It’s easy to get so caught up in the how, or the technical process, of what you’re doing that you forget the why. Every once in a while someone will send me a You Tube clip of some wunderkind playing a million notes and I often think, “Wow it’s impressive to spend so much time getting that down. I wonder how they’re going to use that when they’re playing Brown Eyed Girl at the local bar?” And the answer of course is that they’re not going to play that or maybe even anysong. The point of the video generally isn’t to develop something interesting in a larger musical context (like a song) but instead to promote their efforts by performing something technically difficult to get people impressed.
I don’t fault players for this, they’re simply trying to make a connection and that’s the point of music in general. Sometimes that means playing a million notes and sometimes that happens in the silences of the music you’re playing. It’s an easy path to go down because making a connection is really hard. In addition to a lot of work, it requires experience, sincerity and no small amount of guts to leave yourself exposed. In contrast, sitting down with a metronome and getting a lick up to a quick tempo is substantially easier and the result is quantifiable. Even if people aren’t impressed, you’ll know that you got it up to speed and take some comfort in advancing your technical ability.
But the flash of something fast will fade quickly, and what’s left is the content of what’s being said and the sincerity behind it.
I like video game licks in certain contexts, but they’re probably not going to work on a ballad very well (even if it is a fusion track ). If you’re saying a lot of words without much meaning it’s not going to have a lot of impact.
I’ve had gigs where everything involving making a connection turns off on the stage and while it’s not a defining moment in human history, for someone who’s being used to being connected to music it’s a pretty awful feeling. I’d even argue that this was the case for 90% of the gigs I’ve played since I’ve been in LA. There can be any number of reasons for this. There might be technical issues that completely pull you out of your mindset. The audience might not be there to make a connection. Things may not be jelling with the band. But most importantly, it may be your disconnect. And it’s the most important, because it’s the only performance factor that you really have control over.
Those of you familiar with the Aesop’s fable regarding the fox and the lion will probably remember the final adage, “Familiarity Breeds Contempt “. You can put so much time into the same thing on guitar that it loses all musical meaning. The bad news is it’s probably not going to gain additional meaning on the bandstand. In all likelihood it’s going to disconnect further.
The more you work with specific things the easier it is to auto pilot your way through them, and the less likely you’ll be able to connect with it. Taking that a step further, it’s going to be hard to connect to audiences if you’re disconnected from your own playing. It’s more common than you might think, and a lot of musicians go through small (or large) periods where they “weren’t feeling it”. They hit a wall.
By it’s nature any wall is usually made of pretty hard material so trying going through it is not the best approach. I can tell you from personal experience that taking the approach of saying, “suck it up” isn’t going to get your groove back. Playing through it is exactly what you probably shouldn’t be doing because it’s just going to distance you further from the actual music when you play. It’s like when a relationship is on the rocks and you’re convinced that spending more time together will make it better when the time you spend now is stinted and awkward. The better approach in both cases is to step back and get some perspective… to go over the wall if you will…
One man’s recommendation for dealing with the wall
If you’re facing this right now, here are some strategies that may help.
- Acknowledge that you’ve hit a wall. You can’t fix something you don’t recognize as a problem.
- Once you acknowledge that you’ve hit a wall, realize that while it might be big and imposing, it’s still only a wall.
- If the wall you’ve hit is from playing in general, take a break from playing for a couple of days. Spend that time trying to connect with friends or family. What you do isn’t really as important as the fact that you’re engaged and connected while you do it.
- Learn some new songs. Learn things that are very non guitaristic like vocal melodies or horn lines. Take those ideas and write something new with them.
- Go back and listen to music that inspired you. Try to find out what it was that inspired you about the music. Don’t over think or over analyze it, just try to connect with it.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Listen to music from other cultures. Read a book by an unfamiliar (but recommended author). Play with different musicians. Take a short trip somewhere you’ve never been with a friend and see some new surroundings. When I was in Phoenix, I checked out the Musical Instrument Museum and had my head turned around in a dozen different directions both by the instruments and the multimedia presentations of field recordings. I left that place with a lot of new musical ideas buzzing around my head.
- Practice playing in front of other people. Learn a new song and play it at an open mic. Make notes of when you’re connecting and when other people are connecting and make mental notes of how they’re doing it.
- When you come back to practicing, take a measured breath before you begin playing. Mark the fact that you’re about to start something to get into the zone.
- Try being mindful of what you’re practicing. Set limits on time and only practice one thing as long as you can be engaged in practicing it.
- When you play a solo – try only playing what you can sing.
There are a lot of other things you can try, but the real goal here is to get re-engaged and bring that to your playing. As corny as it may sound, playing is an expression of who you are and where you’ve been. If you don’t have anything to say in your playing, it may be time to live a little more so you’ll have a story to tell next time you sit down… For me, it was about realizing what was wrong, taking ownership of that and moving past it to get back to making music instead of just sound again.
Good luck to you and thanks for reading!
© Scott Collins – All Rights reserved – used here with permission.
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