Melville, Madness and Practicing – Or Finding The Deeper Lesson Part 2

Condensed Cliff Notes

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Years ago, I found a back issue of National Lampoon that had a faux ad for Condensed Cliff Notes (“for people who didn’t have time to read the original”).  The joke was that major literary works were just boiled down into one sentence descriptions that couldn’t possibly encompass the scope of the book.  The Condensed Cliff Notes for Moby Dick was, “A whale bites off a man’s leg and he can’t forget about it.”

I don’t know how many of you have read Moby Dick.  I hated it when I had to read it in high school but really got to appreciate it when I was in college and read it again.  One of the central characters in the book was Captain Ahab, a man who not only couldn’t forget about the whale that bit his leg off – but was on monomaniacal mission of revenge that enveloped everyone around him in its wake.   At the end of the book, it’s also his undoing.

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The Ahab effect and practicing

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The nature of practicing music (seemingly endless repetition) makes it easy to fall into the Ahab role of obsessively trying to get a musical passage under your fingers.  I once had a lick I couldn’t get down.  It was challenging, but it certainly was something that was well with in my skill set.

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But the more I worked at it  – the worse it got.

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I’d work on this lick everyday for hours and get the metronome to a certain point.  When I came back to it, I’d have to knock the metronome back down 20 bpm – often 10 bpm lower than where I started the lick the day before!

You can imagine what this did for my sanity.

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After a week of this – I started noticing a few things:

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  • My goal line kept changing.  As I was working on the lick, I kept finding things wrong that I wanted to correct.  I was playing it clean, and then hear other technical issues when I switched to distortion. I was flubbing certain notes, and would go back to fix those.  I was rushing the parts where there were position changes.  I was over thinking it and the more energy I was putting into it the worse it got.  I was actually getting better at playing it, but because I kept adjusting the standard of what I was hearing I seemed further and further away from the goal.
  • I was in a rush.  I was putting all of this emphasis on this lick because I wanted to use it in a live context and  (finally)
  • I was hung up about the fact that I SHOULD be able to play it.

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The operative terms here are, “hung up” and “should”.

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Should is a faulty term. It implies value judgements that are hard, if not impossible to live up to and negates reality.   This might sound really  touchy-feely  to some people but this is the type of mindset that trips up musicians.  It’s why people get carpel tunnel (or Focal Dystonia)  – because they go all Ahab on something and assume that if they just work harder, that they’re going to get results quicker.

Everyone is different and this approach may work. for some people but it never worked for me.

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Here’s what did work for me.

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  • I got some distance and took a break.  I stopped playing for a couple fo days and came back to it fresh.
  • When did come back to it I had the lick down, but it taught me to try to approach all practicing more meditatively.  I noticed things that were wrong and worked on adjusting them rather than beating myself up about why I couldn’t do something.  When I did slip up and get angry or riled up – I made a note of that and tried smiling instead.

I found that I was really listening on a deeper level than I was before and using practicing to get to a deeper part of myself. I was really getting into the nuances of what I was playing and digging deeper into the pocket than I every had.  I noticed technical things that weren’t working and ultimately – I made a series of changes that had major technical ramifications for me in the long run.

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All from one lick.

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Anything has that potential to open the door to deeper expression.  But you won’t find it if all of your energy and attention is fixated on something.

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In the next post, I’ll have some lesson material that uses approaches from my Melodic Patterns book, and we’ll get a glimpse into just how tricky playing 4 notes can be.

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Thanks for reading!

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