start to play music or learn to play an instrument?
It’s the same thing, right – No, I don’t think it is.
This is going to upset a lot of people who know scales and stuff. Sorry. Just hear me out. I think there is a difference between the way you we make music and the way we master a technique. Its a head and heart thing.
OK. let me give you an example from another field. Imagine you went to commercial or secretarial college a few years back, way before computers. You sat down in front of a typewriter and someone taught you how to type. At the end of your course, you could type perfectly, do it really fast and hardly ever make a mistake. Does that mean you could write a book?
No, not a chance. What you could do is copy a book someone else had written. That part is easy. That’s because you learnt your instrument, the typewriter. Now, I’m sure a lot of great writers can also type very well. But just as many type with two fingers. They probably sell more books because they think differently, not as structured. Their craft is driven by their heart, not their head. Let me stay with writing for a second.
Imagine a room of writers, each with a pen and paper. Now imagine you get to experience them writing a story. Look at their hands, how they hold their pens. I have rarely seen two people hold a pen the same way. Some look just, well, weird.
Now, back to music. When you learn to play an instrument, you’re shown just how to hold your hand, how to form a chord, which note follows another to form a scale, intervals and boxes. Its conditioning, doing it the conventional way, but never the creative way. Like the typewriter, you learn to play the mechanical thing, not the thing it produces, the music or the story.
but some can’t learn without being taught
Yes, that’s right. But the truth is, those people will never be great artists. Wrongly, they’ll be called musicians. They aren’t – they’re technologists.
They’re the musical typists of this world. They’ll be able to play you a perfect note-for-note rendition of say, a Bob Dylan song, or Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan, or WatchTower by Jimi Hendrix. But they’ll never play a great song no one else has ever played. They’re driven by their heads and memory. And what’s memory?
Memory is what has gone before. But new music is about what what has never been heard before.
Those people who can’t make music with just their passion should never imagine they ever will. But maybe that’s not why they learn. And why should I try to stop that?
Let me finish with a story I heard from South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim on the BBC show Later with Jools Holland.
He told a story about a young guy who went to see his hero playing at a club. He asked him if he could play one of his hero’s songs. The maestro looked up and said “sure”.
The kid played the song note for note. But his hero had gone to the bar to get a drink. When someone asked him why he didn’t stay to hear the kid, the hero said “he may play the notes I played, but he’ll never understand why I played them.”
That, dear readers, is what music is all about.