Letter to a Young Musician #4

02010-01-01 @ 12:01

Dear Friend,

Today I am thinking about time. Time is important to a musician, that’s obvious. Music consists of time and pitch. Without time there can be no song. A melody can only exist in time. A melody can only be heard because our minds can store time, for without memory a melody would remain a series of unconnected sonic events. The beauty of music lies in the many different associations and memories a mind can attach to the flow of a melody.

Our perception of those sounds-connected-through-time, or melody, varies from person to person and can be improved by practice. Modern classical music or Bebop Jazz often contain very long melodies that evaporate in most listeners brains. It takes training to follow these long lines, and may be an excellent antidote to a short attention span. I read somewhere that the average listener can hold about 7-9 notes in their attention. Bebop melodies are usually much longer than that.

Time is the essence of music in its guise as the sisters rhythm and melody. And time is also the duration of your practice. Most musicians serve a good portion of their lifelong practice as teenagers. We may never regain that sense of time we have as teenagers – everything is still ahead of us… and four or even eight hours of playing our instrument feels completely natural.

Allow me to give you this advice:
Don’t worry about being popular in school or in college. The unpopular kids have time to practice their musical instruments or paint, take photographs or devise science projects. The popular kids on the other hand are busy going to parties, their social calendars packed with events. Sure, you might watch them with longing, but being popular in school isn’t all that. (((although honestly, how would I know, I wasn’t popular in school and spent most of my free time playing guitar and reading…)))

What happens to the popular kids when they grow up? Maybe they become real estate agents or sell cars or find another profession where they can use the social skills they learned as teenagers?

And since I am on the subject of time…

We always look for the quick fix, don’t we, the silver bullet, the advantage?

That is true in terms of becoming a better player and also true for getting signed by a record company, finding a manager or agent etc. We never think it happens fast enough. What if I tell you that I was signed by a record label exactly when I lost interest in getting signed? Or at least stopped pursuing a recording deal and instead made the music I wanted to make.

I think this also parallels our search for happiness or enlightenment. We may find either exactly when we give up searching. Unfortunately we can’t start out by giving-up-searching… the quest must come first.

Time is the best teacher, but you’ll have to allow yourself and your music to ferment. Think of yourself as a cauldron of soup – let the spices mix, let the flavors develop, let the ingredients get softer… and play the music that makes you happy.

I shall end my letter with this observation:
In the beginning we play out-of-time, because we are scrambling to find the correct notes. When the fingering becomes more familiar, time remains sloppy while we learn to move from note to note. Later the correct rhythm emerges, at first clumsily and then more fluid… and when we listen to a master play music we can hear him/her stretch and squeeze time, playing before or after the beat… but returning to the downbeat at will. Another spiral of learning. At some point we arrive at a new stretching-of-time, only now it has become our choice and an expression of emotion, rather than the inability to move to the next note smoothly.

Time. It is the great puzzler. Enjoy your time…

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