When you first learn a language, you want to say more than you are able. Limited by technique and experience, but fueled by the excitement of participation, you make a wonderful mess. This surely resonates with anyone who has ever learned to play an instrument, and with good reason. As the universal language, musical fluency is developed via the same path as fluency in any other language.
Find the balance
The beginner, at a pace determined by the amount of time invested, will emerge from the messy early stages with the ability to communicate deeper, more nuanced expressions. For music students, the intermediate phase is where they begin to focus on technique. For students learning any other language, the intermediate phase is where they stop focusing on technique. This is where the musician differs from other students. In practice, however there should be no difference.
Get out of your own way
When learning a second language, you don’t have to develop your “speaking technique” from scratch because the tongue and all other components are thoroughly trained through the natural progression of learning your first language.
For English speakers, learning Spanish as an adult is like learning a new genre of language. A jazz guitarist that decides to study heavy metal doesn’t have to start all over on the guitar. The dexterity already exists. Because most of the essential technique is in place, it allows room to focus on tone, phrasing, and the characteristic sounds of the heavy metal genre.
Highly refined technique is essential for unimpeded expression of an idea, musically and linguistically. Notice that you don’t have to think about how to shape your tongue when you speak? You’ve practiced so thoroughly that muscle memory literally does all the work for you. This allows you to put all of your attention on what you are trying to say without having to think about how to make it happen. The same is true for music.
It’s exhausting to think your way through a song. For this reason, excellent technique is essential if you want to play in the true sense of the word. However, you must realize that you have to earn it. You have to put in the work to develop the skill of getting out of your own way (thinking). You’re not making it happen, you’re getting out of the way so that it can happen.
The Hero’s Journey
As an emerging musician, you set off to refine your technique. A wise choice, indeed, but for the wrong reason.
Remember our parallel to learning Spanish as an adult? How ridiculous would it be if you only said words that were physically difficult to execute? It would be distracting and you wouldn’t be saying much, if anything. If you are playing (or saying) something just to impress someone, that’s your ego getting in the way. What you should do is learn the techniques necessary to say the things that need to be said, not the other way around.
The goal is to expand the comfort zone so that you can play effortlessly within it.
You need to develop your technique, but you shouldn’t focus on the technique? It sounds paradoxical because it is. However, there is a simple exercise to help you cut through the confusion in order to develop technique in an organic way.
Play One Chord
Looking for a practical application? The litmus test is this:
Can you make one chord interesting? Can you make one chord groove? Can you play one chord?
It can be one chord, one note, one beat… the details are less important. You can play/strum it however you like because the point is that you play one simple thing with no intention of altering it substantially. That’s it!
In order to get into the spirit of the exercise, it is highly recommend that you play along with a drum beat because it acts as an anchor. (You can find thousands of tracks on YouTube or you can make your own in 30 seconds with GarageBand).
It’s simple, but don’t confuse this with easy. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you might think that closing your eyes and counting to ten breaths without getting distracted is easy, but it’s not at all! Simple, yes. Easy, nope!
When you start to get anxious, relax and keep going. You have to break through that wall. Soon you’ll start ignoring the temptation to change chords and you will settle into the ‘one-chordness’ in a semi-hypnotic, trance-ish kind of way. As this starts to happen, you’ll notice that little embellishments start adding themselves into the mix like sprouts popping out of fresh dirt. A little riff may pop up in your head. Maybe a neighboring note suddenly becomes obvious? Go for it, but always come back to the main thing. This may be your first experience communicating with the music inside you that wants to be played. Tuning into this mysterious internal source is essential for anxiety-free playing.
Because you aren’t changing chords, you have eliminated technique as the focal point. This frees up a huge number of brain cells that allows you to become aware of new elements like: tone, dynamics, space, feel, phrasing, groove, articulation, and listening.
*This is the point of the exercise*
When it clicks, and it will, you’ll suddenly realize that there is a whole universe to explore beyond the arbitrary 12 notes of Western music.
Fluency = Mastery
Fluency in any language is not just about knowing an impressive amount of words (or notes), and it certainly isn’t a competition to see who can learn the most complicated words to say.
Fluency is about gaining effortless command of all aspects of the language. This one chord exercise is designed to help you let go of the habit of focusing on notes.
In this case, mastery and fluency are interchangeable terms. The masters have invested time into achieving fluency in all the elements of the language.
For musicians, there is a sense that the music is inside them and it needs to get out. Start your technical journey by focusing on how to play what needs to be played, effortlessly, and your technique will rise to meet your needs. When this is your priority, you’re musical. When it is not, you’re faking it and you’re not fooling anybody!
At the end of the day, if you can truly play one chord, you can play them all.
Many of the ideas in this article were shown to me in the works of Victor Wooten and Kenny Werner. The Music Lesson and Effortless Mastery, respectively, are the foundation of what we do at Meta Music Education and are required reading for anyone that would like to know more.
Meta Music Education