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It has been said that 99% of emerging as an artist has to do with hard work, and that one’s natural ability accounts for a mere 1%. I remind my students of this regularly. However, there seems to be no denying that people come into the world with different levels of ability and talent. The flow of how this natural talent emerges and develops can be influenced to varying degrees, but even so, some players just seem to have a greater natural capacity than others to develop the technique, to interpret the style, and to express themselves in a luminous way. Eric Clapton saw Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time and judged himself lacking by comparison, saying of SRV, “I got chills and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He seemed to be an open channel and music just flowed through him.”
For the mere mortals among us, who practice every day and who desire to be such a channel, let us not give up hope! I would offer that we might be able to influence our own capacity for becoming a more mystical channel for the music, but in many cases it seems to have a timeframe all its own – it will appear when the time is right.
So what do we do? How do we practice? How do we prepare ourselves? Each serious performer, either consciously or unconsciously, has to wrestle with these questions, and their answers will all be different. But I do think that the wrestling itself bears fruit. This journey towards becoming a channel for the music is a process that cannot be rushed or forced. It is, rather, a process that can be accepted, invited, nurtured, and allowed to unfold.
Think of performing as you would think of mowing the lawn. When I go to do the task of mowing, I have no anxiety. I don’t worry what others will think of me if they are watching. I know that however it comes out it will probably be OK. I do a little preparation and then, without fear, do the task. Such common, routine tasks really are all the same, aren’t they? The daily tasks of being a human being – washing the dishes, driving a car, etc. – all have the same level of importance. Yet, we often attach our egos to a musical performance in a controlling manner that actually keeps us from becoming a channel, and instead brings anxiety. Many times, a great performance can follow only after we let go of our need for a great performance.
Let practice time be a time for playing music, not a time for working out a technical math puzzle on the fretboard. No one creates in a vacuum – we all have to listen to and study the styles that came before us, and study and practice the techniques (chords, scales and other technical things). In learning the technical aspects of the instrument and in studying the language of the earlier players, we proceed with the idea that the co-mingled end result is the emergence of a unique, personal style. This personal part means the player puts something into the mix that is unique to them. This holds true in the successful development of any style: rock, blues, jazz, etc. The style is merely a means to communicate that personal, unique, soulful thing. It really matters not what style it is – what is important is what is channeled through the style.
Once basic scales are adequately learned, put an end to over-practicing technical exercises and instead learn songs by ear. Most of the early jazz performers learned all the popular songs by ear and improvised based on all of the many melodies they knew and could play by ear. Focus on melody rather than technical and speed exercises. Practice playing single-line melodies on the guitar, as you sing them. Practice singing all the intervals. Learn where the intervals are on the guitar and be able to sing, hear, and play them. If an idea or phrase inspires you and you want to incorporate it into your improvisational vocabulary, practice it slowly and repetitively (this is the key to mastery: repetitive, slow practice of all things). These types of ear and melody practicing will result in a different – and more luminous – performer than one who is focused on technique, speed, and fingerboard gymnastics.
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a 10 year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published 6 jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar (available from Jamey Aebersold). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast. An avid collector and trader in the vintage market, you can visit Jiim’s store at musicianshotline.com (dealer: IslandFunhouse).