Setting Musical Priorities compared to learning to drive a car.

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.

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3 Responses to “Setting Musical Priorities compared to learning to drive a car.”

  1. Michael Conrad Says:

    An excellent post.. encouraging and putting into context pleasure before expertise.
    I enjoyed reading it.
    Best
    M

  2. Tom Fortson Says:

    Great analogy, Rhan! I’ve been playing Uke regularly since 2005, and I realize that I’m following that same principle with my practice!
    Lately, I’ve been practicing the same song, or melody, in various keys. Noodling it out in the “empty parking lot.” I’m really enjoying the act of figuring out how to play the progressions. Next step will be to figure out the names of the chords I’m playing. I’m really weak on that part. I just know when it sounds right. Like listening to the sound of the rpm rather than watching the tach.

    Thanks again for this great explanation!

    • Rhan Wilson Says:

      Tom,
      Thank you for a great follow up to my article. I love your last line:”Like listening to the sound of the rpm rather than watching the tach.” When we play music – the ultimate product is the sound itself, not the theory or the numbers. That sound is what inspires the story.

      Rhan

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