CODA: Accepting Your Limitations and Embracing your Strengths.
After all of this talk of how to improve our right hand techniques, I felt I needed to add a “coda” here to try to balance all of this out with something philosophical about the nature of music and being an artist in general. Try to imagine a world where everyone had exactly the same abilities, and everyone could do everything equally well. If you think about it, how would you be able to distinguish one musician from another in a world like that? All players would be equally fast, or equally soulful and tasty, or equally whatever you could name as a attribute that separates one person’s playing from another. What is it exactly that distinguishes one person artistically from another? Well, after a lot of thinking about this, I would say that a person’s limitations define them artistically just as much as their gifts – so why are we all afraid to admit them to ourselves and other musicians so much?
When I look at my own progress in playing, I had to really get into note choice because I didn’t have the raw speed that some people might use to make up for that. I recognized that I naturally “heard” upper structure harmony and “outside” harmony more than other people, so I went for finding a way to get that onto the guitar, instead of pursuing some of the “smoother” elements that so many other guitar players are so good at. At one time I was sort of embarrassed about this, but I think I read in an article once where someone said something to the effect that at one point or another, you have to STOP being a student like you were when you were in whatever schooling you had done in your life, and decide that you had arrived as a professional and were “ready to go” with whatever tools you did – or didn’t – have at hand to do the job of playing music. This concept was something that I decided to really embrace and I think if you look at any player you admire – and actually, even the successful ones that you DON’T, you’ll see that they all have all done this.
I am going to stick my neck out and say something that might be sort of controversial here: there is a very popular saxophonist who another very popular guitarist has gone on the very visible public record to state just what a terrible musician the saxophonist is – I actually, at least on one level, have to disagree with the guitarist’s opinion. The reason why is that this saxophonist, whenever you hear him – and WHOEVER hears him that has ever heard him at all – is INSTANTLY recognizable in his playing and sound of his music. Think about how many musicians you can say this about – probably most of your favorite players in a “blindfold test” might take you a little while to identify, and even then, you might only be able to narrow your identification of them to 2-3 players that are similar. And this guy – who yes, I own none of his music – is recognizable in literally 1-2 seconds – seriously, what kind of accomplishment is THAT? I’m not too proud to say that I certainly would like to be able to make that claim. How did he do it? Well, I think it was by recognizing what he did really well, putting that part of his playing forward, and deciding to not focus on his limitations – and to tell you the truth, that’s exactly what he shares in common with the guitarist that dislikes his playing so much. Regardless of how much I do or don’t like this man’s music, it was a fact that I had to acknowledge that he had such a strong musical identity that it had to be recognized as a good and valuable thing for any musician to strive to achieve.
Does that mean that we all just never work on things that are difficult for us, and always take the easy way out? Not at all, I’m saying to focus your MAIN efforts on making the gifts that you have even stronger and better executed. Also, don’t be afraid to accept that in your weaknesses, you will doubtfully never surpass those gifted in those areas, so find ways to get around these weaknesses in your own individual ways. For some players, that might look like developing a great sweep picking technique because alternate picking is hard for them. For others, it might be picking every note because hammer-ons and pull-offs never came that naturally. Does it mean that these people never work on their weaknesses at all? No, it means that they don’t FOCUS on what they can’t do, because that is for students, not professionals.
I don’t know if this makes a lot of sense or sounds like a cop out, but believe me, it is not and I am pretty sure most any high level player will agree with it – be the best “you” that you can be, because no one can do that better than you. To quote a wizrdly alligator from a cartoon show of my youth, “be what you is and not what you is not – them that does that is the happiest lot” – and they usually sound the best as well 😉