Thursday, November 14, 2013

What It Means to Listen

     I can clearly recall a precise moment whereupon the act of making music was reshaped in mind forever and forbetter.

     I was at a rehearsal with my band at the time, Future Self. I probably learned more about being a musician from being in this band than any other; the calibre of players and personalities in the group were pretty astounding to me, especially considering that I was lucky enough to be the bassist. I gained so much knowledge about composition, chords, tones, presentation, practice habits, etc. Playing bass in Future Self did more for my musical training than virtually any other group I've performed with, and while it helped me grow in many ways as a musician and a person, there is one specific incident that stands head, shoulders, and herbal essences above the rest.

     It was a rehearsal at our old trusty space, with its strange high school hallway smell (huh? How does that stench seem to get everywhere?). We had all plugged in, tuned up, and were simply shooting the shit when our tireless leader, whom I shall refer to as the arbiter, dropped a musically bomb on me like no other. Although he was nonchalant in his delivery (the arbiter's constitution always appears to be so), his words stung like a mutant mosquito filled with an extremely musical form of west-nile virus.

     "Playing music is really a listening exercise."

     And all this time I thought it was about making sound. Harumph.

     But it is! And so much more. Music is simply just sound; or organized notes or whatever you want to define it as. I've never been one to try and define music with words; that seems contradictory to the very  reason why music fills the emotionally spectrum with so many feelings we cannot put into words.

     However, when performed at the highest level, music, much like all things, are a combination of many virtuous aspects. We cannot achieve any sort of zenith without the sum of many parts working together harmoniously (which sounds suspiciously more like music than a metaphor).

     How do we get this parts to work together? We listen.

     This is something in my musical studies that I have been working on with great effort in the past couple of weeks. For it is not simply enough to understand that listening is important; in order to progress, I have to look into what it means to listen.

     When researching a topic, I try and take a systematic and fully-pronged approach. Basically I don't just think about what it means to listen; I read about it, ruminate on the thought's of others, and then try to see it in my own life.

     The first thing I noticed is that ALL of the musicians I play with that I have respect for listen to each other, regardless of their skill level. I am definitely quick to slash people with vehemence due to what I feel are arrogant practice habits, but the fact remains that even these people sometimes use their ears to listen in the collaborative sense. Perhaps they do not know what they are hearing, and surely this is not ideal, but simply the fact that they are listening to others is enough to get us going in a more musical direction.

     As one might expect, there are a few people I play with that don't listen to each other. Hopefully they   will listen to the words of this blog and try to work on that within themselves. To not listen to others is to never truly communicate; and, in a dramatic sense, to never truly express yourself collectively with us in a musical sense. It is sad state of affairs and to these people I wish only improvement and salvation. If you feel that you are one of these people (and we all are sometimes, at least), it is important that, although it will seem difficult, all you must do is open your ears to the sounds of the souls of others. No matter how goofy they might be...

     Next, I started reading books about ear training, which delved into books about Buddhism, which then gave way to books about empathy. This is where I found the most useful set of advice as it pertains to musicians, specifically from Eric Fromm's 1974 classic "The Art of Listening."

     I'll admit, I thought this book would be more about listening than it was about psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, it was fascinating and well-written; it had a number of extremely interesting things for me to think about, especially as a musician. Although being a touring musician might handicap me in myriad ways, it does give me the advantage of exercising my ears and brain in that way all the time; far more frequently than almost anyone else. As a result, I feel that I get to know people in a way where language doesn't dare enter. Fromm's "The Art of Listening" helped me reinforce that this isn't, in fact, crazy talk, but rather a technique of listening to what is there, though perhaps unspoken.

     I realize that I have written a lot, so its time to reorganize the KEY IDEAS that I took from Fromm's book, other readings, my own experience, and the stories of others. These are all helpful things to think about when entering any musical situation, but its better to focus on one at a time.

IDEA ONE: Complete Concentration 
-We cannot lie to ourselves in this regard. In order to truly listen, we must have complete and full concentration. This means that we can't be thinking about anything other than the task at hand. We must be fully free from anxiety and we must be fully free from greed.

IDEA TWO: Have an Imagination 
-Part of listening is recreating the universe of an individual within the schematics of your own mind. This is no easy task, but having a free imagination is certainly the easiest way to go about it. We must not believe in the "absolutes" of our reality for they are seldom the "absolutes" of the reality for others. We must be able to realistically pretend that things are different.

IDEA THREE: Ask Questions 
-This one while perhaps obvious bears repeating. We must always be asking questions with a genuine interest. It is hard to learn about someone else or even one's self simply by talking. We have to ask questions and view every answer as a pathway towards a new world of realization. Image a physical gateway if you must; when someone shares an answer with us, it is as if they are sharing their own world with you to take and learn from. Be appreciative and listen.

IDEA FOUR: Recognize Your Narcissism 
-To recognize your narcissism as a musician is incredibly difficult. In fact, when one ponders such a conundrum, we see an intense and glaring contradiction. If I am a performer, aren't I always at a crossroads of creating of art vs promoting narcissism? The answer is maybe so, but I must always make a distinction in my mind between promoting the values and virtues of music versus promoting myself. It is natural that we wish to accomplish both of these tasks, but it is important to always seek to rid yourself of narcissism for the sake of musical understanding. Whenever you feel yourself dipping too deep into your narcissistic pod, just simply open your ears and listen to the music; it does not yell "me" but rather encapsulates that which is love-tinged audio through successful collaboration.

IDEA FIVE: It Will Never End but You Always Get Better
-This is maybe more general advice than advice about listening, but it is important to remember that practicing how to listen to others is a never ending journey. However, always keep moving forward and put one foot in front of the other. You will never be as bad at listening to other people as you are right now. Enjoy this ignorant phase, because once you start listening to others, you have no excuse not to make time in your life and space in your heart for action.

"it doesn't matter so much how far anybody goes-what matters is in what direction he is going."-Eric Fromm

Close your mouth and close your prejudices; open your ears and open your heart.

best 24 till the next 24,
Benjamin Ryan Williams

Friday, November 1, 2013

Step One: Tuning

When I began taking bass lessons as a fresh-faced-fatty, I didn't realize that I was embarking on a lifelong, and maybe in some opinions after-lifelong, journey. Being a student, to being a teacher, to realizing that we are always one and or the other and both. It can get confusing if you try to label it, but the best way to sum up this lifelong journey is that it is a journey of character in the quest for intelligence.

In a learning situation, all parties involved should learn. It doesn't matter if they are the teacher, the student, or the parent cutting the check. If everyone is learning, then the knowledge is being approached the right way.

Teaching and being a student are really one and the same, and this is something I am really passionate about. I love performing, but with it comes a set of expectations (a sense of accomplishment, meeting girls, money, 50% off black bean burgers if the venue doesn't feel like paying). That isn't to say that I don't believe in the power of music with regards to its place in a performance setting. I've written about that at length. I love performance, but to have any expectations certainly adds an emotional component of potential disappointment.

Learning, however, passes no judgement if we open our minds to the lessons constantly around us. This is my true passion as a musician; the process of working on music. The process of the disciple of music. These are the things that get me out of bed in the morning.

I've been lucky enough over the years to learn from many great teachers and many great students. I can't begin to quantify what I've picked up from others, but I will say that it has been the most beautiful experience of mine as a musician. To learn something that inspires myself and then to teach this to inspire another feels like the deep and profound chasm of humanity that seems so intangible and untouchable to most. I get to exist within this valley almost every day.

Teaching background aside, I dropped in to right this blog to talk about Step One of anything music related. This is also Step One of anything anything related.

We must tune our instruments.

Although this is a fairly basic concept, the men are separate from the boys (so to speak) in their ability to do fairly basic things better than everyone else doing them. Tuning is no different. You would be surprised how many bands/songwriters I see who obviously do not spend anytime tuning their instruments. This applies to before the show, during, and especially at practice. If you can manage to play in tune, you are at least 50% ahead of most people who perform. If you can manage to play in tune and in time, congratulations. Go get yourself a gig playing for Bon Jovi.

On a deeper level, we can view tuning as a way of approaching our setup harmoniously. We examine the situation and we tune ourselves towards that situation in a way that we feel might benefit ourselves and others.

When I pick up my bass, I always pick it up with the immediate intention of tuning. But what am I tuning, exactly?

1. The bass: we must play in tune. I tune to standard, typically, (E, A, D, G).

2. My spirit: I must tune my spirit into the situation to make music. While I'm tuning the bass to E, A, D, G, I am also tuning my spirit towards the coordinates that I feel makes bass playing expressive and beneficial.

3. My relationship to my bandmates: this one can easily be the hardest, but it is important when tuning to notice the relationship between yourself and the other musicians on-stage. It's no secret that I put up with playing in band with dudes whom took advantage of me, so naturally I hated them. Every time I had to share a stage with them afterwards I had to spend time tuning my relationship to them onstage to a way that would help us make it thru the show. This step of tuning is not easy, but the best bassists can play with anyone anytime. And I am trying to be the best.

4. My environment: this one is the easiest because it can be very specific. We must tune into our environment to see what the situation calls for. Because I am lucky enough to travel, my environment is constantly changing, so its easy to see the differences. But if I don't tune myself into the proper situation, I might bring the wrong type of thunder down under.

Remember; everyone wants to feel the funk, but they go about it in a million different ways in a million different circumstances.

When we pick up the bass, we must be of correct mind to play. We should take our time arriving at the correct tuning. I cannot understate the importance. Tuning is listening to what another person is saying before you start speaking. It's orienting yourself towards your immediate environment with a sense of bountiful purpose.

We must tune ourselves to our world. E, A, D, G.