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.

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.



When In Rome…

April 18, 2019

When traveling to a foreign country, a one-time visitor may wish to participate by “parroting” a few simple phrases and memorizing the route to the most popular museum or tourist destination. One mispronounced word, however, and you may be saying, “I want to fish your pants heavenly,” instead of “Where is the bathroom?” Taking one wrong turn to the “best bakery in the city” may lead to the back alley behind who knows what on a one way street to the fish cleaning facility.

For safety and comfort, some people will want to stay with the tour group – huddled together, speaking through an interpreter, and always close to the bus that will take them back to familiar surroundings.

But for someone who wishes to really learn about the culture, language, and lay of the land; someone who plans on returning again and again and exploring – a different approach is suggested.

A language lesson or two to learn how to pronounce the words is a good starter, along with some basic understanding of key words – that will get one started along the path to learning the language. And rather than learning “left-right-straight for two blocks- turn right” style directions – a look at a map can help to understand alternate routes to get to where one is going, in case one gets lost.

I believe the same ideas can be applied to learning to play music, which is what you are doing when “strumming” your uke. Mimicking an UDDUD pattern may get you through a particular song as long as you play it right and don’t get lost. One wrong strum however, and may find you playing the opposite of everyone else, moving to the next chord early or late – and unable to rectify your simple slip of the hand.

Saying things like, “A em” instead of “A minor” is alright if you’ve never seen a chord name before (Am), but after that you might as well hang a sign on your head that says “DON’T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY – I’M A MUSICAL TOURIST!”

Sure, your first few visits to “Music-land” may find you getting lost in the song, or mispronouncing a musical term, but if your goal is to continue to participate in the most amazing experience in the world (in my humble opinion) – playing music – then a simple change of intention will get you started.

Begin by embracing the notion that with some time and commitment, you can become fluent in the language of music. Comfort yourself by knowing it won’t happen immediately, and that there is no time limit, but head in that direction nonetheless. Imagine yourself stepping away from the tour group and trying out a few phrases with a native speaker. Try taking a few lessons from a professional musician – someone who knows the language and can instruct you on the proper pronunciation and use of terminology. Make a point of acquiring new information and adding it to your musical “toolbox.”

Again, there is no time limit or test to pass. The key is to keep moving forward, rather than being content to simply idle in place. This is what I teach. This is how I instruct. I want you to step on the path that is shared by the rest of the world’s musical travelers, rather than to isolate yourself with the notion that you are “only a uke player.” You still have, and always will have, the option of deciding how far from the tour bus you want to venture – but I want you to know you can go as far as you wish.