There’s no way around it: if we want to play the way we want to, we need to work at it. A lot. In fact, most of the great musicians we idolize got that way because they love to practice. At some point in their lives, they practiced and practiced and practiced until the music started to flow. And then they practiced some more.
I was lucky to see this first-hand. In high school, the jazz guitarist Sal Salvador was the father of one of my best friends. Every time I’d go over to their house in the evening to hang out, Sal would be sitting on the sofa, watching Three Stooges movies, guitar in hand. He just loved running up and down the scales and improvising, for hours upon hours.
When I graduated from college, my first job was being saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s assistant. I had never seen anyone work as hard as Gerry did! Every day, all day, and sometimes all night. He would write tunes, arrange them for his jazz band, practice the saxophone, practice the clarinet, compose pieces for symphony orchestra, and on and on. Even so, the thing that impressed me the most was that Gerry ALWAYS gave 150%!!! Even when he was ‘just’ tuning his instrument, he’d fully concentrate until his face turned red, immersing himself in the sound. He may have been born talented, but he worked extremely hard to develop that talent.
In the classical piano world, Glenn Gould was such an artist. Many of us have played at least a little Bach as part of our musical training. Gould specialized in Bach. There's a wonderful video of Gould discussing Bach’s Fugue in E Major. At the time of this writing, you can find it here, on YouTube:
Gould could obviously memorize music easily, to a degree of which I’m jealous. But at a certain point that becomes irrelevant. I’ve had piano students with photographic memories who never took the time to develop their talent. Gould took the time. Watch the way he uses musical passages to illustrate his verbal observations. He’s spent so much time with this music, analyzing it, dissecting it, loving it, that every phrase is at his fingertips. Behind his intellect is a ton of emotion. That emotion is what led him to devote his life to music, not the other way around.
What can we learn from this?
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