Becoming a Complete Musician

Performing music is kind of like playing golf.  You cannot blame that bad note (or that bad shot) on any other person than yourself (although you can make excuses as to how new you are to playing the instrument / game, or alternatively, how rusty you are since it has been a long time been since you’ve played).  So, if you make a mistake, fumble a note or two, or maybe play a lick in poor taste, there is no one to blame but you.  Both playing music and golf can be very humbling in this regard.

And just like golf, when that shot goes right down the fairway, a well-executed musical phrase gives you the motivation to do it again.  And again.  And again.  Even though you fumbled most of the other notes (golf shots), that one time you did it right felt so good that it keeps you coming back for more.  In that manner, the psychology of playing golf and performing music are very similar.

But Bluegrass music differs drastically from golf in that there are no absolutes in music – no holes in one, no handicaps, no scorecard for everyone to see.  Very much unlike golf, there are no rights and wrongs in Bluegrass, no birdies or bogies.  You can always claim that the horrible sequence of notes that you just barfed up was deliberate and intentional, and you are merely extending the “art” of music.  And who’s to argue with you?  They’re your notes after all, and there is no objective standard like a golf scorecard that all can agree on.

Making things even more complicated and ambiguous, creating music is a very subjective, personal experience for each of us.   When we give birth to a series of original notes from one of our instruments (or our voice), it is an intensely personal matter.  These notes came from you, the Bluegrass musician.  They are a raw product of your inner self… yours, chosen by you, created by your mind and your muscles, and produced from an instrument that of which you are the proud owner. 

Further, even more complexities present themselves when you consider other people such as your musical peers and your audience.   You will rarely get objective feedback on your playing from other people, as you might from a golf pro. Bluegrass people will almost always be reticent in giving honest feedback if it needs to be less than positive.  Alternately, if you don’t happen to hear any positive feedback on a recent performance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people didn’t enjoy it – they simply might be assuming that you are such a great musician that you already know how good you are and there is no need to mention it.  And, furthermore, if you did have a magic magnifying glass that could peer into people’s heads, you would probably find a diversity of opinions and viewpoints.  Some folks might like that lick that you just played, whereas others might wonder what came over you in that moment of “creativity.”

A Few Principles to Live By

It is as if learning to play one of the Bluegrass instruments is not hard enough, and then we are presented with all this ambiguity.  Here are a couple of principles that I have found through my own personal struggles.  I hope they will help you as well.

  • Find your “voice” – Having a vision of who you are, what kind of player you want to be is important.  Several related questions that you might want to ask are:
    • What style naturally fits your approach to the instrument?    
    • What styles do you most like? 
    • Do the styles you like lie within your capabilities and approach to the instrument?
  • Maintain conviction – Once you have found the path you want to take, see if you can have the conviction to hold onto your vision when faced with scrutiny.  You will be challenged in many different ways, some subtle, others quite obvious.  
  • Have the wisdom to listen and learn from others – Direct feedback will be rare, but when you get it, consider it as a gift and fight the urge to be defensive about it.  You don’t have to agree with what is being said.  There will be plenty of time to reflect on what was said and whether you agree or not.  Ask clarifying questions, but try not to refute the points being made, even if you disagree.  If you appear even a little bit defensive, the person offering you feedback will probably button up and might not offer it again.
  • Build on the shoulders of giants – Learn everything you can about other greats in Bluegrass, and especially masters of your particular instrument.  The old saying goes, “You can’t create in a vacuum,” and, if you are to extend the art of Bluegrass into unknown territory, it is essential that you know intimately who came before you.
  • Make frequent recordings of yourself playing or singing – Listening back to a recording of yourself can be a sobering but very illuminating experience.  The thought processes involved with listening to yourself while you are playing are very different from listening to a recording of yourself.  Learning progresses much more quickly when you can hear yourself as others do.

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