By Theodore Lai, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio
11:00pm. I feel the day’s bustle recede as the world closes its eyes. The lights that dot the windows of my neighboring flats slowly flicker out like candles in the wind. I close the shades and dim my lights; it is time to practice.
I pull out a chair and position the stand in front of me. Flipping through an effete collection of pieces, I locate the desired score. The page is black with pencil markings of harmony and direction, the paper crumpled from use.
Picking up the guitar, I loosely strum the strings and adjust the pegs. The instrument has become out of tune from the day’s humidity. Patiently adjusting each string, my ears strain to hear the familiar sound of tuned perfection. Like soldiers lining up in a file, the notes slowly blend to form the only too familiar perfect intervals.
I lightly pluck an open chord. The strings resonate in unison; the body projects with clarity. The chord’s brightness fades away as the strings become still. My warm-up routine begins: basic scales to complex finger exercises. The metronome clicks in agreement as I accent every beat. The room seems to have become barren, a space of sound; each note a voice, each melody an atmosphere. The world seems to rescind with each passing bar.
A different calm envelops the room.
Every field, every discipline, every skill involves technique. It is what we do if we want to get better at something. Badminton players become better badminton players by analyzing the force and angle of their swing. Ballet dancers become better ballet dancers by studying their posture and balance. Technique is the reorganizing of our muscles to suit the requirements of our specific skill set.
Good technique is the result of hours of practice dedicated to developing muscle memory. Pianists develop technique by ensuring every finger is curved at the precise angle required to strike the key with resolution and finesse. Violin players develop technique in two aspects: accuracy of the fingerboard on the left hand, and control of the bow on the right. Wind players develop technique by the fluttering of the lips.
It is therefore easy to lose one’s self in developing technique. The mind, being lazy, is happy to let the body do the work. Muscle memory involves little to no mental processing, and comes about solely through the routine of repetition.
By improving technique we improve our familiarity with the instrument. What lacks, however, is our understanding of it. Much like how we can mentally recite a passage via rote learning, technique allows us to bask in the joy of playing music, but leaves us to wallow in the emptiness of repetition. To focus solely on technique forces one to ignore the relationships between the notes. To forget the beauty of harmony and the catharsis of expression. Technique is necessary for developing foundation, but disappointing in developing musicianship.
Hours of practice bring dexterity, hours of playing bring mastery.
“How much nobler is the study of music as a rational science than as a laborious skill of manufacturing sounds” said the Medieval Philosopher Boethius. “It is nobler to the degree that the mind is nobler than the body.”
Theory is like the mind to the body, the branches to the leaves. Without theory, music becomes a nonsensical, random array of sounds, clumsily plucked and strung together without the slightest degree of thought or consideration. Theory gives to music what science gives to phenomenon. It satisfies our craving for understanding, and gives reason to the chaotic cacophony of sound.
Theory explains why a certain piece produces a certain mood, as well as how one can reproduce such a mood. A scale remains a meaningless ascension of sounds if one does not understand the concept of intervals. Following this, one is able to bring forth the concept to create new sounds by lowering or raising the distance between each note. One is also able to construct chords that represent their parent scales by playing certain key tones at the same time. Following this, new scales can be derived, producing their own idiosyncratic character and personality. It is this endless chain of derivation and relation of concepts that make theory, especially musical theory, such a joy to understand.
The Holy Trinity
Music, in its essence, is made up of 3 components: harmony, rhythm and melody.
Harmony is the relationship of notes; the organizational logic of sounds. It is essentially the backbone of a musical composition, the underlying struts to build up upon. Understanding harmony involves having the ability to not only dismantle and analyze a chord progression, but to feel its moods and direction. A mastery of harmony involves looking at music not as a mass of notes, but as an intricate language, a secret arrangement of sounds that blend to produce that which is pleasing to the ear. A single note shifted out of place produces an entirely different sound, which cleverly alters the mood of the musical phrase. Harmony seems to possess a mathematical beauty, a unique logic that cleverly makes sense out of the 12 tones of the western chromatic scale before blossoming them into infinite possibilities.
Rhythm gives a musical phrase its distinctive edge. A technical explanation of rhythm involves attributing different lengths of time to different notes. Altering how long each note should perpetuate gives a phrase its rhythm, eliminating its otherwise monotonous droning. A mastery of rhythm involves the ability to divide meters and calculate note values instantly, to line up the equivalent values against the pulse of the time signature. The difficulty of playing in time stems from this factor. One has to dedicate mental resources to count the meter as well as calculate the values, a multi-tasking ability that forces rhythm to be something essentially innate. Sense of Time means being able to feel the beat as well as play the values in tandem; to accurately slot in and arrange each note value in the given time signature. Rhythm, if well used, brings excitement and color to music.
Melody, like the skin that covers the body, is the most salient aspect of a musical phrase. Its presence graces the underlying chords, like a lone voice amid the chorus of harmony. Melody often results in the manifestation of the musical ostinato: a memorable tune that perpetuates in character throughout a musical piece. Good melodies harness the potential of its accompanying harmony. It shines through the proper use of its parent scale’s characteristic tones, and blends well with the harmony and rhythm. Melodic Sense can said to be a combination of musical taste and harmonic understanding; a blend of visceral and intellectual ability.
The Philosophy of Practice
A student’s practice philosophy is one that is rarely discussed even among the most experienced teachers. Practicing moulds one’s sound, shaping it in ways only he can determine. To try and dictate how one should practice is to create a copy of one’s own musical identity. Practice cannot be taught, it has to be realized.
A good practice routine is generally based upon 2 aspects: the practice of the body, and the practice of the mind.
The practice of the body involves muscle familiarity with the instrument; that is, finger dexterity and flexibility. In the case of guitar playing, these objectives broaden into techniques such as harmonics, string skipping, legato and staccato, tapping, string bending; and alternate, sweep, economic and hybrid picking. To master these playing techniques requires a focused mindset, as well as an idea of the sound and skill one wishes to achieve.
The practice of the mind involves mental familiarity with the instrument, as well as with music in general. This brings into focus topics such as knowledge of the fingerboard, sense of time and rhythm, knowledge of chords and chord voicing, use of modes, and improvisation. The honing of mental familiarity therefore requires a certain understanding of theory, and cannot be achieved by mere repetition alone. It requires a detailed analysis and comprehension of musical concepts. Practice of the mind therefore involves a discipline and concentration unlike that of the body. One must fully immerse himself in the instrument, to have a constant awareness of what he is playing. Practice of the body brings patience; practice of the mind brings maturity.
True virtuosity comes from the amalgamation of these 2 aspects. Good musicians understand that playing is not for the self, nor for the flattering of ego; rather, it represents the passion that one feels in his music, the never ending chase for the magical moment where one’s entire being becomes suspended in his playing, where he begins to feel the music instead of play it.
A glance at the clock informs me that it is long past the witching hour. The strings have grown tired from my playing; the neck damp with the oils from my hands. I reach for a cloth and wipe down the guitar. Glancing once again at the clock, I heave a sigh of satisfaction and turn back to the first bar.
There is much more to learn.
Inspired by “Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz.