Monday, 13 June 2016

Glenn Kurtz: Practicing: A Musician Returns To Music

I read Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing: A Musician Returns To Music recently. He started as a hot-shot guitar student, went to college in New York and Vienna, started out as a freelance in Europe, realised it wasn’t going to make him money and let him play how he wanted to, and quit for a post-graduate literature degree, which he now teaches. He stopped playing guitar for many years, and came back to it a few years ago. His excellent and wonderfully-written book describes this story in detail and talks insightfully about guitar-playing, musical interpretation and musical education and careers.

I play guitar, after my fashion. I had a few lessons when I was nine or ten, and then started again when I was sixteen. That’s when I got blisters on my fingers. I learned basic theory from a paperback I bought because it told me right up front that I couldn’t learn to play in a day, because it took a month for the blisters to go away. Also it said that people who didn’t like playing scales were missing the point: when you play scales, you’re playing the guitar, and isn’t that what you want to do?. I was sold right there. Even when I’m half-watching a box set and taking care over my fingering of the scale positions, I’m still playing, never “practicing”. If I ever had to perform, then I would learn a piece, and I would rehearse it, but never “practice”. It’s not a verb I use a lot.

I have no doubt that Glenn Kurtz plays way better than I do. He plays classical guitar, and the problems start there. Classical guitars have a high action - the vertical distance between the strings and the frets is a lot greater than it is on a flamenco or folk guitar. The high action is to prevent the string buzzing against the frets, because the aim is to get a perfectly-sounded note. That can be done, but at a huge cost in technical and musical terms. It takes an age and a fair amount of effort to depress and hold down a classical string above the fifth fret, and one has to be quite precise about placing the finger on the string, or the finger can feel as if it will roll off before making contact with the fretboard. The lower action of the steel-string folk and nylon-string flamenco guitars cuts down the effort needed to bring the string against the fret, and the time it takes and the need for accurate placing. And yet one still gets a note - even if it’s not quite perfect.

As a result the classical guitar itself simply won’t let the player emote all over the place as they can on a trumpet, saxophone, piano, violin or cello. Non-classical guitarists have dealt with this by embracing imperfection and personality. They say “tone is in the fingers”: it belongs to the guitarist, not the guitar. Learning to exploit the imperfections available on the folk, blues and flamenco guitars to gain expressiveness is part of developing your own sound: classical soloists do it on the violin family and keyboards, and to a lesser extent on wind instruments. Tone and manner is the player’s brand. Except for the classical guitar, where Kurtz’s story has convinced me that the aim seems to be to make everyone sound alike.

There’s a section of Kurtz’s story, after he leaves music school in Vienna, where he runs up against the reality of life as a jobbing musician, realises he’s not going to make a career of concert performance, and quits. There’s an even more painful moment when he listens to a recording of what he thought was a marvellous graduating concert, and hears everything that is unfinished about it. Despite this, he takes the guitar up again, and then refers to what he is doing as “practicing”.

At this point I wanted to slap him upside the head.

Practice is what we do when we don’t know how to do what we want to do. Practice is when we still have to look at the book to play a scale or a basic chord shape (though looking at an advanced reference book isn’t a sign we are practicing, it’s a sign that we’re learning something new). Practice is what we do to gain the physical strength and conditioning to do what we want to do (and if you think there isn’t strength and conditioning in a guitarist’s left hand, go try stopping some strings with your pinkie finger and let me know how that goes). Practice is what we do to gain the basics of competence needed to perform. How much there is to learn to get to that stage, in any skill, becomes obvious and daunting to beginners very quickly, and they drop out after a few weeks.

The idea of “practicing” is itself a little suspect: it implies that one is somehow doing something and not doing it at the same time. I can practice my tennis serve if I don’t do any more than serve. Once I serve to someone and we play more strokes, we are playing tennis and my serve was a real serve, not a practice serve. There are many things that one can never “practice” in this sense: there’s no such thing as a "practice deadlift”, just like there’s no such thing as “practicing driving in traffic” since you must drive in traffic to do it, and then, oh, you’re driving in traffic. Just not very well.

It’s tempting to suppose that practice for a sportsman anything that isn’t competing, and for a musician or actor, practice is anything not done in front of an audience. Only when one performs for others is what one does “real”, otherwise it’s “just practicing”. Well, I’d suggest that a sprinter who wants to run faster than 3:43:13 for the mile can’t “practice” by running 5:00:00 miles. They can train in many ways, but if they want to see how effective that training is, leaving until the first heat might be a little late. At some point they will have to get on the track and run a mile in practice for real, even though there are no medals to be won.

Doing something “for real” isn’t about the external circumstances, it’s about the internal attitude. In his seminal essay on skills, Hubert Dreyfus points out that past basic competency, further improvement needs an emotional commitment to what you're doing. Someone who wants to move from advanced beginner to competency and beyond stops “practicing” and starts doing. Playing an instrument, that means wanting to make music rather than just string notes together, and making music means that what you do has an emotional or physical effect on people, even if it’s only you.

Perhaps the isolation of the practice room creates an ontological illusion: it tells the musician they are one their own and “no-one is listening”, and that therefore what they are doing isn’t real because there’s no performance and so no audience. But of course, there is. There is the musician themselves, and they are performing for themselves.

Perhaps it would be better to think of the work one does on one’s way from advanced beginner to competence and beyond, not as “practicing”, but as “performance that you don’t want others to hear because it won’t be as good as it could be”. That would contain the question of how rough and imperfect you are prepared to be and still go on to perform. Answering that question may reveal that your issue isn’t with technique, it’s with performing for others, and for yourself.

I’ll leave you with these: the first is Tomatito playing por Bulerias

and the second is Bert Jansch playing Blues Run The Game

It’s not about technique. It’s about music, and music is about emotion. And notice that they are both using capos on the third fret. This is frowned upon very deeply in the classical tradition. I'll go with the technical choices of Jansch or Tomatito anytime.

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