Guitar, cooking, sweeping the floor. It’s all the same. I’ve been telling students for years that music is a unique discipline, in that it provides immediate feedback (the way what we’re playing sounds) to indicate what sort of results we’re getting. Now, I should preface by saying I’m not obsessive-compulsive.
I’ve been teaching and telling students lately how to get more out of their practice time. They might tell me they practice x minutes a day (whether they actually do or not is another story). but I’ll spend a little time showing them how much can actually be achieved in a minute. About the obsessive-compulsive comment: there was a time when I actually kept a log, detailing what i worked on and how many minutes I spent on each scale, exercise and piece of music on a daily basis. Now I’ve always contended that natural “talent,” as people call it, doesn’t really exist. True, that we all have a different “hand to play” from the outset, so to speak. But one’s weaknesses can become strengths, and vice versa. If I were to speculate I’d say my strongest talent is the gift of being able to amuse myself for long periods of time by performing the most mundane, monotonous and often simple little tasks. I can delight in playing a small passage of notes over and over — seeing what I can do to make it interesting. I’ll play a group of notes, going faster, slower, varying my touch, adding slight pauses or accents in different places, emphasizing notes with vibrato, changing volume in all kinds of ways. No matter what talent you believe you have, playing the same passage twenty to a hundred times a day for many days will, sooner or later, make you an expert at performing that task.
I’ve been playing a lot of acoustic steel string guitar lately, which is kind of a new thing for me. Mostly I always played either classical guitar or any of several electric guitars I own. Now I’m enjoying the sounds I can get out of my old $140 yamaha acoustic, exploring the wide variety of tones that can come out of this wonderful instrument.
Anyway, I came to a realization recently. I found myself repeating in my mind a small sequence of motions, imagining its sounds, the fingerings, varying it in a multitude of miniscule ways to varying degrees —over and over and over. And, although I’ve been doing this for many years, it suddenly reminded me of something: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughs in “The Aviator,” saying “show me all the blueprints” over and over again. Difference is, I can turn it on or off at will —I think.
“When an artist spits, that is art” —I stole that quote from some dadaist artist —wish i could remember who. It’s not a question of who the person is doing it. It’s more a question of how we regard ourselves and how we approach whatever task is at hand. So, when you sweep that floor, sweep it as if the heavens would open, and the spirits of great floor-sweepers of bygone eras would smile down and admire your work, while angelic fingers would dance on the strings of gilded harps, arpeggiating major7#11 chords. And don’t forget to practice your guitar.