Planting and Tending to Your Musical Seeds…

September 24, 2020

Ah, learning. Isn’t it great? Sometimes we absorb so much so quickly; filling in the blanks, checking off the correct answers like a pro only to wake up another day and feel like we are getting nowhere and unable to remember the last sentence we read. This can be frustrating and quite discouraging – to think that we are spending all this time learning a new skill and feeling like we are getting nowhere.

But if we would take the time to peek beneath the surface; to see that, while we may be struggling to grasp a new concept, we have unconsciously grasped some of the ones we previously had trouble with. I call this planting and tending seeds of knowledge.

While this article is intended to speak of musical seeds, I’d like to relate my experience, briefly, with learning Spanish.

I grew up in a part time Spanish speaking household. I can speak with an authentic accent, yet I am far from fluent. I desperately need to learn the various tenses: past, future, conditional, etc., and add to my vocabulary. I signed up and am taking Spanish online with the Babbel app. I breezed through much of it, already knowing the present tense and many basic words and phrases. But then it started to get challenging. I doubted my ability to ever learn the difference between ” I wanted” and “I would have wanted.”

But as I stumbled through these new challenging courses, I became aware that, although I was not completely understanding these new lessons, I was easily understanding most everything else – even material that just a couple of weeks before was giving me trouble. I had learned a lot while trying to learn even more.

And so I find that some of my music students, while working on some new and challenging chords or rhythms, are able to quickly and easily answer a random question I pose about something we learned (and had trouble with) weeks before.

Here are my directions on how to grow some musical skills:

How to grow musical skills:
Planting seeds starts by simply opening the package.
Look at those new and challenging chords and try to play them.

Place the seeds in your brain soil.
Try the chords again and tell yourself that you really, really, want to learn them. Introduce them to your brain!

Open another package of seeds.
Start to learn something else; new chords or new strumming patterns.

Tend to your seeds – old and new. Nurture them.
Don’t forget about those seeds you first planted. Visit them daily, and make sure they don’t wither and die. Practice those old chords often, even if you have to look at the chart again and again.

Plant more seeds.
Begin to learn more. Pat attention to your new seeds, but continue to visit and tend to the ones you previously planed. They need attention, even if they haven’t yet sprouted. Keep trying to play those challenging chords and rhythms while trying some new chords and rhythms.

Pay attention…
One day, while carefully planting some of those new seeds you got, you will notice that some of those earlier planted seeds will have begun to poke their little heads out of the ground. You may have even forgot you planted them.

You will be trying out a new chord, perhaps; reading a chart for a song you like, and without realizing it, you will have played several chords instinctually, without thinking about them, in perfect rhythm,as you were so focused on the upcoming, difficult chord.

You have successfully reaped your first harvest of musical skills. Don’t stop there – plant some more.


You might think this is wishful thinking on my part, and that you will “never get it“, but I urge you to first; believe you can do it, and then, try it.

I have observed so many students learn things while claiming that they haven’t, and it was only after I pointed out their achievements that they became aware of them.

Oh, and, by the way…

Me gustaría leer sus comentarios sobre este artículo.

(I would like to read your comments on this article.)

Setting Musical Priorities compared to learning to drive a car.

September 16, 2020

I’ve seen and read about many a performance where the player is focused on what I will refer to as minutiae – details that, though important to a degree, are not a priority. Examples of this might be: exact arrangement of original recording, type of strings used, instrument type, factoids about the original artist, techniques used…

All this is good information to think about – but it’s not the most important. Let’s consider learning to drive a car:

Many of us learned to drive a car in an open space, like a parking lot or rural road where there was little chance of us impacting others when we made a mistake. We learned to change gears, start and stop smoothly, and how to check our mirrors to see what is around us while we drove.

Once on the road, our priorities were to make sure that our tires were in good shape, that our alignment was proper, and that our brakes worked. This was to ensure that we could stop safely, the car would steer properly, and that our tires would grip the road as intended. The make, model, and color of the car; who designed it; who was famous for driving a similar model, and other auto related details were not as important as making sure the driving experience was safe and that the driver was able to take on passengers. We weren’t trying to keep up with other drivers.

And so with music, there are priorities that should be addressed first, before focus is put on the details.

Are you able to play the required chords for the song?
Can you transition from chord to chord smoothly?
Can you maintain a steady pace with the most basic rhythmic pattern?

I compare playing music to driving this way: your chords are like the tires on a car. There are many types of tires; tires made for different purposes, like: city driving, off-road, and racing. Depending on the type of driving you are doing, you might select a certain type of tire.

Simple songs require the most basic knowledge of only a few chords: C,F,G,Am… these will get you through many simple songs. Learning a few more chords: Bm7b5, Ebmaj7, and perhaps C#dim will let you go “off-road” and play some jazz. Learning even more types of chords and a bit of theory will allow you race with the best. But you have to learn to drive slowly and safely before you head to the racetrack.

Switching cords smoothly and with steady rhythm might be your “alignment” without which your chords and song will wobble and wear unevenly. If you’ve ever ridden in a car without good alignment, you know how uncomfortable that can be, not to mention dangerous.

And finally – how do you start and stop your playing? Is it rough and jerky, like using power brakes for the first time, or can you ease in and out of a song with grace?

Like learning to drive in an empty parking lot, we practice our songs in a safe manner, often by ourselves and not in “performance” mode. That’s when we can learn to steer our song this way and that, stop and start, and experiment with the controls.

But when we take on a listener and hit the musical streets – that’s when we pay attention and make sure our focus is on a smooth and safe musical ride. I know as a passenger in a car with a new driver, that I would prefer a slow and safe ride vs. a fast, jerky, stop-and-go ride that leaves me gripping the dashboard and turning prematurely grey.

Of course – playing a song at an open mic or with friends isn’t going to harm anyone or dent anyone’s fenders. And one might even compare the casual musical gathering to the empty parking lot – a place where it’s safe to experiment and feel safe doing so.

So please continue to play, experiment, and have the most fun doing so. There are no exams to pass; no minimum height requirements to reach, and no one else on the road to compete with.

But do consider your priorities when learning: keep it slow and steady; make sure you’re tuned up and ready to roll; check your rhythmic mirrors, and have a nice musical ride.

My apologies for the post with a password…

June 2, 2020

Dear Readers,

This morning I published an article that was not yet meant to go out to the public. I published it as “password protected” – intending it to be looked over by a trusted reviewer before sharing with the general public. I didn’t realize that a teaser would be sent to everyone who has subscribed: you.

I appreciate your request for the password and apologize for the confusion, as several of you commented to me that you’ve never before needed a password to view my articles.

My article is a bit critical and rough around the edges, hence my apprehension in sharing it before it’s ready. I hope you understand.

If you wish to read it, however, please write to me and let’s have a conversation first.

rhanw@rhanwilson.com

Thank you,

Rhan Wilson

You do have talent.

April 23, 2020

What is talent? Is it the ability to pick up any instrument, tool, or skill, and be good at it? Why do so many people, when asked, deny their talent?

Allow me, dear readers, to present an analogy; a parable of sorts; a story of a person named Sunny – seemingly stuck in their home town. This town, named Comfort, was situated next to a major artery; a type of superhighway; a road very different in ways I will soon explain.


Sunny was well known in Comfort and had an easy life there. Each morning Sunny would wake, read the newspaper, and visit the coffeeshop on the way to work. It felt that to do anything out of the ordinary would indeed, seem strange and surely garner talk.

Every afternoon, Sunny would walk to the frontage road bordering the highway; fingers hanging on the chainlink fence separating the town from the rest of the world. Sunny often wondered what wonders were to be found out there on the other side of the fence.

On that road were people coming and going at various speeds, as this was not your normal highway. Some lanes were traveled at high speeds while other other lanes were there to casually stroll along – allowing anyone who chose to travel that road to do so at their own pace. There were people of all sorts: musicians, poets, painters, and writers. There were people starting their own businesses, inventors, and others who were just wandering back and forth looking for inspiration. Sunny could see that some were on their way to the mountains for a weekend of camping and relaxation, while others were certainly headed to “the big city” to reinvent themselves and to start a new life. Sunny would often wave at these travelers, and chat with them through the fence.

“What’s it like out there?” Sunny would call out. “Someday I’d like to walk along this road, but there is this fence here that keeps me in Comfort – this town I grew up in – and besides, I’d hate to leave it. All my friends are here.”

“This road goes both ways, and in all directions,” a passerby answered. “You can travel on it as far as you want, and come back anytime. There is no toll, and as you can see – you can travel at any speed you want. My name is Grace – won’t you walk with me for awhile?”

“I’d like to,” answered Sunny “but there is this fence and I am afraid I don’t have the tools needed to cut it or dig under it. And it’s too high to climb…”

“You don’t have to cut it, or go under or over it,” said Sunny’s new friend, Grace. “It’s actually very easy – follow me and I’ll show you how.”

Grace led Sunny along the chainlink fence separating them until they came to the opening where the on and off ramps were located. Sunny had never noticed it before.

Grace smiled and said, “You can come and go as you please – it’s that easy.”

“Does anyone else know about this?” Sunny asked in amazement.

“I’ve shown this to lots other people just like you,” Grace replied. “But some people don’t believe me and won’t step over. Come – let’s go.”

Sunny stepped towards Grace and asked, “Where do we go? What do we do?”

“Anywhere you want,” she replied. “This is the path to learning. On this path you can try out everything imaginable. And there are no limits – you can do anything!”

“Won’t I be different when I come back?” Sunny asked. “What will people think?”

“You will indeed, be different,” Grace answered “but you needn’t be concerned with that. Many people won’t even notice, and those that do may be inspired by what they see. You can show them the opening in the fence.”

As Sunny and Grace walked together, eyes wide open and eager for discover, Sunny asked, “By the way – what is the name of this road?”

Grace spoke and simply said, “This road is called ‘Talent.’ “


And so, dear readers, I leave you with this thought:

Talent isn’t being able to pick up any instrument and play it, or being able to write a great story, or knowing how something works. Talent is simply the willingness to step over that invisible line that seeks to keep us where we are. Talent is to know that we can try new things with or without any particular outcome; to choose whether or not to continue along a given path. Talent is not something to have or have not – it is a muscle we all have and can be exercised. Talent is to know, that although we may return a bit different, our home town of Comfort will have grown and will still be there for us.

Now it’s time to learn our ABCs – musically, that is.

December 1, 2019

When learning a new language, it’s important to learn the alphabet used. Latin based languages like English, Spanish, and French use the familiar A,B,Cs, while the Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese languages use entirely different symbols.

I suggest that we go about learning music in a similar way. To become literate in music, let’s start with simply knowing the “alphabet” that is used: A,B,C,D,E,F, and G. Then they repeat.

These “letters” refer to the tones and/or pitches of Western music. We can also call them “notes.”

In between some of those notes are what we call “sharps” – which uses a # symbol or “flats” – which uses a lower case b as its symbol. Here’s where the sharps go: A,A#,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#.

If we chose to use “flats” (b) instead, they would go here: A,Bb,B,C,Db,D,Eb,E,F,Gb,G,Ab.

Whether we use sharps or flats to talk about those notes, you might remember that there is always a sharp or flat between every letter, EXCEPT E and F, and B and C. Why are there two ways to refer to these extra notes? Let’s just save that discussion for later – in the meantime, that’s the way it is. And it’s pretty simple to learn.

Look at this diagram of a piano keyboard: there you have the white keys: A-G, and the black keys inbetween are the ones labeled # or b. There are 12 unique notes in all.

There’s your alphabet! Learn it. See that piano diagram in your head whenever you talk about music, and you will begin to see the relationship between notes.

We can go on and on about what to do with these notes. We can start to notice whether two notes are right next to each other, or separated by other notes. There are chords, intervals, scales, and all sorts of “theory” we can discuss, but for now – just learn this.

Now, some of you may say that there are a great number of successful musicians who don’t really know this. I agree. There are some people brought up in the church or in other musical families where music was a constant. From a young age, they absorbed music and can play magnificently without really thinking about the theory that goes into playing.

That’s sort of like how we learn to talk, isn’t it? From a young age, we listen, repeat, and start to learn how to form words and sentences. As we grow, this information is ingrained in our minds.

But you are learning music as an adult, I am guessing, and we simply don’t have the time to learn it intuitively as a young child does. We can fast-track our learning by getting to know the basics, and going on from there.

Feel free to comment and/or to ask questions.

Rhan