In the majority of musical education, whether in private lessons or in classes, there’s an implicit assumption that:
1. We are “down here,” and musicians like Beethoven, Charlie Parker, Paul McCartney, and Joni Mitchell are “way up there.”
2. Furthermore, there are about 10 steps in the ladder between us and them.
3. To rise to their level, we have to go slowly, step-by-step, and gradually climb up this ladder over the course of our lives.
4. But…. (and this is the clincher)… we’ll never really get to where they are because they are “geniuses” and we are not.
If we really look at the educational system, it really comes down to this perspective: there’s a step-by-step process of learning music and while we may be inspired by the great musicians we idolize, we’ll never become like them because they have some innate potential that we ourselves don’t possess.
What the greats really have in common is that each of them thinks about music in a different way than we usually do.
Here’s the quantum leap we can take:
If we can find a radically different way of thinking about music that’s right for ourselves, we can instantly skip about 5,000 of the steps on the ladder.
For instance, one great musician may have, early on, decided to prioritize “flow” over the choice of notes. Hence their fast rhythmic improvement and total immersion in the groove.
Another great musician realized early on that they could feed off the energy of their audience, and play much better when there was an audience present than when they were home alone. (Keith Jarrett actually told the audience this when I heard him play at Carnegie Hall.)
Still another musical “great” figured out that instead of trying to play something new every day, they get more pleasure from playing what they already know in fresh ways every day. After all, the same sun rises every single day, but the way it looks on the hillside varies from day to day depending on the colors of the foliage, etc.
One of my favorite examples of this ability to think differently is the guitarist Keith Richards. If we listen to how he plays rhythm guitar, we’ll notice that he generally doesn’t keep the rhythm by strumming chords, as most rhythm guitarists do. Instead, Richards carefully places his chords in each measure, finding just the right accents depending on what’s going on with the group s a whole in that moment. In other words, he’s playing rock guitar as if he’s a jazz pianist “comping” behind a soloist. He’s thinking differently than practically every other rock guitarist on the planet!
Yes, practice your instrument methodically and diligently. The combination of persistence and musical education is essential to our musical development.
Yet if we want to instantly skip about 5,000 steps and experience music in a profound way, let’s take a cue from our musical idols and learn to think about music differently.
This is transformative.
Enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”
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