1. The Way of Discipline
The first way to becoming really good at something, whether it is music or athletics or business, is through the path of discipline, or to be blunt, hard work. Many, if not all great musicians are great through continuous deliberate practice over many years. Most virtuosos spend hours practicing scales and progressions to become the excellent musicians they are.
I once played in a band with a guitar player from Romania. Robert the Romanian. He was 6’9” and made me feel like a midget. He used to sit in his basement with the lights out and play for hours and hours in the dark. Then he would record his licks over and over again, and listen to them and re-record them and replay them until he got them perfect. He is, without a doubt one of the best guitarist I have ever played with.
I have tried on many occasions to set a schedule and with my iron will I resolved to practice scales every day for a set period of time. Alas, my iron will melted like aluminum foil in a fire and after a few days I went back to my old habits of playing when I felt like it. Other times, I have been able to stick with a routine of practice every day for months at a time and I have been able to see the tremendous progress I have made. So what was missing in my resolve in the first instance?
2. The Way of Study and Analysis
By the use of will and determination it is possible to learn very much about art. Music, being the technical and somewhat academic art that it is, can be approached by a studious person. There is a lot to learn. Theory is sometimes complicated and many highly-educated professorial types have dissected symphonies and musical scores with the precision of a nuclear physicist. Volumes of books are written on the subject of musical theory.
Pop musicians are probably the least academic of musicians and the most illiterate. Most are self-taught and unschooled. There are a couple reasons for this. First of all, pop music is not that complicated and doesn’t require huge theoretical knowledge. Secondly, many of the musicians who get into pop music are young disaffected teens with nothing better to do with their time than thrash out some juvenile anger and angst on a cheap guitar and a big amp.
Academia does help to provide a foundation for higher levels of achievement and the musicians with the longest staying power in the music industry seem to be the ones who never seem to run out of new ideas and are not content to stick with one style or one sound. Sting, for example, has gone from reggae to new wave dance to world rhythms and everything in-between. There are many different styles incorporated in his music. Jazz, classical, Brazilian etc. Though, I do not believe he has a lot of formal training, the fact that he has studied and pondered many musical forms is obvious. By concentrated listening and analysis he has learned the intricacies of many styles. Perhaps more intuitively than from a scholarly standpoint, granted, but nevertheless it is study.
The scientific approach, however has its downside. Analysis causes paralysis. Many overly academic musicians should not even bother with pop music as they are too complex and intellectual in their thinking. The pursuit of theoretical knowledge to soothe your intellectual pride and stimulate your cerebellum often results in cold and uninspired songwriting. And what we are talking about here, is songwriting, not rocket science. A song should be simple, not too long and not too cerebral. It’s like baking a cake, throw the right ingredients together, pop it in the oven and voila, angel food cake!
3. The Way of the Heart
And this is what is missing: heart, feel, soul, guts, spirit, love. The reason the way of discipline and the way of study, eventually fail is that they are empty pursuits. They are self-driven and self is eventually empty. Love, however has no master and exists for the benefit of all. Those who truly love what they do and continue to love it are truly blessed. It is a gift from God to love your work. And art is one of those works which is imminently loveable. There is something about the fact that is doesn’t really serve any utilitarian purpose that makes it loveable. The allure of pursuing the higher ideal, of being more than you are, and of creating something which is better than your self is a tremendous draw.
It is sad that the music industry has so cheapened popular culture in our new age that bands and artists are manufactured like toasters. What is sadder still, is that the general public have become so consumerized and desensitized to the finer things in life, that no one seems to mind that music and musicians have become a commodity. The top-selling artists these days are not even bands, just four or five singer/dancers fronting a huge production team, all financed, founded and foisted upon us by the big label.
There was definitely a freedom in the sixties in the art world. The hippies were unafraid to try new things and experiment with different musical concepts. (much of their experimenting was, of course with drugs and sex and rejecting the values of their families, basically self-indulgent pursuits.) However, they had ideals and integrity about art. The current market-lead art world has almost completely eradicated ideals and integrity from music. Success is god, money is king, sex is for sale.
Music is the language of love and therefore, a universal language. Love affects everyone’s life in some way or another. If we have been abused or abandoned, it is the absence of love which affects us. And it is the pain associated with love and loving others which has produced the vast majority of great songs and music in general. The Book of Psalms, one of the oldest collections of songs, is one long love letter between God and Man, a correspondence of pain and hope and anguish and ecstasy.
All the world of emotional life is found in music.
I don’t think that discipline and study are a waste, however. To be competent at anything you must work hard. To be successful at anything you must study hard and give the fullness of your thought to the task at hand. These things, however, will soon enough fail as they have no root. Combined with the love of the art, hard work and study are powerful allies. A triple braided cord is not easily broken.
My resolve fails me because my heart is not in it. My hands fail me because they just do what they are told. My analysis paralyzes me because my intellect has no understanding, only theories and stratagems. My pride fails because it is blind. My self fails because it only desires selfish things.
My soul understands and doesn’t care if I succeed or not. My soul wants to remain a child and enjoy life and others. The child in me forgives easily and loves others without effort. A child just wants to play and that is what I need to learn again.
The reason, I believe, Shakespeare’s plays have endured for so many hundreds of years, is that Shakespeare understood human nature in all its varying shades. He knew about ambition and lust and greed and love and conquest. He wrote for kings and paupers alike and could penetrate the minds of poets and philosophers and expose the world for all to see. He didn’t take sides, he only presented the issues with all their complexities.
Songwriters can take a few tips from him: a writer ought to understand human nature and what motivates people. We need to deal with universal concepts, keeping an eye on the pulse of the populace, probing the inner desires of current society. I know this is starting to sound like a journalism course, but hey, how we can raise the level of the collective consciousness if we aren’t conscious of the collective? Me, I go to bingo halls if I need to study human behaviour. I haven’t won yet but its only because the grannies won’t let me in on their system!