The Most Challenging Musical Quest – Part 1

My last article, which spoke of the many analogies I employ in talking about music, prompted a comment and question from PT, a former student, friend, and budding songstress who asked me to offer my thoughts about the emotional aspect of performing and communicating with an audience. I am happy to oblige – read on:



By far, the most challenging and elusive aspect of playing and performing music has not been in the acquiring of information such as theory and rhythm, but in the accessing of my deepest emotions – for once I had learned a few basic chords and strumming patterns, I had at my disposal the tools to say something; to share something of myself… but what would that something be?

Granted – after nearly 55 years of music study – I have learned a lot of musical information: chords, rhythms, and theory. I have been fortunate to play with some true music legends and through the act of recording, I have learned a considerable amount of technical knowledge about music and composition. Yet the challenge that lies ahead of me is the reckoning of my lifetime; my childhood experiences; the insecurities of young adulthood; the trials and errors of daily living; and my current acceptance of who I am. Acknowledging my personal history and playing music from that perspective is what will allow me to better connect to others as a unique performer. And being a unique performer is my goal, for when we strive to simply copy or mimic a true artist, we are mired in a pool of competition and comparisons. It is only by discovering our individual qualities that we can escape that trap.

It is doubtful that in describing a musical legend, you compare them to another: “Oh, Jimi Hendrix sounded just like…,” or “Doesn’t Bob Dylan sound like…?” “I like listening to Billie Holiday because she sang just like…”

I am confident in saying that these legends were certainly influenced by others, but at some point they had to abandon the path their role model walked and discover their own.

I might offer you my own example of this: as a young guitarist, I fell in love with the playing of Carlos Santana and dedicated many years of learning his solos note for note, reading everything I could about him, and I even had the pleasure of meeting him at his home, (followed by him presenting me with backstage passes for an upcoming show at The Greek Theater in Berkeley.) And as I, too, am of Mexican heritage, I felt a strong connection with him and his music. I felt I would do anything he asked of me and it was that dedication to his teachings that I encountered the first of what continues to challenge me: he said (and I paraphrase) “you need to be unique and not copy others.” I felt this to be a bittersweet “adios” to my musical guru, for as much as I admired him and felt he spoke for me, I had to strike out on my own and find my voice instead of trying to emulate his.

So now what?

I can only offer you my own story as to how you might progress, as I am certain that a dozen artists would give you a dozen unique perspectives. Please consider my input here as a mere suggestion of how to blaze your own artistic path.

Redefine yourself.

Our self-image can help define ourselves and keep us true to our path, but a perceived self-image can hold us back as well. Holding on to statements such as “I am not good at…,” “Oh, I could never…,” or “I’d be too embarrassed to…” are the kind of emotional contracts that hold us to what may or may not have at some time, been true, but that don’t represent how we might have subtlety changed, or wish to change.

Another set of personal examples happened when I lived in San Francisco in the 90s. I moved there on a whim to see how life was outside of my hometown of Santa Cruz, 75 miles to the south. Living near the Haight-Ashbury area, I somehow came to want to wear a black leather jacket and heavy black leather boots – something far from the well-worn Levis and flannel shirts I was accustomed to. How strange I felt wearing this “costume” – and felt as though everyone could see that that wasn’t who I really was. But it was just a costume – much like the Levis and flannel – it was just something I was wearing. It didn’t define me and I could put it on or take it off at any time. But it took me quite awhile to get used to it.

Around that same time I began playing percussion with a band that played an exotic blend of Middle Eastern and hippy-tribal music. My given name, Ron, didn’t seem very exotic to me and I thought I might find another name for myself, but I liked my name and thought about how I might keep it while changing it at the same time. I was, also at that time, taking a course at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael, learning to play tabla. Khan… I thought. Perhaps I could simply spell my name differently. Rhan… that’s it. A simple spelling change, yet though my name sounded the same, it was new, and I could rewrite my story to accommodate my new persona. While the old Ron was a bit insecure and adverse to change, the new Rhan was a performer and unafraid to try new things. While the old Ron once was uncomfortable wearing a bright blue set of sweatpants (as opposed to the usual grey), the new Rhan would wear anything – and did. Such a simple trick of the mind I discovered that day.

Change your name – if even for a day.

I have often suggested in the workshops I teach, that we experiment with a “stage” name – either a simple spelling change like mine, or an alter ego – anything that can help to expand your boundaries. You can even refer to yourself in the third person: “[Your name] has no problem performing in front of other people. In fact, [your name] will be surprising everyone soon with the confidence and creativity they are finding in themselves.” No one has to witness this experiment of yours, so there is nothing to lose. It’s just a way to begin to see yourself embodying some of the traits you wish you had.

All this has been about allowing yourself to perform; to express yourself.

Now that you have, hopefully, given yourself permission to even consider performing and expressing yourself by way of song or other display, what is it that you are going to do? You have before you eager ears to learn about you and what makes you tick.

You may feel pressured to do something amazing and quite out of your league, but consider this: being yourself is something you’ve been doing your whole life. The only “new” thing you are now doing is to “frame” it in the form of a presentation for others to witness and you, as the expert on your own life, needn’t worry. You will do just fine.

Stay tuned for Part 2

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One Response to “The Most Challenging Musical Quest – Part 1”

  1. dave9108 Says:

    Beautiful and well expressed thoughts. What a spur to actual real achievement.

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