In the process of making music on an instrument, right and left hand techniques are essential tools, yet even while these techniques are developing it is important not to overlook the actual music itself – the expression of the heart that drew us to music in the first place.
When the player truly listens to the sound coming from the instrument and allows the music to interpret itself – this is when playing the guitar becomes art. It is through listening and reacting to the environment that makes the music ebb and flow in a natural way, and even to become an integral part of the rhythms of nature itself.
This seemingly abstract approach to playing music can apply in many ways and at any level. A seasoned performer relies on the energy or “vibes” of the audience to fuel the energy of a performance. At the other end of the spectrum, I remember as a small child listening to the crickets and trying to play in their rhythm, the few chords I knew on the guitar. At these and any level in between, it is possible to play in sync with the sounds and rhythms around you, whether it is a full orchestra, a crying child, a bird singing, or an air conditioning unit.
We’ll begin with some steps toward listening and interacting with your guitar. When you pick up your guitar, listen carefully to the sound coming out of your instrument. Enjoy the sound and listen to all the nuances of tone. Listen to how it changes when you change the angle that your finger, or pick, strikes the string. Listen to how it changes when you play louder or softer, and when you play closer or farther away from the bridge – or even behind the bridge. All of these sounds can be used without even changing your settings. Next, play a simple pattern and experiment with all these sounds, going from one type of tone to another. Take an easy song you know, and see how many changes of tone and volume you can accomplish by just changing your touch on the strings. Exaggerate to the point that it is funny! Remember that the player hears these contrasts much more than the listener.
Here is the fun part – look at a depiction of a mountain range or hillsides, and notice the lines ascending and descending from left to right. Take a phrase from a piece of your music, and interpret it with the same lines. That is, when the lines of the mountain range are going up, get louder. When the lines are going down, get softer. You may be surprised at the natural way the mountains interpret your music!
If you don’t know when to get louder or softer in the music, here is one way that always works: when the notes are going up, get louder (not faster). When the notes are going down, get softer.
In playing with the timing in a phrase, here is another way to use the mountain range as our teacher. We have a phrase in which the notes are ascending and then descending. As you are going up the line, imagine you are going up a hill. It gets harder and harder as you go up this steep hill. When you finally get to the top – to that beautiful note at the top of the phrase – you pause for just a moment just to look at the scenery, and then go down the hill a little easier, falling back into time again.
What if you don’t know exactly how long to hold that note at the top of a phrase (or your favorite note that you don’t want to let go of just yet?) Listen to the sound of the note on your guitar. On an acoustic instrument, that sound will soon begin to decay. Wait until you hear the sound start to drop off, then when it is ¾ (7/8 in some cases) of the original volume, that is exactly the point at which the next note should come in. The interpretation differs depending upon the sustain of your instrument, and a little vibrato with the left hand will extend the sustain of a note. OK, granted, this technique works best on classic guitars and some steel-string guitars – on an electric guitar, you would be holding that note for a very long time! Conversely, you can use the decay of the notes when doing a decrescendo in a slow tune. Listen to the decay of the sound, and try to come in with the next note at exactly the same volume of the decayed prior note. Again, this technique is easiest to hear on classic guitars.
LIFE AS MUSIC
As I touched upon earlier, you can include the sounds around you in your music. This is easier to do when playing a slow ballad with rhythmic flexibility. In those soaring phrases, you can give just a little extra time to the bird that happens to sing just at the top note, or play with the intensity of the rain as you hear the raindrops pick up tempo on the rooftop. While listening to the sound of your instrument and letting it guide you in your interpretations, you can also begin to let in some of the musical sounds that enter into your room – and arrive at a serendipitous interpretation that includes these sounds as part of your music.
It is fascinating to come across research conducted at the cellular and atomic levels that indicate all particles, in particular all living cells, emit vibrations and respond to other vibrations around them. It would be interesting to find out how many of these vibrations are in harmonic series with each other. (For further exploration, the music therapy section on www.stanleyjordan.com has an extensive number of links.) It follows that since all living things respond to vibrations in the air – to sound and to music – even plants and animals respond to music. And when you play, you are effecting the listener not only through the ears but also through every cell in the body. Taking that one step further, at some cellular level you can define many aspects of life itself in terms of harmonic vibrations, just like music.