bream in concert and hearing
his recordings. I was stunned to find how simple some of the
beautiful lute pieces were.
In Renaissance music I found many dances, fantasias, and songs that had the magic. The majority of them were easier than most of the guitar pieces I was familiar with. Maybe that is because, in the Renaissance, the people who played the instruments wrote the tunes for them... or maybe it was because they were just looking for the magic too. In any event, it's interesting that you rarely find a lute piece that was not written by a lutenist.
Sometimes I would have periods when I couldn't find a tune... then I would try and write one. Every once in a while, I felt I nailed it. Then I suddenly would have another piece that I could play over and over again. It never occurred to me that others would like my pieces too, but I discovered that they did... and eventually I figured out a simple but telling "Magic Test" for a tune. If I have to ask myself if the magic is there... it's not.
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What Every Guitarist Needs
Every Guitarist Needs a Lute. The two instruments similar. Once you learn to play some tunes, why not have a lute. The sound is like nothing you have ever heard, you can play music the way it was played hundreds of years ago, and it's cool. The problem is they are expensive, but you can find a used one, and the prices are coming down. Play Dowland on the instrument it was written for. If I played Piano, I would have to have a harpsichord. It's a perfect crossover. It's a quick learn once you play the guitar, and it expands your world. There is also a lot of free lute tablature on-line.... besides, if you don't read music, and people have been sneering at you, just pick up the lute. Almost no one reads music on the lute, most lutenists read tablature.
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What Every Lutenist Needs
Every lutenist needs a guitar. I love the lute, but there are days when I need something else. The lute's sound is just beautiful, but it's not as flexible as the guitar's. There are so many types of music that are available for the guitar, there are so many great tunes that don't work on the lute. The music of Lauro, Sainz de la Maza, Ponce, Turina, Torroba, Tansman, Sor, Guiliani, Albeniz, Sanz, Corbetta, de Visee... Bach lays well on the guitar, and I actually prefer it to the sound of Bach on the Baroque lute. There are pieces from Brazil, Bolivia, Bulgaria and Greece. The sound of the guitar is flexible, and can adapt to almost any period or sound. I even like lute pieces on the guitar, some I prefer on the guitar. This doesn't mean I don't love my lute. I love the sound, I will always play it, and I don't have to make a choice. I can have both, and that is the point... You can have more than you have. Guitars are very reasonable in price, as are the strings. There is a tremendous amount of music for it, and many composers that have written specifically for it. If you don't read music, there are many publications that are in tablature, but I would encourage anyone to read music notation. It's fun, it's a game that does not have a peer.
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I played solo guitar and lute for many, many years. I took several detours into playing guitar duets, doing lute duets, duets with a cellist, and I had the opportunity to work with a harpsichordist at a resort. I always had a good time playing duets, but I never lost touch with playing solo. That was how I saw myself, as a soloist. These duets were just things I did on the side. The duets were always a lot of fun. I enjoyed the way the music worked. But when I started playing with a flautist, I soon realized that this was such a perfect combination, and I loved the duos we were doing so much, that this was how I started to see myself. I no longer accept jobs as a duo, though I still enjoy playing solo. I love composing and arranging for solo guitar and lute, but I love even more the duos that we write. Jessica who plays the flute, uses a wooden headjoint, which reduces the volume a little bit, and adds a warmth to the sound. This makes a perfect duo. The voices are very clear, and you can hear all the intricate voices and phrases clearly. I have never had so much fun in my life. If you are a guitarist, give this a chance. Find a flautist, someone you get along with of course, and start to explore this medium.
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If you think about it, we make mistakes all the time. We bumb into people, we smash cars into other cards, and how about typing? We make mistakes when we talk to people. We forget names, faces... how about tests? How many people always get a hundred on an exam. And what about something as basic as eating; how many times have you bit your tongue or your cheek? See, we make mistakes all the time, so why when you sit down with a musical instrument do you think you are going to play something perfectly? Everyone makes them. That doesn't mean we don't strive to play without them, because when there are too many, they can be distracting. But we can still play musically with little flaws. Sure, sometimes we will nail it, but don't get excited, frustrated and depressed if you make mistakes. It's what we do as humans.
Here are two things to think about when you get performance jitters. You could be playing in front of an audience, a teacher or family (Family is the worse.) There are two components. The first is if it's new. People are often nervous when they are doing new things. Remember that first day in the second grade? Anything new will do it to us. So the cure for this is to perform often if you can. The more you do it, the more relaxed you will be. Part of this is also playing pieces that are in your range, which brings us to the second component, and this is the hardest one to understand. It's not about you. It's about the music. When you understand this, you will not be tempted to take difficult pieces to show off. It's just not about you. Think about it.
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What a blast this little instrument is to play. If you play the guitar or lute, think about getting one. They are small, portable and so much fun to play. They are also inexpensive. You can find a nice mandolin on ebay or at a store at a very reasonable price. You can sit in bed and play it. It's a great experience as it has a different sound.
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All writings and images copyright © 1997 Allan Alexander