Is brain damage the answer?
May 19, 2008 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I've been playing guitar for 10 years. How do I forget?

It's been apparent to me for years that raw musical ability - the power component as opposed to the technical - has absolutely nothing to do with formal training or technical ability. More and more recently, though, it's come to be a major hinderance to me. It's bad enough that I find all traditional notions of structure to be arbitrary and sometimes confining, but I find that my knowledge of these structures is a major source of anxiety when I play in front of people.

This seems like the kind of thing that some people will relate to immediately and others will read as nonsense. I wanna hear from both. How can I reconcile the way I play with my own preconceived expectations about what an audience expects from something called 'music?'
posted by cmoj to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
i used to be too nervous to improvise in public because i'd try too hard to play perfectly. a little wine worked a charm. use with moderation.
posted by twistofrhyme at 8:54 PM on May 19, 2008


I joined a local group called "Vitamin S" which works like this.

You sign up. Once a week, two trios are randomly drawn. Each trio must perform for a 40 minute set.

The rules are "no tunes, no rehearsal". Preparation is frowned up. You may bring anything to perform with: your own instrument; another instrument which you cannot play; power tools; ball bearings and a steel bowl - up to you.

The effect for a trained musician is akin to being a Shakespearian actor asked to shit on stage.

I found it tremendously liberating for improvisation in my "normal" musical life. While I didn't bring free noise crap into a country and western set, I did find it much easier to embark on a musical thought and go where it took me.

I suggest you look for such a group, or form one.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:00 PM on May 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


(1) Alternate tunings.

(2) Find new people to play with.

(3) Impose an arbitrary limitation on yourself. For example, you have to write a riff that uses steady eighth notes over and over, in a specific scale on a specific string. Limitation = liberation.

(4) Start listening to genres you don't usually listen to, then try to blatantly rip them off, without worrying if you're really being "authentic."

(5) Mimic an instrument other than guitar. Saxophone works great. I read an interview once with a jazz guitarist (I forget who it was) who said it's better to copy saxophonists than guitarists, because saxophonists tend to be much better musicians than guitarists.

(6) Record yourself and a friend improvising. Don't try too hard, just get something recorded. Then go back and listen to it, and see what jumps out at you that you might not have really been thinking about at the time. Use that as a starting point.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:24 PM on May 19, 2008


This seems like the kind of thing that some people will relate to immediately and others will read as nonsense. I wanna hear from both.

Alright then, you can count me in the latter category. I have a degree in music composition, I've played guitar for eight years, and I give guitar/bass lessons to around 40 students a week. I've read your question a few times and I have no idea what you're asking. Maybe you could clarify.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:39 PM on May 19, 2008


I became a much better singer by not singing a note for like 6 months after an illness years ago. When I finally sang again, I was so amazed and thrilled... I had so much fun that I was totally immersed in the moment. I finally turned my brain off and just let it fly. Stopped overthinking (which I used to do CONSTANTLY), and just enjoyed what I was doing. And that was the first time I truly felt like I was actually put on the earth to sing, not because I cared what anyone else thought but because it just felt so natural.

I had trained my voice for years so I was technically pretty decent before, but the difference between people who are technically good and those whose souls are present during a creative endeavor is huge. Try to get a bit buddhist about it... instead of "doing" just relax and "be." Follow your heart and let your instincts to do the work. Just let the playing happen. Be the guitar. Let your mind go and your body will follow. If you build it they will come. Etc.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:01 PM on May 19, 2008


I'm in the confused camp as well. Could you re-ask your question? Until then, I'll take a stab at answering:

I have the feeling you don't have formal musical training because of the words you're using to ask this question ("knowledge of these structures", "preconceived expectations about what an audience expects from something called 'music?"). You seem to feel that technique and "the power component" (musicality, maybe??) are diametrically opposed when they are two sides of the same coin. I've heard people play with brilliant technique but no real emotion as well as those who play from the heart but aren't technically strong. (This is a continuum, really.)

To miss lynnster's point about being in the flow: having solid technique makes it easier to lose oneself in the moment and just perform/emote. It's more difficult if you have to compensate for poor technique.
posted by sfkiddo at 10:36 PM on May 19, 2008


What do YOU want from music? Seriously - WHY do you want to play music? What do you want to say? What do you hope to get out of yet? Fame? Money? A pastime? Emotional release? Members of the opposite sex? Free food and booze a couple of nights a week? Participation in a conversation/experiment that has been and will be going on forever, in every culture known to mankind, all over the globe? These are all fine answers. There are countless more. They might help you direct your efforts. Simply asking the question was a valuable experience for me.

Investigate your motives very carefully, and act accordingly.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:10 PM on May 19, 2008


One way to inch out from under your training is to put down the guitar and pick up something else (a guitarist I used to play with a lot doubled on alto clarinet) and don't learn how to play it.

i_am_joe's_spleen - I played Vitamin S once, in 2003 I think
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:41 PM on May 19, 2008


I'm also in the "no idea what you're talking about" camp.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:56 AM on May 20, 2008


I'll have to concur that I'm a little hazy on your question. I'm going to assume that you mean "I know a lot of theory, chords and scale forms on the guitar. Yet this does not give me the ability to connect in a truly musical way with people."

Guitar is a real pain in the ass this way - it's so pattern based, the layout of notes doesn't make much sense, so it's easy to just let your fingers go back into the same old patterns. I second the advice to either tune your guitar to something completely wacky so none of your old patterns work anymore, or pick up another instrument and don't learn it "technically". This should force your musical thinking back to your ears and away from your muscle memory.

Keith Jarrett, a hugely talented jazz and classical pianist, went through a similar crisis, and recorded an album mostly using instruments that he had no formal training on.
posted by rhys at 5:19 AM on May 20, 2008


I'll argue in favor of traditional forms and patterns.

There two primary reasons why traditional forms and patters exist:

1. For the musician - you always have a pretty good idea what's coming up next. Even if you don't really remember the song, your muscles will take over spurred by your ears. In addition, you can use the simple frame to build upon and you ultimately add your own color to it. It helps you be able to perform for hours without thinking, but instead just playing. Want to know where the most music comes from? It ain't the thinking.

2. For the audience - the audience has to listen to you play and the same way that a building has distinct patterns to fulfill the expectations of the people looking at it, you need to meet the expectations of your listeners. Without a certain degree of form, you've lost a lot of your audience. The balance is to challenge your audience, not lose them and not bore them.

There are exceptions to all of this, but they are rare. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was a disaster in its premiere. He was way ahead of his time. I just finished playing West Side Story (trumpet in the pit) and holy crap, that was hard. Bernstein hit the balance fairly well. The audience doesn't really know how complicated the music is because of the ebb and flow of the underlying patterns.

I also played a piece by Robert Jager with my local community band that I had arranged for my brass quintet as well. The community band struggled with it a great deal because of all the time signature changes, yet under all the quirk, there is still the formal structure of a traditional march.
posted by plinth at 5:54 AM on May 20, 2008


strange tunings/stringings- i used to play a guitar that was all tuned to g.
use props- thurston moore has been known to go after his guitar with an egg beater.
play opposite handed
if you use pedals then stop.
if you don't use pedals then start.
there are lots of interesting sounds that can be made w/ a guitar. hitting the body, or bending the neck, or detuning mid-song. i used to unplug the chord and drag it against the body to get crazy buzzing sounds.
posted by brevator at 6:24 AM on May 20, 2008


I think this question would be a lot more clear if you could give some concrete example of what you're talking about.

Barring that, I'll hazard a couple of guesses as to what you might mean.

Possibility 1: You're wanting to play some avante-garde, experimental work and you're worrying that your audience may not be able to relate to it. If your music really is that unusual, then such worries are inevitable until either a) you play your experiments for audiences and find out how they really react or b) you stop caring about what the audience thinks.

(In this case, your prior years of guitar study are pretty much irrelevant to your worries about the audience reaction. Any piece of music that genuinely breaks new structural ground is always going to be challenging for an audience.)

Possibility 2: You have some music that you hear in your head, but it doesn't fit with the particular structures (scales? chord progressions? rhythmic structure? verse/chorus structure?) that you're familiar with in your technical studies, and that makes you uncomfortable.

In this case, remember that there are a lot of song structures out there. A Mozart song is structured differently from an Ani DiFranco song is structured differently from a Gershwin song is constructed differently from an Outkast song is constructed differently from a Dave Van Ronk song is constructed differently from a Thievery Corporation song. Is the music you want to play truly outside all of these structures? Probably not - you're a product of the musical environment you grew up in. It's generally pretty impressive just to stretch the boundaries of the structures in the current world. Breaking them entirely while still sounding musical (even to yourself) is very unusual and very hard. If you really are wanting to produce something that far out there, see answer #1.
posted by tdismukes at 7:18 AM on May 20, 2008


On re-reading the thread, I see that some people are making guesses at the meaning of the question which are completely different from what I came up with.

I think it would be very helpful if the original poster came back and clarified the question, preferable with examples.
posted by tdismukes at 7:23 AM on May 20, 2008


It's interesting that some assume that I have lots of formal trainging and others assume I have none. It's somewhere in between.

Some background: I played for several years learning from a fairly accomplished, blues player in prvate lessons, so I'm rooted in blues and by extension rock and jazz, etc. After this I spent a semester at the University of North Texas studying "jazz guitar" before I started to feel like I was in some kind of technical school (which I was, and there's nothing wrong with that, but It's not what I'd imagined) and became an art major, which is much to my liking. However, I can't imagine one simply giving up music, so I haven't.

Anyway, as far as technical ability, I can summarize it this way : "chops" yes; extensive scales weird modalities playing from sheet music not really.

So let's see if I can actually rephrase the question... I just feel like my guitar playing stagnates easily and paying more never helps. It helps much more to play something else for a while and come back. Concentrate on singing or something. The thing is, when I play something that I don't know how to play my only option is to play as automatically as possible - trance out. But when I do this I have certain natural tendencies that most musicians and listeners don't know how to deal with.

recent example: A small drum circled had formed at a party - granted we were drunk - and one of the confusing things I sometimes do is hit a beat an eighth or a sixteenth fast or slow, basically playing anywhere but at the moment of the beat. Maybe more often than that I'll just drop the beat at some point, then compress the time from wherever I start again to come back around and sync up again at the beginning or wherever.

There wasn't a question mark in there, but maybe that clarifies a little bit. I realize all of this is vague, but I feel it's dangerous to put things like this is too concrete terms. These things can't be said and it feels very bad to say them anyway.
posted by cmoj at 11:46 AM on May 20, 2008


Oh, and I just wanna say that the MetaWorld is awesome. This makes me glad to have finally joined.
posted by cmoj at 11:47 AM on May 20, 2008


Dude, you are being too vague. I don't feel like I answered what you're asking any more, and you're very frustrating. If you want people to help you, make it easy for them.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:58 PM on May 20, 2008


"The thing is, when I play something that I don't know how to play my only option is to play as automatically as possible - trance out."

So you're talking about improvising over material that you're not familiar with?

I personally wouldn't expect too much from "playing something I don't know how to play". From my standpoint*, the song is always king. Each song has its own structure, feeling, and meaning. The trick is to figure out what the song needs. If you don't really know the song, then how well are you ever going to be able to do that?

*(Take that for what it's worth. I'm not much of an improviser, so I compose parts for a song by listening closely and then by careful trial and error. If you're all about the improvisation, then you might have a different view.)

"one of the confusing things I sometimes do is hit a beat an eighth or a sixteenth fast or slow, basically playing anywhere but at the moment of the beat. Maybe more often than that I'll just drop the beat at some point, then compress the time from wherever I start again to come back around and sync up again at the beginning or wherever."

So are you doing that as a deliberate musical statement or because you lose track of where everybody else is playing and have to get caught up?

If you're making a deliberate musical statement, then you need to find musicians to play with who like the way it sounds. Then you can build a repertoire around that approach and work on finding an audience that enjoys that sound.

If you're just getting lost in your own internal space and momentarily losing track of the other players, then maybe you should spend a little more time listening and reacting and less time "trancing out". Playing with other musicians is a conversation. You don't have to necessarily follow a strict script, but you don't want to be that guy at a party who talks over everyone else with his own stream of consciousness rant and responds to others with non sequiturs.

"I feel it's dangerous to put things like this is too concrete terms. These things can't be said and it feels very bad to say them anyway."

Why dangerous? Why does it feel bad? If you want people to give you answers, don't you want them to know what the question was?

Answers are meaningless without the right question.*

*(If you disagree, then please accept the following guaranteed 100% correct answers free of charge: Yes, 12.33, South Dakota, the green one, always turn right first, DTMFA, only on Thursdays. Enjoy them in good health.)
posted by tdismukes at 3:44 PM on May 20, 2008


I realize all of this is vague, but I feel it's dangerous to put things like this is too concrete terms.

I'm sorry, but you're being way too vague, and some concrete terms would REALLY help. I really want to offer my suggestions but I have absolutely no idea what you're asking.

Have you considered taking lessons of some sort? There are many private guitar teachers who could probably help you break out of your "rut".

Also, maybe you should consider trying electronic music? I'm not saying make techno, but you could get something like Ableton Live and easily create your own tracks top to bottom. That might work better because you can be the drummer and the keyboardist AND the guitarist, and if you all have the same "quirks" it might work very well.

recent example: A small drum circled had formed at a party - granted we were drunk - and one of the confusing things I sometimes do is hit a beat an eighth or a sixteenth fast or slow, basically playing anywhere but at the moment of the beat. Maybe more often than that I'll just drop the beat at some point, then compress the time from wherever I start again to come back around and sync up again at the beginning or wherever.

This sounds like exactly the sort of thing that doesn't work in a group setting - you might think you're just being yourself, but to everyone else you're just plain off the beat - but might work amazingly well in a solo composition.
posted by mmoncur at 4:23 PM on May 20, 2008


There is no causal relationship between how much you know about music and how good of a musician you are. You don't need to "forget" anything; you just need to work out of your comfort zone.

In other words:

when I play something that I don't know how to play my only option is to play as automatically as possible

Nuh uh. :)
posted by danb at 4:46 PM on May 20, 2008


Haha, I can tell I'm being frustrating. I'm really not trying to, though. It apparently doesn't seem like it, but pretty much all of these answers have been helpful.

Let me exclude my vague musical mysticism.
Part of it is that I feel like I'm in a rut.
Even if I weren't I never feel like I'm on the same wavelength as anyone I play with, including teachers I've had.
I've considered the possibility that I just suck, and haven't ruled it out entirely, but no one seems to treat me as if I do, and I just don't think that "sucking at music" is possible.

I'm trying to get to the crux of the biscuit, but I don't really know where that is either, and it doesn't help this specific matter that I deal with most artistic matters intuitively.

Revised question: What is my problem?
posted by cmoj at 5:25 PM on May 20, 2008


I just don't think that "sucking at music" is possible.

It is possible. I'm not saying you do, but some people do.

Revised question: What is my problem?

You don't have a good teacher. Also you don't seem to know how to ask questions or state your goals in a clear, constructive way. If you can't explain where you're trying to go, no one can help you get there.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:13 PM on May 20, 2008


Okay, the revised explanation + question seems a bit more clear.

I feel like I'm in a rut

A rut as in you're not progressing musically in the direction you want to go or a rut as in you're stuck going the same direction although you'd like to branch out?

If you'd like to branch out musically, here's some suggestions:

Learn to play in a completely different genre. Let the blues/jazz stuff sit for a while and go study celtic music or funk or travis picking. You might find that one of those styles feels like your real home. If not, when you come back to your blues/jazz stuff you'll have some new perspectives and tools to work with.

Learn to play in an alternate tuning. For example, DADGAD has a distinctive flavor that will take you away from your usual patterns.

Get the sheet music for some other instruments and figure out how to play those lines on guitar. A horn part will likely be constructed differently from a typical guitar line and learning it may open up some new ideas. (I've never actually tried this idea myself, but I've seen it recommended by some good guitarists.)


Even if I weren't I never feel like I'm on the same wavelength as anyone I play with ... it doesn't help this specific matter that I deal with most artistic matters intuitively.

Ah ... this problem I've seen before in some of my friends. It's sort of the exact opposite of the stuff I struggle with personally.

I see it as an example of how a strength can be a weakness and vice-versa. I have some friends who have enormous natural intuitive musical talent. Because they have such natural talent, they've been able to come a long way as musicians operating pretty much just on intuition. The problem comes when they reach the limit of their personal natural ability. They don't progress technically any more because it doesn't come automatically and it feels un-natural to work through technical exercises that don't even seem musical. They have a hard time playing with others if their own personal intuition and idiosyncratic timing don't match up with that of the musicians they're playing with.

I have the opposite problem. I started off with very little natural musical ability, so I had to slowly and painstakingly develop every aspect of musicality. The advantage is that I'm used to the hard work it takes to stretch my comfort zone.

Perhaps one solution for you is to separate the concept of playing music from the concept of learning to play. When you're actually playing, let your natural ability and your intuition and your joy in the music go to town. When you're practicing, be willing to slowly, carefully, and with full awareness push yourself out of your comfort zone. What you're doing this way is actually stretching your brain and opening it up to new intuitions. Then when you play for real, you have more options. You can still play the way you always have when it's appropriate, but you can also feel how to fit in with someone else's groove.

Another possibililty is to find musical partners who like your musical instincts and are willing to learn how to follow them. In this case you might help if you could learn to communicate just what you are trying to do. Bending and twisting time can be pretty cool if the whole band is doing it together. However, if you're going this route, I still recommend that you also try the previous suggestion. After all, if your bandmates are willing to do the extra work to learn how to follow your idiosyncracies, shouldn't you be willing to do the same for them?
posted by tdismukes at 6:23 PM on May 20, 2008


I want to reiterate what I said a little up-thread, which is, I realize, a little non-specific, but I do believe that it bears repeating in light of the excessive (but nonetheless productive!) philosophizing that's going on here - what do you WANT out of music? What kind of music do you want to play? What kind of music makes you happy/keeps you up at night with excitement/is in your head when you wake up in the morning/is so compelling that you feel the need to listen to it again and again/etc?

Once you answer that question - well, go out and play that music! When I was but a young'un, all I wanted out of life was to learn how to play Beatles songs on the guitar - didn't matter that I didn't know 90% of the chords - I wanted to play the songs badly enough that I'd figure out how to play the chords.

Later on, after a long time trying to play Jazz, I realized that the music that did it for me above and beyond all others was straightforward power-pop - the aforementioned Fabs, XTC, Squeeze, etc. So I went back to playing and, more importantly, writing that music. And lo and behold, it brought newfound and untold enjoyment from my music.

The point being that, if you are doing what you WANT and LOVE, it'll be less important to you how WELL you do it. Don't get hung up on how GOOD you are. Also, if it feels like no one else is on your wavelength, why do you think the problem is with you? Have you tried explaining, as clearly and specifically as possible, what you are looking/listening for? If you are working with open-minded musicians, they ought to be willing to follow your direction for at least a little while (and in turn you should be prepared to return the favor). Don't underestimate the need for discussing and planning the music that you make - even if in the moment it is improvised, you can PLAN those improvisations.

Now, another very important thing to bear in mind is that ruts will ALWAYS happen. It's not about avoiding them, it's about how you DEAL with them. If you need to, take a break from music. Or find new music. Or follow some of the suggestions here. But don't think that there's a magical perspective that will keep you rut-free. It ain't out there.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:17 PM on May 20, 2008


I like what tdismukes said best.

My other two cents.. it is totally possible that, whatever your degree of talent, you will consistently and repeatedly - despite trying really hard - keep finding people you don't 'click' with musically. This can be especially difficult depending on what you are trying to get out of your playing (which you may not even be aware of consciously), and say, what types of/how many musicians are available where you live.

Also, I will chime in on this thing you said as well:

"I feel it's dangerous to put things like this is too concrete terms. These things can't be said and it feels very bad to say them anyway."

That totally sounds like something completely untrained musicians say when I run into them and they put the smackdown on anyone with any kind of training whatsoever. "You Just Have To Feel It Man!" I'm not saying that's you, I'm just saying that is the kind of thing I have gotten in the past.

Rut? Ya, take a break. I'm about to do that, I think.
posted by bitterkitten at 8:48 AM on May 25, 2008


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